Science and Social Media

Following the previous post regarding the importance for the science community of reaching out to the public, here is a follow up on social media. Below is part of the guidelines I give to brands or companies when consulting them. Even though I write about clients,  companies or brands, the principles are the same whether you are a single scientist or someone part of a science team.

The principles of the social media scene are nothing new. They have always existed. What is different is the scale on which they affect our lives and also their relationship with technology. Humans have always socialised, it is actually part of our evolutionary survival. Whether at work, at schools or in the streets, individuals seek to connect with others. Ten years ago, and for hundreds of years before, this process was done generally face to face. People had to meet in flesh to develop relationships. Today, we have created tools that facilitate the expansion of our “social” network. And this is the most important change in our social behaviour. These tools not only helped people to connect, but they have created their own world.

This “world” is now accessible to anyone, anywhere, and for little effort. The rules that applied to our social lives, now are carried on into a place that knows no boundaries. This 4th place – the concept of a virtual social surrounding (the 3rd place being one between home and work) now defines the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

The most important tool for the social world is the smart phone. This device allows for uninterrupted connection and permits people to satisfy their instinctive need of belonging wherever they are and whenever. The effect on our consumption of information is immense. Social Media has transformed the narrative by turning the reader into an active player, and even often becoming the main character. Everyone participates in the dialogue. Everyone wants to participate. This intricate web of personal human stories has become a pillar in our society.

Now, a crucial key of Social Media is RELEVANCY. In a world already saturated with junk information and countless parties competing for attention, a successful strategy will be one that is based on a long term approach. Brands have become “individuals” and people treat them that way. People are loyal to brands in the same way they are loyal to friends. A friend makes you a better person – it listens to you, it helps you when you need it. Contrary to family, you choose that friend. It is the same for brands. Gone are the days where companies had the freedom to impose their will. Today, they must engage with their client and contribute to its well-being. Not in a healthy sense, but rather in a holistic sense (characterised by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole). That is why Apple has become so successful. Their goal was always to make life better, not to make money. Therefore they created products with which people saw their needs being answered and even surpassed. Apple’s main objective was to create the ultimate experience. They didn’t see their mission as one of creating computers, but rather to design a way of living. Which allowed them to move from computers, to phones, to music and to books. Although we can’t expect each brand to do so, the principles stay the same. Today, the business is about “EXPERIENCES”. To create “these” experiences, a strategy must look into the following points:

BE RELEVANT: You certainly don’t want your friends to bore your about things that don’t matter to you. Know and anticipate your client. Don’t become “Social Noise”.

REPETITION: Friendship is maintained through regular or daily contact. You share experiences and live life together. If your friend moves away to another city, it is most likely, that your friendship will gradually fade out. It is therefore important to constantly and daily interact with your client.

EDUCATE: Being social is in evolutionary terms, a way to get smart. When knowledge is transferred from person to person, from generation to generation, chances are that it will increase the ability to adapt and thrive. Educate your client. Make him/her smarter by feeding him/her content that is relevant. Help him/her expand his/her knowledge.

BE SMART: Don’t dumb down the conversation! There is so much junk out there, don’t be part of it. It is super easy to become the “Flavor” of the day, of the week, of the month. But you will disappear as fast as you appeared. Your aim should not be to attract traffic, but to cultivate what you have. Quality versus quantity produce loyal relationships.

TAKE YOUR TIME: Don’t be in race to accumulate followers. Don’t be easy for anything. Let your people expand your network. Their network is the one you want. It is pointless to have thousands of followers and be relevant only to a few.

GLOBAL: Time zones don’t exist anymore. Your friend can be halfway around the world and as much attention should be given to him than the one next door. There are amazing tools now like Automatic Schedule from Hootsuite to help you efficiently schedule your posts.

BE SOCIAL: Don’t be afraid to quote people, just let them know. Be proactive and expand your network. Like with friends, nothing will be achieved if you wait for people to come to you. Go and make the first move. Take part in the conversation.

BE CONNECTED: Tag the people, companies or organizations you mention. Facebook, Google + and Twitter all have this feature now so use it. See below. That way your post will spread beyond your own circle and reach new audiences.

Example of a post on Facebook

Example of a post on Facebook

 

Example of a post on Google +

Example of a post on Google +

BE GOOD: Etiquette has always been and will always be. It is too easy to steal content and disrespect others. People don’t mind having their work re-published, they just want to be acknowledged. Be polite and cordial when reaching out. Be respectful. Show the world that you REALLY care.

Science & Public Outreach

Working and funding science is not what it used to be. Even just ten years ago, a wannabe scientist or a Ph.D. Professor could stick with speaking only the science jargon and have a successful career without even once having to deal with the public. Except for a few exceptions, science was some kind of secret world. After learning the basics in school and successfully passing the tests, you were welcome to a world of seclusion, either in the lab or on the field. Funding came through your ability to deliver long and complex reports, filled with graphs and tables, equations and numbers. Articles were published in magazines that cared little about design with pages and pages of text. There was even a certain snobbism, dismissing the general public as below its realm of expertise. The content of its research was made only to those with the ability to decipher its riddles. The science world gleamed in its own little private universe, proud of its isolation and complexity.

Then the world changed!

Gone are the days of institutional financial security. Due to many factors, but aggravated by its own insulation, the science community is today unable to fund its research the way it use to. Governments and schools dealing with their own budget cuts have had their treasury chocked. With their primary source of revenue gone, scientists must now turn to a new world to support their work – the public! Whether by the form of individual or corporate sponsorship or online fundraising like Kickstarter, science studies and projects have to find new ways of reaching out to what has been for them, a foreign audience. Jenny Rohn, founder of LabLit & Science is Vital is on the spot when she says:

“Scientists ignore ‘the outside world’ at their peril. The general public has the power to deny your funding or restrict your experiments. It’s important to reach outside your laboratories, offices and field stations to engage with the wider world, to show people that science is essential and that researchers are working hard to help address important issues — that they are the good guys, not the enemy.”

The task might sound fairly simple and straight forward but the reality could not be more different. The marketing world spends billions every year trying to learn how to reach efficiently their client’s audience, with many still failing. While the science community is just starting to understand the challenge it has at task, it is still far from grasping the meaning of it and what it entails. The biggest mistake it does is to believe it only needs to use the new media outlets with the same scientific jargon. They could not be more wrong.

Communication is first and foremost a system built on an intricate web of social and emotional realities. It is not a simple question of elaborating knowledge through words and pointing to what they believe to be quite self explanatory. The human species is complicated when it comes to explaining why we do what we do even if we know it is wrong and not in our best interest. I have written many times about how science needs to change its narrative, how it needs to leave its comfort and often pretentious secular zone. (The Need for a New Story, Knowledge, our Achilles’ Heel, The Climate Change Issue)

Kate Pratt from Katie Ph.D wrote in Soapbox Science that:

“They (scientists) often shrug off the latest miscommunication in the press as the fault of some lazy journalist who didn’t read the press release correctly. They do not consider that they are perhaps to blame, and, instead of trying to improve their communication skills with the lay-public, they withdraw quietly into the protective shell that is academia… and when these individuals make an effort to reach out: other scientists deride them for being attention-seekers, especially if they do so using platforms such as blogs or social media websites. These behaviours have to change. If they don’t, science will continue to be seen as a closed off and elitist realm, and the public will continue to feel shut out, disenfranchised, and suspicious. Science has too long ignored public relations, marketing, and personal branding, and it’s time for that to change.”

She is right! When the science community fails to communicate its message, it is extremely quick at putting the blame on the receiver’s end.

As if this was not complicated enough, the format of communicating has seen its foundation thrown in the air and the jury is still debating as to when and how it will land back. We like to believe that today’s technology has made communication easier and cheaper. While it might be true in theory, in reality the process has become quite complicated, overwhelming, frustrating and can become relatively expensive. The internet is in constant flux. Social media tools come and go like seasons. If they stay, their monthly design and interaction overhaul make life impossibly annoying to any media and design specialists. What were only a few platforms to work with has now evolved into a panoply of services, all just slightly different from one another. On top of everything, the delivery of the content keeps reinventing itself every couple of years. Every time it does, the public develops new habits and communication strategies have to be redone. Television and radio were pretty straightforward and consistent. Even though through time they became smaller, lighter and thinner, their concept and functionality stayed the same. But now we have smart phones, and tablets that not only become more powerful every two years but also constantly change the way we interact with them.

So what to do?

Three words – hire media specialists! Yes, that is correct. By this I DON’T mean hire a scientist to write blogs. I mean hire someone who doesn’t know much about science but is expert at reaching out to the public through videos, photos, and writings. A content producer, a person who knows how to manage and maximise social media. A person who can create a compelling multi media story around your project. Would you hire a public relation person to do an in-depth analysis of the chemical reaction created when supercritical fluids from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean come into contact with salt water? No, my point! Focus on trying explaining the work and science to one person and let that person do its magic. There is only a handful of scientists in the world that are capable of doing science and translating it into a compelling narrative. Don’t assume that all scientists have the capacity to create captivating content. The days of long blogs with simple photos are gone. Today it is about videos, interviews, behind the scenes moments, strategic posts on Facebook, Google +, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and it is about linking all these platform together. Kaite Pratt again on the topic”

“… they (scientists) rely, a lot of the time, upon active volunteers. We need to pay more heed to these ideas, fund them, and move them from the world of science communication and into the world of general public appeal. Of course there is a long road ahead, but it is time to acknowledge that this is the road we have to take. Science has a PR problem, and we need to fix it.”

Science can be fun. Science is fun! You don’t have to dumbed down the content to reach out to the public. Many have been really successful at doing it. Think of Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Think of the television show Nova on PBS. But understand that it might not be your cup of tea. Don’t be ashamed of it. You don’t have to like doing it or even understand it. But simply understand that communicating your work, studies or projects has become essential, not only for funding reasons but also because it is part of your mandate as a scientist to teach and educate the word.

Here are some interesting quotes

James Gleick: “I also believe that analogy is the way humans learn and explore our world. It’s true at some level that a physicist will say that the language of nature is mathematics, but I also believe that any physicist in creating his or her own understanding of the world is automatically thinking in terms of analogies. I believe that any scientific model or theory is a kind of analogy, which is to say imperfect, flawed by definition and at least incomplete. It’s a model, it’s not the world itself.”

Jonathan Foley, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour and director of the Institute on the Environment: “Being on social media is essential for anyone who wants to turn their research and teaching into real-world outcomes. If you’re not using social media today, then you’re missing a great opportunity for broader education and engagement, which is part of our missions as a 21st century land grant university.”

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, “Ultimately, everyone in this room is on some level an entertainer. We are competing for readers’ attention against blogs, video games and movies. What I’m trying to do is tell stories that can take people from place A to place B, not just in a narrative arc but in terms of their understanding of a subject. It can be tremendously rewarding to be taken on a journey like that.”

Jeremy Yoder “It wasn’t that long ago that we were taught to write scientific papers in a passive voice. Social media demands a more personal touch…”

Jared Diamond, author of  The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: “Everyday you can read a scientist complaining that the public doesn’t understand science.That the federal government doesn’t invest enough money in science and science education. But what it comes down to is that most scientists and academics just don’t want to do the things that would help the public… Unfortunately, an occupational hazard of being an academic who writes for the general public is that you’re going to get flak from other academics who’ve spent their whole lives being told to write in the precise fashion for the five experts in their field. A theme as big as the differences between traditional societies and modern societies deserves a book that is 100,000 pages long but no one is going to read that.” 

INTERESTING READINGS
Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?
Reaching Out: Science has a PR Problem
How scientists can reach out with social media
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The Climate Change Issue

Watching Frontline’s latest segment, “Climate of Doubt” I was once again reminded of the failure from the science and conservation communities in reaching out to the public.

Back in my early days, I used to be an agent for photographers and painters. From the talents I represented, it was clear to me that there were two categories of artists. The ones who believed that work would come to them and the ones who knew they had to go and get the jobs themselves. This reality also led me to understand one thing. The world is filled with talent and someone who might have less of it, but possesses great skills at promoting himself will fare better than the prodigy who is incapable of reaching beyond his studio. It is not always the ones with the greatest talent who become famous, but the ones who know how to promote their work. The moral of the story I concluded was that it didn’t matter what you had, it didn’t matter if you were the best, it didn’t matter if you held the truth, it didn’t matter what you meant to say. What mattered was how the world perceived you and how people understood you. It is not what you say, but what people hear. It is not what you do, but how people feel about it. And this is something the scientists and environmentalists – and by the same token, the democrats or liberals, have still failed to understand.

Communication, according to the dictionary, is “the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium”. It is achieved when the receiving party processes the information with the same intent the emitter had when sending it. This means that if I say “Hello” to a friend, he or she will understand the polite gesture and therefore reciprocate with another “Hello”. This brief communication was a success since both agreed on the meaning of the word. If I say the same “Hello” to a total stranger walking down the street, my seemingly innocent gesture might be misinterpreted and suddenly the tone, what I wear, the location, the time of the day, my age, all will have an affect on how my simple salutation is going to be interpreted.

Communication is one of the most complex and difficult tasks in the world. Why? Because it is filled with innuendoes, interpretations, opinions and emotions. Add body language, culture, and religion to this, and you quickly find yourself with complete “miscommunication”. The US conservatives (Republicans or climate change deniers) realised a long time ago how to communicate efficiently. They have understood that the public doesn’t care about scientific facts. What people care about are jobs, the economy and security, in others words, their own priorities and personal values. Science is not this unbreakable knowledge. Some facts might be obvious but their interpretation varies extremely. But the scientists believe that simply giving people the facts will be enough not only to understand, but also to change the behaviour of an individual. In “Climate of Doubt” John Kerry (minute 33 in video) blames the loss of momentum in public perception about climate change because of a lack of money and lies:

“… as the campaign of fear built up people began to retreat they spent huge sums of money in a campaign of major dis-information that had a impact, a profound impact, and it has now made many people in public life very gun-shy because they are afraid of having those amount of money spent against them…” 

His view is not only wrong but also reinforces the evidence of total lack of understanding of the dynamics of communication.

For most people, climate change is an overwhelming and extremely confusing topic. In a post I wrote earlier this year, “Climate Change: A Pointless Debate, I argue that:

“Instead of attacking the source of the problem, our lifestyle, our values, our system and its obvious, concrete, and irrefutable consequences – pollution, ocean acidification, disappearance of fish stocks, total destruction of the environment – so obvious in fact that no one can argue about them, we have had to focus our attention and debate on something so conceptual and evolutionarily insignificant as the rise in temperatures on a global scale….it is also moving the most pressing issues away.”

The issue has a lot to do about perception. Climate change will be good for some, a great opportunity for others, bad for many and tragic for numerous. It all depends on which side you stand.

Polarising the debate has also been part of the problem. For many, there are only two parties – the ones accepting climate change and the ones who don’t. But in reality, there is a broad range of opinions in between. Through media and other campaigns, the debacle now insinuates that if you don’t support climate change, you are against nature and don’t care about the future of our children. If you do agree with climate change then you don’t care about jobs and the economy. Both statements are preposterous and extreme.

The strategy of the environmentalists and the Al Gore team has been to use the “Cane of Guilt” – meaning to bash people over their heads on how bad they have been and give them an ultimatum on how fast they need to change. Anyone with a little bit of education will tell you that fear is not a good way to inspire people. After a while, people are simply tired of the negative narrative. This year’s article in the Washington Post “Young Americans less interested in the environment than previous generations” is no surprise:

“…Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has noticed an increase in skepticism — or confusion — about climate change among his students as the national debate has heightened. That leads to fatigue, he said.

“It’s not so much that they don’t think it’s important. They’re just worn out,” Potosnak said. “It’s like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it.”

A lot of young people also simply don’t spend that much time exploring nature, said Beth Christensen, a professor who heads the environmental studies department at Adelphi University on Long Island in New York…”

Going back to communication. It is not the two words “climate change” that people have now come to avoid. It is what they mean to them and what they insinuate. It is because of how they have been presented to the public, that the world is simply fed up of the topic. It is not a question of money, but a failure of understanding the core of the problem. The “pro climate change camp” keeps telling the world that the issue is about saving the world. This egotistical view is greatly limited. Over time, planet earth has been subject to worse catastrophes than climate change and is likely to see worse in the future. Changes in temperatures have come and gone over billions of years. Of course we are participating in, and accelerating the current trend. Of course there will be dramatic consequences, but they are small compared to the garbage choking our waters, the acid killing the oceans, the relentless plundering of the planet’s resources, and a total lack of respect of the consequences of what we do and create. As with disease, the western culture has always been more concerned about the symptoms than the causes. Obesity is not just a question of exercising and eating more vegetables, it is about our total relationship with food and about consumerism. Our problem is our absolute pretentious and arrogant approach to the world around us which is simply unsustainable.

It is important to watch “Climate of Doubt” to understand why the momentum on climate change failed. Fred Singer, Myron Ebell, Rep. James Sensenbrenner and Lord Monckton are not stupid, nor bad people. I don’t agree with neither of them, nor should you. But they have been successful at communicating their message, whether it is the truth or not. I have said it before, science is NOT and should NOT be the horse we ride on. Conservationists and scientists need desperately to understand that.

Knowledge, our Achilles’ heel

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“In your thirst for knowledge, be sure not to drown in all the information”. Anthony J. D’Angelo, founder of Collegiate Empowerment

It is hard today to hear a conversation that doesn’t involve the belief that our technology will be the key to solve our problems. We truly trust that our salvation lies in our ability to invent and create. We think that the issues we see do not reflect a problem that lies at the core of our values, but rather simply needs an adjustment in its application. At pretty much any conservation summit (The World Ocean in Singapore, BLUE in Monterey, etc) the message is always the same – the problem is only a question of bad management. If we could only find out the missing pieces of the puzzle, if we could only know more about the planet, nature, and its resources, then, only then, would we be able to act accordingly and “save” what is left. Our understanding is that the destruction of the planet and the abuses we have been responsible for, have occurred only because we lacked the know-how. So now we look at the present and the future and conclude that we must know more if we want to change. This, to my opinion is the root of the problem.

We consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species ever to populate the planet. We look at the past and compare ourselves to what was before. The fact is that all previous cultures once thought of themselves as omnipotent, powerful and of being capable of ruling the world. Each empire thought of itself as better than the one before. And each fell to its demise. We continue to understand our role as “stewards” of this planet. We think it is our duty to protect it. We continually see ourselves at the top of the pyramid looking down over our dominion. We don’t believe we are part of nature, but rather that we stand above it, separated from it, since we are better than it. We think of nature as this disconnected thing that exists outside of ourselves.

Our obsession for knowledge has turned us arrogant and immature. We are addicted to our brain and its capacities. We get high on what we can do. Our society lives in a constant sugar rush, drinking the technology & knowledge “Kool Aid” without any filter. We have kicked wisdom out of our lives, deeming it boring and against progress. But it is not because the chocolate cake is on the table that we have to eat it. We don’t think about the long-term consequences. We don’t think about the social impact of our discoveries. We only focus on the short-term gains. We only look for quick personal individual gratification. Frankenstein’s tale was precisely about that. When Mary Shelley wrote the horror story of the scientist and a monster, she did more than creating a new genre. Her novel was a premonition to what is in store for our world.

From within our cities, sitting behind computers or staring down at our “smart” phones, we claim our superiority and gaze at the world around us in a conceited way. Detached from any realities, we think of aging as a disease, that good parenting means monitoring our children every single second, that consuming green will fix our consumerism, that the idea of implanting a device in our brain to fix an imbalance is pure genius, that people who gamble our savings have a right to do so, that Facebook is real, that the web brings us closer, that food is only a recipe of carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats, and that nature is only a resource that demands to be quantified and managed. What Richard Louv wrote in his book “The Last Child in the Woods” can’t be measured so it is hardly considered. So we go the opposite way and go crazy with our quantification. We have to put a value on Planet Earth (5,000 trillion dollars according to astrophysicist Greg Laughlin) and on the oceans (check the Ocean Health Index for an orgy of numbers) to understand their importance. If it doesn’t have a number, we can’t understand it, or more, we don’ know how to value it. Knowledge is indeed important but it should not be the horse we ride on.

We have lost the ability to see the big picture. Because we are so good a looking at everything on an anatomical level we have become blind at grasping the bigger perspective. William R Catton does an amazing job at explaining why in his books Overshoot and Bottleneck. I strongly recommend you read the two.

Knowledge is not the reason why people change. If it was so, no one would smoke cigarettes, everybody would pay their credit cards on time, no one would break the law, everybody would follow the rules, there would be no economic crash and every politician would always make decisions for the good of society. The reality is that our life structure is based on values. And values differ. If we want to change, we will have to understand how people come to truly value things, and unfortunately, it is not through knowledge. No one that cherishes nature do so because of numbers, they all got to care and love nature by spending time in it. And here is the core of the argument.

For people to change, for children to develop the love and care for nature, we will have to literally reconnect our society with life and the planet. First, there needs to be direct correlation between our lifestyle and the state of the environment. We can talk about garbage littering our beaches and polluting our oceans as much as we want to and for many years, the fact remains that each and one of us is totally disconnected with the amount of garbage he or she produces and its impact. Everyone takes their garbage to the curb and says goodbye – out of sight, out of mind. There are absolutely no incentives whatsoever for people to produce less garbage and to understand the consequences of their consuming habits. Something they can’t physically feel is simply impossible to understand and care about. How can we make society care about the state of fishing stocks when subsidies create an illusion that masquerades the tragedy? How can they grasp the seriousness of the situation when the price of fish at the market has barely risen over the years. Even if they hear about the problems, the reality doesn’t touch them. Our world lives in a bubble detached from any consequences. We are sheltered from the impact our lifestyle creates. For our society to change, we will foremost have to accept the blame and consequences of our actions. We will have to be open to the idea that the fundamentals of our society are no longer valid with the current state of the planet. Until that day comes, all we will be doing is keep drowning in our own arrogance.

Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book “The Discoverers” said: ”The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” I think, today, it would be more accurate to say that “The greatest obstacle to living sustainably and in harmony with our environment is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge”.