My most requested talk is on how researchers can promote their work via social media. Here are five lessons from it, each motivated by a hypothetical, but typical, quote from an audience member.
1. "Is this social media stuff important? It seems like a waste of time." It was a bit more common a few years ago, but I still run into people who dismiss or belittle social media. This comes from ignorance, a curable condition.
We might more reasonably ask, "Is publishing papers in journals important? It doesn't seem like anyone reads them." This hurts because it's (approximately) true. Few academics read all but a minuscule proportion of journal articles in their fields. And, almost no policymakers or journalists read any.
Yet, these key influencers are interested in what research says about policy. The demand for your work — appropriately conveyed — is large. But, for your work to be of any value to someone requires that she know about it.
Traditional means of research translation and dissemination are inadequate. Only a tiny proportion can get a column in a major (or even minor) newspaper. Press releases are typically poorly timed — coinciding with the release of a study, not synced to when its focus is in the policy debate.
Blogs, Twitter, Facebook — social media — can help. They're readily (and freely) accessible communication channels. Journalists and decision makers use and read them precisely because they are not a waste of time.
If your three- or five-year-old study is suddenly relevant to the policy discussion today, you should promote it, and you should do so where people can "hear" you: social media. It doesn't matter if you wrote a column on it three or five years ago. Write it up again!
This is surprisingly valuable. People's attention span is far shorter and their memories are far less durable than you think. They won't remember your work or your prior column. You will be thanked for bringing to light relevant evidence (again), as if you had never done so before.
2. "I know I should write accessible blog posts about my work and field, but I'm not good at it." Bah! Years ago you sucked at writing journal articles too. You had to practice. You needed mentoring. Once upon a time you couldn't write, let alone utter, a sentence or a single word.
Writing and getting better at it is hard work. It's hard for me too. That's as it should be.
One of the lessons of Anders Ericcson's work is that doing anything well is hard, even for experts. The only way to get better at something is to practice: put in the work, pay attention to what's difficult (and/or get feedback), and seek ways to improve. Even those at the top of their game work at the edge of their ability and seek to expand it — or else they stop being on top.
Therefore, to get better at writing accessibly don't treat it like an afterthought. It's not something only to do after one of your papers is published. It's something to practice regularly, even daily. You can accomplish far more by doing a little, every day, than by doing nothing, ever.
Dedicate time each day to write. If you don't want to write about your work, find someone else's. See if you can write five sentences. See if you can write for 10 minutes. Even at this pace, you will probably finish a single blog post in 2-3 weeks and 15-20 or so in a year. That's far more than nothing. You'll get better, but it will always be work.
3. "So should we just get rid of traditional (journal) publishing and scholarship and do everything on Twitter?" No. Studies and traditional publication are the foundation. That's where the science is. We need to add to that better translation and dissemination too. Science and dissemination are two different things.
Sometimes social media involvement can help the science and foster scholarship, just as a key conversation with a colleague at a party can turn into a fruitful avenue of research. But we would not confuse a party for a laboratory.
4. "Are there downsides to social media?" Sure. There are trolls and all manner of bad behavior. Depending on what you encounter and the thickness of your skin, this could tax your mental health.
In a paper I highly recommend, Duke sociologist Kieran Healy wrote about the utility and risks of social media for researchers in his field. It's relevant to ours as well.
Many a hopeful theory of democratic participation, civil society, and pluralistic public engagement has foundered on contact with jerks who would try [our] patience.
5. "Isn't blogging and tweeting just dumbing things down, which could hurt my reputation and promotion chances?" Yes, but only if you do it wrong.
We must put this fear of "dumbing things down" to better use than paralysis. Have you ever taught anyone anything? If so, then you know you can do some good even if you don't begin at expert level. You've only made something too dumb if you fail to teach anything. This is trivially accomplished by not teaching at all.
About your reputation: Yeah, you could blow it, the same way you could blow it on a popular radio or television program. These platforms, like social media, offer high leverage. Your casual expression is (potentially) highly public. It can be viewed or read by millions in minutes. That post or tweet you thought was clever but was actually, massively insulting could go viral. If you have this concern, have your work reviewed by a colleague.
Finally, use of social media could harm your career if it detracts from the things that you need to do to get promoted. If you write 20 posts about your cat instead of writing a paper, that could hurt you. If you write 20 posts that bring policymakers' attention to your work or that of the research community, that may help you. If it leads to more, good research opportunities and publications, that's even better!
This is not wishful thinking. If you use the tools properly, and respect them, good things can happen.