In the "olden days", word of science reached the public via the media. This is a picture of how it worked:
On the left are the scientists bustling away in their labs and offices inside universities and research institutes. Up the top you’ll see two scientists who have come out to communicate with the public. In the middle is the media – an efficient mechanism that filters and processes science for public consumption. ‘The public’ on the right is a large homogenous mass that consumes media to stay informed.
The media has quite different values to scientists. Journalists are instructed by their editors to gather stories that will “Wow” their readers so they’re on the lookout for sex, scandals, breakthroughs, human-interest stories and really cute pictures of animals. When scientists read their articles in the tearooms of universities and research institutes they curse and bewail the ‘dumbing down’ and misrepresentation of science.
“Why don’t people value science more?” they cry. “Why don’t they understand?”
Social Media - A Saviour is Born!
It is wonderfully poetic that inside one of these science institutes a saviour was born! The Internet! On 6 August 1991 the World Wide Web project was first publicised by CERN, the pan-European organization for particle research and home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Fast forward twenty years and we find that the internet has revolutionised the media.
This is what it looks like now:
Social networking tools like facebook, Twitter and blogging have robbed the mainstream media of their gatekeeper status! Suddenly there’s no such thing as ‘the public’ – just millions of individuals with unique interests and personalities woven together into complex networks. Ideas can turn into epidemics overnight as they flow through the networks.
What Does Social Media Mean for Scientists?
Social Media has given everyone the ability to be a newsmaker - including scientists. Recently I wrote a blog encouraging scientists to come out from their institutions and engage with society. I reckon this the perfect opportunity!
Instead of complaining about the media misrepresentation of science they can do it themselves! The responsibility is now on scientists to create their own public image and persuade society of the importance and relevance of science.
There's no such thing as 'the public' so scientists don't have to communicate to everyone. They can use social media to develop purposeful relationships with specific group and sectors.
Social Media and Science - A Perfect Match!
Where "old-fashioned" media valued sex, scandals and breakthroughs, social media seems to have more enlightened values:
• Real human relationships (no one wants to talk to a machine or an institution)
• Genuineness and honesty (no-one likes to be lied to or sold to)
• Humour (everyone likes to laugh)
• Entertainment (no one wants to be bored)
• Relevance (because everyone is busy)
• Process (relationships develop over a long period of time so you can communicate the process of science – not just the breakthroughs)
It's always a challenge to make science relevant and entertaining but it is possible! Used well social media could help dissolve the myth of science and help spread a social epidemic of science enthusiasm around the country!
What do you think?