Social networks – are they useful or pointless?

This is perhaps an impolite question question to ask in a blog hosted on Nature Network, but I ask in a spirit of enquiry rather than provocation.
I am inspired by an interesting blog post on the Scholarly Kitchen blog that points up the failure of social networking websites to gain many converts in the scientific community. This has been highlighted a few times in recent years so is not surprising. The blog post identifies the problem:

Most networks seem to make two assumptions that doom them to failure: 1) that networking and communication is a central part of a scientist’s day, and 2) that scientists are willing to openly communicate on a wide scale with their communities. The first is a failure of perspective, those building and promoting social networks are “true-believers“, people whose lives revolve around social networking. While communication of results, networking and building collaboration are important for scientists, they’re somewhat peripheral compared to doing actual research. These are things one does in addition to one’s “real” work, performing experiments and seeking funding is often more important as well. Finding collaborators is at best, a sporadic event, not something done often. Any network that asks for regular participation and priority in time and effort will fail for this reason.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I am a bit of a “true believer” – I do join up and try things out. More importantly I think that the social model of information is here to stay. Filtering resource discovery through a network of friends, colleagues or like-minded people is a valuable technique and is something we all do in the real world anyway. Finding a way to do it online is the challenge. I think it will only work when the networks are built into what we already do online, and when there is effectively a single network rather than a series of disconnected networks in different services.
The BBC website also had an article about some new tools for scientists, highlighting the social aspects and mentioning Mendeley, Faculty of 1000 and Google Wave.
Meanwhile, Cell this week has an article)01305-1 about Twitter. They say it has become very popular, yet most scientists are still steering clear of it. The article’s author speaks to some scientists who have found value in tweeting.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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36 Responses to Social networks – are they useful or pointless?

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    As I’ve said before, social networks (with the emphasis on social) need to add value to be taken up. They are competing with meat-space, which is actually much more fun and productive.
    So the community needs to emerge from the tool, rather than the other way round.

  2. Richard Wintle says:

    I thought of a use for Twitter – if someone who is standing in the line for H1N1 vaccination could Tweet about how long the wait is, that would be handy.
    The problem I see with all social networking sites and activities is that they take up time. Time that might be better used doing other things, like experiments, or data analysis. I don’t buy for a second that social networks in general save time by enabling rapid information transfer… the vaccine line-up scenario alluded to above being one possible exception.

  3. Ken Doyle says:

    I’d be curious if there’s a generational trend among scientists, as there is in the general public, i.e., older scientists are less likely to participate.

  4. Richard Wintle says:

    Is it time for me to get my shotgun out and start mumbling about young whippersnappers?
    Young whippersnappers like, um, er… Richard Grant? 😉

  5. Maxine Clarke says:

    Here’s an example of social networking’s usefulness 😉 . I was about to pop in here and note that David Crotty has just blogged on a similar topic. However, I noticed that his blog post at Bench Marks (CSH blog) is bascially just a link, so I clicked on it and found myself at the Scholarly Kitchen blog post from which you quote in your post, Frank (by David Crotty).
    Are social networks populated by the same few people? I keep bumping up against the same names on Friendfeed, twitter, et al.
    One “use” (?) I’ve noted of social networks is in ganging up on people/organisations, eg Jean Moir of the Daily Mail, Amazon, chiropractors, etc. Another is “gesture politics” ie adding logos and colours to your icon. There was some interesting discussion at the recent Oxford Social Media conference about the Iran election, for example, and how the authorities had arrested opponents based on tracing their social networking contacts (apparently there are people from varoius authorities posing as dissidents, opponents etc on the networks).
    All rather spooky.
    But, as usual, I’d say don’t blame the medium for the message. Probably people have had these same conversations about the phone, the horse and carriage and the wheel. I guess it all boils down to human nature.

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    Maxine, yes.
    And Richard \/\/, are you actually older than me or do you just act it?

  7. Maxine Clarke says:

    “Same few people”….also the same people as are quoted in the Cell piece.
    “gesture politics” … as substitute for actual action (as was discussed in a panel at Oxford). And how many green faces and NHS icons are left on twitter now? I suppose it is the modern equivalent of Lifeboat or Poppy week.

  8. Maxine Clarke says:

    Although is there a box with a slot in the top for the pennies, on Twitter?

  9. Frank Norman says:

    @Maxine – I think that “ganging up” is rather a loaded term. I’d say that the networks allow for rapid expression of views; they don’t create those views. Just because 20,000 people have a similar view on an issue does not mean they have been brainwashed in some way into having that view.
    @Ken – the post linked to mentions “Generation F” (for Facebook) scientists, but suggests that graduate students may have the least to offer a social network – they have less knowledge, experience and influence. “Those most likely to participate are the least valuable to other network members”. I was a bit surprised by that assertion.
    @Richard G – I agree with you, but I’m more interested in the network than in the networking sites. I want to be able to bring along my network along with me to any website that I visit, and to call up a network view of that site. My network would be categorised into collections of contacts of different kinds, not just an amorphous lump of “friends”.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    I thought Crotty’s piece (in Scholarly Kitchen) was pretty close to the mark. Most scientists I know have little to do with social media, although it is growing. I don’t see it as a core activity. But blogging and tweeting are nevertheless useful complements to the business of doing research, since it allows me to fulfil some of my public engagement duties. And I have also found that it has made me more outward-looking as a scientist.
    Maxine – there is for sure a tendency for ‘gesture politics’ on Twitter, largely because it’s so easy. But I would like to think that even by reading and re-tweeting, some people are becoming more informed citizens and might, just might, be spurred to action.

  11. Henry Gee says:

    I think it’s too easy to make generalizations. Social networking might not be very productive for some scientists in some situations, but there are occasions when it is extremely useful. For example, I have, in my off-piste capacity as editor of Hobbitmonger Mallorn , the Journal of the Tolkien Society, set up a Facebook ‘Page’ for the journal to which people can subscribe as ‘fans’. Quite a few Tolkienistas have subscribed, and it’s a great way for me to get feedback, as well as offer books I’ve received to anyone who might want to review them for the Journal. I guess that we used to use Usenet groups for this sort of thing, but it’s an ideal use for something like FB.
    One might also imagine that small communities of scientists (people in a single large laboratory) might use a ‘closed’ Yahoo Group, or similar, to share news, ideas, links and so on (that was the idea behind Connotea, I guess), which is social networking, of a kind.
    They are competing with meat-space, which is actually much more fun and productive
    Speak for yourself. I don’t get invited to that kind of party.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    I would only, ever, presume to speak for myself, Henry.

  13. Alejandro Correa says:

    In my particular case, I always speak for myself. I care less one cucumber that no responding my comments.
    As if my life depended!

  14. Maxine Clarke says:

    Yes, it was a loaded term. I found some of it really distasteful, particularly the language used about Moir – I unsubscribed from quite a few twitter accounts on that basis.
    The “gesture politics” also has a really scary side which was a shock to me – see Evgeny Morozov’s articles and Oxford Social Media convention.
    But I agree of course there are lots of positive ways in which scientists use social networks, as we’ve discussed here many times. I admit to playing a bit of a devil’s advocate in this conversation for some variety.
    But clearly, nobody would doubt that it is a minority interest. Yet?

  15. Kristi Vogel says:

    as well as offer books I’ve received to anyone who might want to review them for the Journal
    Wow, that came perilously close to inducing me to join Facebook.
    Close, but no Valar ….

  16. Richard Wintle says:

    I liked Alejandro’s cucumber comment. 🙂
    I was, of course, stirring the pot a bit. I’ve found social networks entertaining (Flickr; no, it’s not a photo sharing site, it’s a social network with pictures), frustrating but of some obvious utility (Facebook), and as noted, potentially very helpful indeed (Twitter, although as Maxine didn’t exactly say above, the phone or text messaging would work just as well in a lot of cases, at least for one-on-one communication).
    And Richard \/\/, are you actually older than me or do you just act it?
    I think we’ve had this discussion before but I don’t remember. I was born in 1967, one hundred years after Canada became Canada, sort of, at least most of it. Actually not most of it, just small bits. Not including me, obviously.

  17. Maxine Clarke says:

    I was born one hundred years ago, Richard.

  18. Frank Norman says:

    @Maxine – that’s the great thing about networks like Twitter. If you don’t like what someone says then you can disengage from them, stop following them. They retain the right to say hurtful things, but shouldn’t expect others to want to read them. Just as Jan Moir now knows that many people don’t want to read what she wrote.

  19. Maxine Clarke says:

    Sure, Frank – and I would never even have heard of Jan Moir or anything about what she wrote if I hadn’t been a member of twitter 😉
    I do find this “retweeting” a bit of a bore on twitter, though – you see a tweet and then instantly about 4 retweets of the same thing. Also, these “follow fridays” are a bit irritating. And people who twitter tens and even hundreds of times a day about everything they do including “live tweeting” of all the TV programmes they watch. I can see that being 100 and being on twitter don’t really go together!

  20. Alejandro Correa says:

    If you don’t like what someone says then you can disengage from them, stop following them
    In my case, I am interested in feedback from true friends. Over more interesting things. Create a good friendship. That is all.

  21. Henry Gee says:

    Maxine, you always told me you were 150.
    And I was born in 1962, the year in which Hairspray was set, and in which Sam Cooke recorded Twistin’ The Night Away. On vinyl.

  22. Alejandro Correa says:

    Henry – sounds like devil’s advocate, I want your opinion:
    If you don’t like what someone says then you can disengage from them, stop following them
    ¿Or am I wrong?

  23. William Gunn says:

    Email – Is it useful or pointless?
    The telephone – Is it useful or pointless?
    When thousands of scientists use social networks for various purposes daily, aren’t we past this, really?

  24. Eva Amsen says:

    On Twitter you can now sort your contacts in lists, like you can do on Facebook. I LOVE pigeonholing people like that, and sorting my friends into people I know from here or there, and on how interesting they are, etc. Only I haven’t used the Twitter lists because they’re public, and it’s nobody’s business how I mentally sort people in my head.

  25. Frank Norman says:

    @William – Your point is well made. There are many scientific users of social networks. But they are still a small fraction of the potential users. I don’t think we have the structure right to encourage the majority to take advantage of these networks.
    @Eva – I agree Twitter lists look interesting. When you create a new list it gives an option for it to be private, though I haven’t tried it yet.

  26. Alejandro Correa says:

    In other words, Henry, you think is a reasonable person ¿what is your opinion of this?:
    If you don’t like what someone says then you can disengage from them, stop following them

  27. Alejandro Correa says:

    Is no important Henry, but I don’t want to force (compromise) him to you.
    But I think Mr. Norman has not matured.
    Es decir “Le faltan huevos”.

  28. Frank Norman says:

    Alejandro – I don’t understand that comment.

  29. Alejandro Correa says:

    Frank: I think, that must always be open to comments on a social network if the person is a fool or the the idiots’ king, you can answer without being rude.
    Especially if you know the person is always interacting, that is not a person outside the network.
    However, sometimes we are wrong. That is all.

  30. Alejandro Correa says:

    Do not think there is so much wickedness in the network, something like that Hitler rose again and became a friend of Jack the Ripper and persecute at me by social networks. Also many times I saw the movie “The Born Supremacy” now I see invisible on my computer microphones and The Orcs and the Troll’s chase me in my nightmares.

  31. Farhat Habib says:

    Personally, I do have quite a few of my scientist friends on social networks, especially Facebook. Now, what you may be alluding to is the lack of scientist only social networks but I see little reason for them to catch on. Do we see movie-performaers’ only social networks or accountants only scial networks? What makes scientists that special?

  32. Alejandro Correa says:

    I answer you Farhat, be political and blah-blah!

  33. Frank Norman says:

    Farhat – I think it comes down to what a social network is. We use the term to denote a range of different sites with different mixtures of functions – people profiles, publishing, discussion, information sharing. If you use the social network for reading and discussion about science, then there may be an advantage in knowing that a particular site is devoted to science.
    Interesting to see that NIH are putting some money into developing some social networking for science.

  34. Joost Hoogstrate says:

    Connecting like-minded people and bringing them together under a common platform is an extremely powerful way to get things done. When people with similar interests and goals join hands together towards a particular goal, almost anything can be achieved. The power of synergy works perfectly in a group environment which ensures that the outcome is much greater than the sum of the individual efforts put into the endeavor. We run a global sustainability directory called Climatarians, where we bring together people of similar interests under one single roof.

  35. jafir khan says:

    I think it will only work when the networks are built into what we already do online, and when there is effectively a single network rather than a series of disconnected networks in different services.
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