Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

Antisocial Social Media

Science is online now, right? And everyone’s on Twitter now, right? Not so fast. The people at the frontiers of science are not necessarily at the frontiers of communication technology.

by Kerstin Nordstrom


I still feel like a noob when it comes to Twitter. I like it in principle, and I am following and am followed by some really interesting people with awesome ideas and stories to share. But even with my paltry network, I’m overwhelmed by the deluge.  My primary job is not science writing, it’s academic science. So in the midst of experiments, meetings, and classes I can easily go days or weeks without looking at it. But I’m trying, and getting better.

In March, I attended the aptly-named March Meeting, the largest physics conference in the world. With the meeting boasting over 8,000 attendees, the convention center in Baltimore was bursting at the seams. The meeting even overflowed into the meeting rooms of the neighboring Hilton.

When I got to the meeting, I was excited to see #flatTesla greeting me. When I looked up #APSMarch, I saw there would be a Tweetup happening on Wednesday. I was thrilled at the prospect of meeting fellow physicists interested in science communication; most of my Twitter people are from the world of science writing.

But both #flatTesla and #APSMarch were a trickle. Good stuff, but a trickle. And a good portion from journalists and the companies selling lab equipment.

This peeved me. Despite the stereotypes, physics is a social science. We have meetings, we go to Meetings. We have lunch, we have Luncheons. We’re not always the coolest at cocktail parties, but at work, it’s collaborate, conference, cooperate, compete, and coexist.

So why the dearth of social media at this event, unthinkable at something like the AAAS meeting ? I crowdsourced the answer to the Baltimore Tweetup crew , a sub-double digit sample.

[Note: Despite the low numbers, I think the Tweetup was a great success and great fun. We also jammed afterwards; ironically at first, sincerely by the end.]

The main observation:

Physicists just don’t use social media as much as other sciences.

“I use it mostly to follow science outside my field & sci comm”

-Fred Salsbury (@salsb), a professor

“When I first started tweeting I was excited to use it to follow scientists but they were mainly in natural science fields. And while it’s getting better, physicists are still relatively rare on twitter. However, I think we still have a long way to go to get a critical mass of physicists valuing that sort of thing.”

– Sara Callori (@SaraDoesScience), a graduate student

The main thoughts about this:

1. Physicists are old/old fashioned.

“Notice how young tweetupers were?”

– Luke Marshall (@lukegmarshall), a graduate student

“Demographics-wise, I think it spoke well for how future physicists are willing to engage in outreach and with the public…” @SaraDoesScience

“Social media could be used to engage younger people & for outreach; like the popularizing science pages on FB” @salsb

2. Physicists may use it for research purposes but they don’t use it for public outreach or for dialogue about research among physicists.

“Used more as physics tool than outreach & engagement tool. Seems like physicists only like social media when they can write a sociological analysis paper.” @lukegmarshall

“Not really used to discuss or improve the actual research, which I think it’s capable of doing…”

-Ankit Disa (@desi_nerd)…I believe a graduate student.

3. Outreach is viewed as a waste of time, not serious, “female”

“Interesting PLoS One article on how different demographics of physicists see outreach. ” @SaraDoesScience


On Friday morning I attended my second-to-last series of talks, held in the Hilton. Physicists were becoming scarce. It’s a five day meeting, not everyone can handle the whole thing. When I walked down to the lobby, a line of cheerleaders and their families was at the front desk, and growing.

That weekend, I guarantee the Baltimore Convention Center was lighting up the Twitterverse. (Facebook is over, btw.)

One comment on “Antisocial Social Media

  1. Luke
    April 12, 2013

    Reblogged this on Luke G. Marshall and commented:
    Met Kerstin Nordstrom at the APS March Meeting at the Tweetup. Her look at the use of social media in the physics world:

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This entry was posted on April 11, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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