Bird of mouth

Twitter and other social media platforms you should be using

The NOAA feed on Instagram draws more than 212,000 followers. 

By Amy Dunkle | Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR

Every day, 936 million people use Facebook. YouTube ranks as the No. 2 search engine. Twitter gets 2.1 billion daily queries. Clearly, these social network sites — launched respectively in 2004, 2005, and 2006 — are not passing fads.

If you think their best use might be limited to #proudmom moments, animal videos, and selfies on a stick, then you don’t know what you are missing — some of the best and free tools for disseminating information to any audience you seek.

“Forty three percent of all site traffic is driven by social networks,” says Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental reporting. “People are getting a lot of information from Facebook, from Twitter, from other social media.”

Menezes gave a primer — Social Media for Science Communication — during a noon hour workshop for Rhode Island scientists. Held in partnership with Rhode Island College’s Center for Research and Creative Activity, the Metcalf Institute event was one in an ongoing series of SciComm Exchanges funded by Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR to provide training in science communication for the state’s natural and social science faculty, program directors and professional staff engaged in research or supporting research, graduate students, and postdocs.

Despite the robust statistics, Menezes notes, researchers notoriously underuse social media. For example, on Twitter alone, only 12 percent of researchers report using the platform on a regular basis. Facebook, often dismissed as a great way to not work, actually can be put to work to share information and educate an audience in ways that can lead to greater understanding.

“We should be using social networks to accelerate and amplify scientific impacts,” Menezes says. “All of these are ways for scientists to access an audience.”

These audiences can be a college class, colleagues within the same or different discipline, or the greater non-science population — all of whom can benefit from better communication. From Twitter’s 140 characters to a quippy Facebook post, social media provides the perfect opportunity to hone the skill of simplicity and share your science.

General tips

A picture is worth a thousand words: Images — both still and video — draw attention and attract people. If you are out in the field or conducting a visually interesting procedure in the lab, snap it and share.

Invite and support conversation: Whether through a thread of comments on Facebook or responses to questions on Twitter, seize the chance to engage with people and share information.

Don’t always be so serious: Who doesn’t want to see a dolphin with devil horns, Menezes asks? Sometimes scientists are so concerned about being serious, they forget the lighter side, which can be engaging. It’s okay to use humor and let some of your personality through.

Do use caution: The social media landscape is littered with bodies of people who abandoned common sense and stepped over the line. Think things through and consider consequences prior to posting. Be professional in your exchanges.

It’s not all about you: Refrain from using social media sites as promotional tools for yourself or your organization. You want to cultivate followers as a relevant, trusted source concerned about what others are doing and what they might have to say.

Broadcast and engage: Broadcasters are trusted sources looked to as disseminators of valuable, interesting information. Engagers connect with people and respond to questions, building an audience. Menezes explains the value: “Say you post something about your new paper, and someone responds and says it was interesting, but I don’t understand. Then you can say, oh my bad, let me take my scientist hat off and write more clearly. That allows other people to see you engaging, building a relationship. Maybe someone else will be interested.”

How much time does this take: As much as you want. The beauty of social media is that users can set their own parameters. Curious? Jump in. Nervous? Proceed with caution. Overworked or overscheduled? Do what you can, when you can.

Bad reactions: People being people, there always exists the potential for negative commentary in response to what you share on social media, particularly on controversial and politically charged issues. That’s why the option exists to unfollow or block people.

Conference tweeting
Sunshine Menezes, Metcalf Institute executive director, talks about using social media to accelerate and amplify scientific impacts.


Although Facebook sprang from friend-based intentions, the site offers a platform for engaging with scientists and non-scientists alike, enhancing the classroom experience, and promoting and sharing information from a single event.

Use Facebook to post items of interest, whether to share an upcoming workshop, research findings or fascinating information. If you are hosting a conference or meeting for an organization, create a Facebook event page to promote the event and engage attendees with surveys, conference planning, or follow up.

As an educator, create a Facebook page for your class to promote outside learning without having to be Facebook “friends.” Although, Menezes notes, keep in mind anytime you bring people into social media, it involves a loss of privacy. Use the class page for ongoing conversation and effective interaction, but know that it can be difficult to consistently track a long discussion thread.


Although sometimes frustratingly limited to a mere 140 characters, Twitter offers a fast and short way to reach colleagues within and outside your discipline, citizen scientists, and the general public at large.

Menezes describes the platform as a microblog that demands concise, thoughtful messages. It starts with considering what name you will use — the longer the name, the more characters taken up in a tweet, leaving less room for the message. She says she thought her handle — @sunshinemenezes — would ensure she was the only one. It also uses up 10 percent of allotted characters when part of a tweet.

Twitter’s beauty lies in the ability to create and cultivate a feed to suit your purposes and interests. Use hashtags — the # sign followed by a word such as #scicomm or #marinebio — to attract likeminded souls and find information being tweeted.

Twitter etiquette is simple — follow or unfollow with a click. Use the search function to find people or topics to track. Monitor your feed on a regular basis. If you’re not getting the information you seek, unfollow.

If you make wise use of Twitter, passing along relevant and interesting articles and links or making astute observations, you will become a trusted source, engage followers and promote discussion. Menezes urges patience: “It takes practice. You can’t expect to be good at Twitter right off the bat.”

Twitter at conferences

Increasingly more conferences are being planned with Twitter in mind. Organizers start ahead of the big day, carefully selecting a hashtag for attendees to use in their tweets and promoting it in printed material.

But, advises Menezes, only employ the conference hashtag to share information useful to people. Don’t use the hashtag for such personal reflections as whether a speaker is standing too close to the microphone or talking too loudly.

“Conference tweeting makes you a trusted source if you share useful information,” Menezes says. “And, hashtags are a useful tool. If you can, give a link to a speaker’s paper or their slides on a website. You can do a quick search while in the audience, find and insert the link. People will appreciate it. And, if someone responds, have a conversation.”

Hootsuite is one of many platforms that help manage social media accounts.

Other platforms

Storify: bills itself as a way to make sense of what people post on social media. Breaking news, live events, branding campaigns — you can use Storify as a place to congregate photos and information from other platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) and tell a story.

Instagram: is all images. The app allows users to share photos and videos, publicly or privately, through Instagram or other platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. The familiar tagging of people and hashtagging of subjects, and searching for relevant accounts to follow, applies.

Repost for Instagram: provides the equivalent capability of retweeting on Twitter or sharing on Facebook. NOAA, NASA, National Geographic, and the New York Times, among many others, all post imagery worthy of regramming. — “Get serious about social” — is only one of dozens of similar platforms for managing social media accounts. It offers a dashboard-like function that congregates your social media accounts in one place. The platform supports integration with such applications as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and WordPress. If you want to stream more than three social media profiles, there is a monthly $9.99 charge. The more cost and time efficient — and free — option is using the platform to set up multiple Twitter streams to follow and keep track of relevant information. Search for themes such as science, marinebio, climatechange, and scicomm to pool topics of interest.

For more on social media

Check out the Metcalf Institute’s resource list —


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