Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 1: The Setup

I want to elaborate on my ideas for social media and science over the next several days in four parts. My goal is to both clarify the arguments in my mind and to present a more in-depth resource for those interested in learning more than my poorly-captioned slideshows can tell. I hope these musings will spark further conversations.

In today’s post I want to show you that Social Networks are vast, valuable and should be thought of by scientists as a huge potential asset. After that, in parts 2 and 3 I’ll explain what scientists should hope to get in return for their social media efforts, and then I’ll conclude with part 4, discussing where I think scientists should go next.

Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 1: The Setup

Social Networks are increasingly becoming the primary way people talk with each other. More than half of Americans report that they spend more time talking with people online than they do in real life (1). Now, we can debate (online) about just how big or small a problem this is, but the bottom line is, social networks are no longer just a microcosm of everyday “real” life, they are the places people young and old are living their lives hour after hour every day.

When talking about Social Networks people immediately imagine Facebook, and reasonably so: Facebook is by far the largest social network geographically and demographically. In the 8 years since its founding it has permeated culture so thoroughly that words it invented have been put in our dictionaries (Actually that only took Facebook about 18 months, 2) Facebook recently welcomed its one billionth active user (3). If Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest, and three-times the size of the US, but watch out, it’s growing way faster than any of the others.

Twitter is the next closest Social Network weighing in at a very impressive 500 million active users (4). While twitter doesn’t have quite the reach that Facebook does its growth is more than twice that of Facebook in the US (5). Google has also more recently joined the fray with its offering, Google+ which reached the 20 million user benchmark in a fraction of the time it took Facebook and Twitter. It’s quite easily imaginable that Google+ will also reach global proportions in the next few years.

There are a lot of sectors in society capitalizing on all these hundreds of millions of eyeballs. Politicians and celebrities maybe most notoriously (I’m sad to report that Britney Spears has more twitter followers than President Obama) but brands are also finding Social Networks a fertile ground for advertising and profits. Entirely new industries have even been created for these social media platforms earning hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Still need to be convinced that scientists should be thinking of ways to capitalize on the wave of social networks? The average Facebook user spends about 55 minutes a day on Facebook (6). Multiply that by the billion current active users and that equates to some 100,000 people-years of attention spent every day on Facebook! Imagine what scientists could do with even just a fraction of that attention.

I’ll elaborate a bit tomorrow on what I think scientists should want to do on Social Networks and then, what they can hope to get in return for their efforts.

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