What is the Point of Social Media?

Kristin: I’ve been reviewing my notes from the Inspiring Australia Conference, in particular the workshop on social media that I ran with James Hutson and Will Grant.

Given the workshop was titled, “Social Media: What’s the Point?”, I kicked it off with some statements to challenge our assumptions:

  1. That science is not that interesting by itself.
  2. That there should be no need for science communicators. If we are effective in our roles, within ten years we should have made ourselves redundant by either ensuring scientists are good at translating what they do for the public, or making the public more scientifically literate. And if we’re not setting out to do that we’re not trying hard enough.
  3. That I don’t like “young people”. Everytime I hear we need to encourage “young people” into science, or that social media is for “young people” it suggests to me that you’ve given up or that you’re looking for an excuse not to act. And besides, social media is not solely a young person’s domain.
  4. That social media is not Facebook and Twitter (they are simply platforms).
  5. And I finally confessed I hadn’t been inspired. However, I also stressed that if we were looking for inspiration, then we needed to be part of its creation rather than passive consumers. Which leads us to at least one of the valuable characteristics of social media, that of participatory creation.

So what are other important characteristics of social media that make it different from traditional modes of public communication? Our open forum identified the following qualities:

– subversion – doing things innovatively – dynamics – conversations (two-way, collaborative) -fast, speed, realtime – scale- precision and niche networks – knowledge of the network – access to experts – openness, transparency- identity forming – succinct – hyperlinked –

Within this conversation we also started to explore some of the issues assocaited with scientists and science organsiations being involved in social media, inclduing the risks of participating. And the risks of not participating. Some of the issues included:

– digital divide – access to tools – perceptions – information veracity – brand damage- risk of being absent – risk of participating- organisational constraints and processes –

We had an extensive conversation on why social media could be relevant to science, scientists and their organisations:

Trends: Participation in social media allows for trends in terms of interests and issues to be identified by following conversations and links.

Access: It enables collaborations by allowing scientists and others to gain direct access to each other and experts in their field of interest. As well gaining insights into science and expertise, this two-way dialogue with experts potentially benefits upstream understanding of what publics want. It also allows for a different mode of engagement between organisations and their audiences and stakeholders.

Transparency: Social media provides an alternative way of communicating the value of research rather than journals. It allows for transaprency in science and exposes the methods and processes of discovery.

Speed: It increases the speed of access to experts (for example, to provide insight on major news items). It also increases the speed of publication in relation to potential research outcomes rather than only relying on slow-moving journal publications.

Drawing on the expertise of the people within the room meant we also got to hear of real-life examples of how organisations are using social media including the use of Yammer by the CSIRO to identify trends and collaborations, and the use of Twitter and Facebook for public interaction by the Australian Museum (including the beautifully realised Mr Blobby).

Finally we had three recommendations:

  1. Support the professional development of science communicators to enable them to use social media. We encouraged using scicommunity as a space to encourage participation and to share ideas and best practice.
  2. Give scientists/experts permission to be in this space. Allow and encourage them to participate and have direct interaction with the public. manage risk rather than avoid it.
  3. Remove the perception that social media is not a serious way of interacting: DIISR and other organisations need to involved allow access to tools and platforms.

The point of social media for science communication, and in fact most communication, is not the platform or the use of technology. It’s leveraging the qualities that social media technologies provide in terms of dialogue, access and co-creation resulting in more effective conversations.

PS: If you set or enact the social media strategy for a science or research organisation in Australia, we’d love you to take part in our study of good social media practices.



  1. Social media has definetly changed humanity and the way it interacts. We have totally different expectations from what our grandparents had. Thanks for the interesting article.
    Dealies Australia

  2. Terrific post.

    I always remember a very confused corporate recruiter asking me, at interview for a big strategy consulting firm, what was the point in studying philosophy (as I had). I replied “The point of studying Philosophy is itself… i studied it for the sake of Philosophy and nothing else”. The recruiter was confused and in an instant I found enough about their corporation to know I didn’t want to work there.

    And so, the point of Social Media is social. That’s enough. It doesn’t “need” anything else. Social is the foundation of humanity. There is nothing greater that Social Media could serve.

    Mac at http://Clientonomy.com

    My regards.

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