What is the role of social media in advancing environmental sustainability and conservation? Do tweeting, posting and blogging really accelerate technological progress and science?
The rising popularity of social media is undeniable: experian estimates that 129 million of online American adults (approx. 91%) access some form of social media each month. A news report from Forrester Research found that over 80% of Americans use social media. Nielsen and Pew Research Center found similar results. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have over 100 million, 800 million, and 135 million registered users respectively, in over 200 countries and territories worldwide. Technorati is tracking nearly 65 million blogs, and users can now choose from over 100 million videos on YouTube. Though interactions in the physical world have not been replaced by social media, many people allocate a significant amount of their time to activities in the virtual world.
As social media popularity rises, scientific literacy declines. A national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive revealed that the 80% of the United States public cannot pass a basic scientific literacy test. The survey included questions surrounding the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, the relationship between humans and dinosaurs, and the amount of water on Earth. Additionally, 40% of adults indicated that they are “not at all knowledgeable” about sustainability issues.
For many educators of science, there is a sincere disconnect between the importance of communicating science in the physical world—in classrooms, conferences, museums, and labs—and in the virtual one—on social media and social networking platforms. Brainy scientists are the creative thinkers we rely on to build, discuss and communicate a body of knowledge to improve our world through technology. But for many educators of science, social media, as a technological tool, is not well understood and is underutilized. According to a recent survey, only one-third of college faculty use social media tools to communicate with fellow educators and students.
In the same way that social media buzz words like “Stumble,” “Web 2.0,” “Hashtag,” and “User Generated Content,” lack meaning to those without a proper framework, scientific jargon is not compatible with the way non-scientists process information. The difficulty in deciphering scientific code contributes to an intimidation of science and arguably, fewer students majoring in engineering or science. Moreover, this ineffective mode of communication perpetuates a serious misunderstanding that “science is only for scientists.” This notion, engrained in the minds of many citizens, is a major roadblock to the public understanding and appreciation of the natural sciences.
We know that the practice of science is for everyone. Citizen science projects provide a platform for those in the general public to collect invaluable data, whether on the movement of birds, on the identification of galaxies or in countless other endeavors, many of which are only feasible through wide-scale online collaboration.
We also know that social media is not a panacea, and that it too has its downfalls. Studies show that social media activities are shortening our attention span and rapidly spread misinformation. Moreover, the need to invest in traditional models of education to address the serious gap in the public understanding of science is evident. But, scientists in this digital age have a unique opportunity to communicate directly with the public on social media platforms in an engaging, casual and fun atmosphere. Researchers can generate discussion online from the confines of their labs, curators can promote knowledge displayed within a museum, and teachers can create an exciting environment for their students to learn science. Social media provides thousands of more platforms for lovers of science to love science.
During Social Media Week, The American Museum of Natural History hosted an event with scientists, journalists, and other communicators of science to discuss the benefits and limitations of social media. Click here to stream a video of the seminar: Beyond a Trend: Enhancing Science Communication with Social Media.