New York Blog

February’s SoNYC: On Science and Social Media – #IAmScience and the unexpected tweets

Science Online NYC (SoNYC) is a monthly discussion series held in New York City where invited panellists talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. For this month’s SoNYC we’ve teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for a special event for Social Media Week. We’re looking at how social media can be used to communicate science, with the intention of concentrating on how the experiences can have educational value. More details about this month’s SoNYC can be found here.

To complement the event, we’re running a series of guest posts, recounting experiences where social media has been a key part of an education project. To start the discussions, Dr Alan Cann from Leicester University gives us an academic’s viewpoint on how social media can be used as part of the curriculum. In our next instalment, Ben Lille, co-founder of The Story Collider, reveals how social media can also be used to tell a science story.  

I’ve always been what you might call a ‘light’ social media user. A few years ago I started a twitter account, and a year later I had produced seven entire tweets – I was that into it. Years of playing video games had made it clear that your number of followers was how you kept score, but I didn’t know how to play! (Oh yeah, Facebook exists, too.)

So it’s probably unsurprising that I started an organization that features a live experience and longform essays. I’ve always been obsessed with the story of science, the emotional impact on who we are as people: Can knowing about Hubble photos save one from depression? Can new technology change how and who we love? What happens when a neuroscientist’s own father has a stroke?

The Story Collider is an attempt to peer into those questions. Run by Erin Barker, Brian Wecht, and myself, we invite people to tell stories of their personal experience of science, either live on stage — which we recordand podcast— or in essays. Of course, we tweet and post to Facebook, when a new story is published, or an event announced. We’re pretty run-of-the-mill social media users that way. Given my history, I was quite proud of how much we’d done— taking advantage of all the new tools available. We had our content, we tweeted our content, people knew about our content. I figured we were doing it right.

Then, about three weeks ago, a science writer named Kevin Zelnio tweeted this:

And with that, he completely transformed what I thought was possible, and indeed what the point was, of social media.

The tweet came from a discussion of how people had started their science careers, and Kevin’s frustration that the path to a scientist was always depicted in one way: go to college, go directly to grad school. Hope it was a top-tier school, then, “Bam! You’re a scientist.”

But that wasn’t the path Kevin took, and it wasn’t the path most of the people he knew with careers in science took. So he tweeted, and encouraged others to tweet. It struck a chord, and within hours there were hundreds of people tweeting their stories with the hashtag  #IAmScience. I was watching the stream from my office, fascinated, but not sure what to make of it. I tweeted my own and went home.

A couple days later, Erin Barker, the editor and producer of The Story Collider — whose background is in journalism and has no science training — sent me a video produced by Mindy Weisberger with this note:

“Have you seen this? I just watched it and cried and then emailed it to my baby brother. You’re in there!”

I was. The video is a text-animation of some of the tweets, including mine, set to Reckless Kelly’s “Wicked Twisted Road”. It’s simple in concept, easy to make for any video editor, and it brought me to tears a third of the way through.

So here was something that had appeared like magic. It had deeply affected me, a scientist, and Erin, a not-at-all-a-scientist, and it was exactly the kind of thing that we try to create ourselves. Within days, #IAmScience had collected as many stories as we had in a year and a half. Mind you, they’re a lot shorter, and lacking in a certain amount of detail, development, denouement, and other words of the craft, but there they are.

But more importantly than the quantity, is the type of story. These are tales of wrong turns, failed classes, delayed dreams, failed schools, rejection, disabilities, mistaken careers, and as you saw in Kevin’s tweet, much, much more. As science communicators we talk a lot about humanizing science. It doesn’t get much more human than this — but I’ve rarely seen a major science publication touch most of these subjects. And that, of course, is the power of Twitter. Things that would never be published anywhere find a way of bubbling to the surface.

Now, I realized that this is somewhat old-hat and small-peas. Certainly, #IAmScience is no #jan25. But it’s the smallness that’s fascinating: In our normal lives, we tend to be content with thinking of social media as a way to spread our message, to distribute our content, or whatever. It can do vastly more, at scales much smaller than major revolutions — from organizing amateur galaxy hunters to make a major discovery, to organizing small-scale revolutions within the Ivory Tower, to finding stories professional story-hunters missed.

If you want to read the #IAmScience tweets, and the blog posts and more they spawned, there’s a Storyify of the tweets. If you want to hear more about this, and other science and social media topics, come the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, 6pm, or watch the livestream.

Ben Lillie has a B.A. in physics from Reed College, a Ph.D. in theoretical high-energy physics from Stanford and a certificate in improv comedy from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. He left the ivory tower for the wilds of New York’s theater district where he writes, produces, and otherwise brings to light stories about the human side of science. He is Co-founder and director of The Story Collider, where people are invited to share their stories of how science has affected their lives. He is also a Moth StorySLAM champion, and a writer for TED.com.

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