10,000 Up

I’ve just passed my 10,000th follower on Twitter, and similar to when I went past 5,000 followers this feels like a good point to reflect on this open, ‘blog-and-tweet’ world evolving around me.

Many of the comments I made two years ago have stood the test of time: Twitter is still fundamentally a conversation, broadcast not just to your lunch queue but worldwide, and blogs remain lightweight, informal platforms for review and commentary. And as with any conversation you have to consider your audience first, and as with all public writing everyone still need and editor [sic].

So, happily, the basic principles hold true. But with this up tick, I want to reflect on whether these media/platforms are actually right for everyone, and the future of open discussion.

You don’t have to join Twitter

I get a lot out of Twitter, and part of that includes sharing interesting papers or blog posts I’ve spotted in my twitter stream or adding new ones to the mix. I find myself asking people if they are on Twitter so I can be sure to reference them when their work comes up. This sometimes elicits a somewhat sheepish response along the lines of, “I don’t do Twitter,” or “Twitter makes me feel uncomfortable,” or, in rare cases, a flash of rage against the world of informal and all-too-short critiques/discussions. 

I try to be positive about my Twitter experience while acknowledging that Twitter is not for everyone, and recognising its pitfalls: it can be distracting, people are often tempted to over-share aspects of their lives, etc. Twitter is certainly not a requirement, and blogs are rather personal. While I am not alone in finding these media useful, I wouldn’t say that you are missing out on crucial information if you don’t jump in. Mainstream scientific interaction is still via published, peer-reviewed papers and giving talks at conferences and workshops, and that is where the really important stuff is to be found.

You don’t have to interact on Twitter

Many people use Twitter as a sort of personalised, text-based radio station: something you can tune into when you want, that gives you a personalised mix of news. I am pretty sure no one else has my mix of interests in worldwide science, UK, European and US politics, cricket and events in the North Tyne valley (in Northumberland). Twitter is useful just in this “consumption” mode.

Twitter is also inherently ephemeral – people shouldn’t expect you to be on it all the time (although it seems like some people are!), and no one can expect that a comment (when someone @’s you) will always elicit a response. People have lives, holidays, emergencies and so forth, and all of those things make it perfectly reasonable to ignore this global conversation.

But if you do start a conversation about a topic, I think it is reasonable for others to expect that you will respond and follow through on sensible comments. Some conversations spark a need for deeper discussion (i.e. “we’re going to need to meet up face to face for this one…”), and some might dwindle because you have to take your kids to a pirate party, sleep, etc. And that’s fine. The instant, global nature of Twitter makes it empowering in some ways, but it also needs to be tamed to fit into your life.

140 characters: plenty of room for misinterpretation

Twitter’s limitation of 140 characters can be challenging, and it’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret a tweet – in particular when it is intended to be funny, or when it involves a disagreement. Without body language, vocal nuance or the comfort of expository paragraphs, it is extremely easy to blunder on, not realising that the other person has taken offence, become confused or both.

So I stand by my rules of avoiding ‘jokes’ on Twitter (unless I’m very confident that the people in the conversation will get it), and avoiding disagreements, particularly the complex ones. Science is full of ambiguity and disagreement, which is part of what makes it exciting – but Twitter’s natural limitations turn those elements into confusion all to easily. It just is not the right medium for this kind of engagement (more on this below).


Post-publication peer review is cool

The rise of open, “pre-peer review” platforms in molecular biology communication is a big step change. It started with the quantitative biology community putting papers on the Physics Arxiv site, which quickly became the mainstream way to communicate in high energy and theoretical physics. Two platforms have been added to this: Bioarxiv, which has a similar model to Arxiv but with a stronger emphasis on biology papers (e.g., they process Word files). The second is F1000Research which combines submission, peer review and publication production workflows seamlessly as one stream – and insists on open peer review, so the peer-review comments and replies are all published together with the paper – everything in the open.

In this new publishing environment, blogs are starting to feel very … 2000 to me. Why am I am blogging when I could write a pre-publication with a DOI, which can be cited and made a more formal part of the scientific discourse? Blogging is nice, because it is accessible to a broader audience and allows for a more chatty, ‘natural language’ style – but if the main purpose is to communicate with scientists, pre-publication servers are a better way to go. If the goal is to communicate with a broad set of interested people, an on-line magazine or aggregation site might be better. The independent blog is on borrowed time (which does make me wonder why I’m writing this).

There is a lot of social innovation happening in science, and each one of them takes a bit of adjustment. (For example, keeping track of comments on F1000Research articles can be a bit exhausting.) In general, the move towards a more rapid, open discourse is almost certainly a good thing… Except…

Open, recorded, textual criticism is complex

These new, open communication platforms share three key characteristics: they are text based, they can be close to immediate (like spoken conversation) and, importantly, they are ‘on the record’, indefinitely.

This is an explosive combination for constructive criticism. The fluid, conversational nature of the media makes it easier to voice criticism, but it demands a certain level of nuanced writing skill to make up for the absence of voice and body language. These platforms make it too easy for people to barrel on with their views, offering no mechanism that advise about, for example, the responding tone of (or meaningful silence from) the other participants. Disagreements can flare up, triggered by trivial things like different use of common definitions, or by deeper problems like a fundamental misunderstanding of the important elements of different positions in a debate. 

The global nature of these communications adds many layers of cultural complexity, as they are (in science) mainly carried out in the English language, which provides endless opportunities for misunderstandings and perceived callousness due to people’s different use of English. But it is perhaps the permanent, public, recorded nature of these critical conversations that raises the stakes highest. Onlookers can read motivations in the text that they wouldn’t interpret in the same spoken conversation. One cannot easily forget such a disagreement when it has been so public and lasting, in particular when it becomes personal.

Online constructive criticism in science

I don’t think the social mores are in place for how we handle criticism on these communication media. There are so many cultures and subtleties – there is a reason, after all, why science writing in papers is so dry and literal. In online conversations criticism is often so polite as to be obtuse, or impossible to understand. More upsettingly, criticism can be so vitriolic and personal that it can’t be absorbed at all by the person receiving it or the audience observing the dialogue. 

Science is not the only field that has to work out a social contract for on-line communication, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be the generation that grew up with FaceBook, Twitter and SnapChat that’s going to work out how best to do this. But I don’t think the current behaviour is right. Constructive criticism – honest but aiming for the best science – is such an important part of our our world that we need to create the right environment for it online. 

Overall, I am still positive about open communication. I find Twitter interesting, informative and fun, and I find blog posts provide an outlet and means of communication that lets me write more broadly and accessibly about science. These media will evolve – just as every other medium has – and be used by more and more scientists. I still enjoy being part of this evolution. 

3 thoughts on “10,000 Up

  1. Twitter is quick, for people who wants to know short information or summary; Blog is more elaborate, it need time to understand. I prefer blog for science. I gain much information about metagenomics from many bloggers. It makes me learn and think deeply. I think those are things can not be find on Twitter.

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