Does science need to break up with Twitter?

I should preface this by saying – no, I’m not plagiarizing. (Always a good way to start a blog.)

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An interesting tweet from Dr. Andrew Thaler triggered a lot of reaction yesterday. It was particularly interesting to me because I was planning to write this blog entitled: “Does science need to break up with Twitter?”

A lot of people, myself included, agreed with the comment. Some disagreed. Some passionately disagreed.

And here’s the thing – I understand those who passionately disagree. I get it. I love Twitter. Twitter is where I got started as a scientist on social media. In 2016, a social media analytics firm named me one of the top influencers on the topic of obesity, purely because of my presence on Twitter. If it weren’t for Twitter, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.

But after being active on Twitter for years (mostly as @DanTaber47, now also @SciByDesign), I can confidently tell you – Thaler is right. Twitter is not a great tool for outreach. He’s right for all the reasons he said, and more.        

To do outreach, you need to … well … reach people. Get people to pay attention. In 2017, Twitter is not a good place to get people’s attention. It’s a good place to talk and, for the most part, have your words get lost amid all the noise.

To illustrate this, let me tell you a story.

A funny thing happened when I posted my first blog last week. After hitting ‘publish’, naturally I went to social media to spread the word. I shared it on Twitter. I shared it on Facebook. Then I noticed my girlfriend’s cat, Ginger, lying in the sun behind my computer. It was a cute image so I grabbed my phone, snapped a picture of the blog with Ginger in the background, and posted it to Instagram (@DanTaber47).

I put my phone down, went to grab a coffee, came back, and my phone was lighting up with notifications. All from people liking the photo on Instagram. Meanwhile, over on Twitter – not a peep.

To be clear, I have fewer than 100 followers on Instagram (#lateadopter). Yet the photo received more attention within an hour than what I posted on Facebook and Twitter, combined, after a week.

It wasn’t simply people ”liking” the photo with a cute cat. My website got more traffic from Instagram than Facebook or Twitter because of it. Yes, this shows the power of a cute cat. But it also illustrates why Instagram is an undervalued tool for scientists

I’m not a professional photographer, but I know data. I can geek out on social media analytics all day. When you look at the numbers, the difference in how people engage on Instagram versus Twitter is staggering. More people see me on Twitter because I have a bigger following there. But seeing and reacting are 2 different things. Even my best tweets only get a 5-10% engagement rate. It’s hard to get people’s attention on Twitter except in certain contexts such as live events.

On Instagram, conversely, people pay attention to what you post. Even my crappiest photos get a 10% engagement rate on Instagram. The photo of Ginger earned a 50%.

The data paint a clear picture, yet Instagram is still an underused tool among scientists. The hashtag #scicomm has only been used about 13,000 times. (By comparison, #catsofinstagram has been used 55 million times.) I only know a handful of scientists who use Instagram for their own work, although good exceptions include @science.sam , @the_brain_scientist, and @drkarenring.

Social media pros have been saying for a long that Twitter is too much of a firehose and Instagram is where to get people’s attention. Then why are scientists stuck on Twitter? When I hear someone talk about scientists using social media, the speaker usually focuses on Twitter.

For example, I had this exchange on the right at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February, during a talk on social media. (Ironically, the conversation happened on Twitter. I told you it was still good for the live events.)

As Dr. Thaler said yesterday, Twitter is still good for certain things. It’s a good place to get started, especially if you’re more verbal than visual. It’s still my preferred news platform, and it’s great for getting word out about your study. And, to be fair, I’ve been reluctant to let go of Twitter.

But data have a funny way of changing your mind.

If you’re interested, here are some useful links on science and Instagram. And if you like to follow specific scientists on Instagram, add them in the comments below!

See the World Through the Eyes of a Scientist

14 Awesome Instagrams All Science Buffs Should Follow

Learning to Instagram Science