I’ve recently started to spend some time on the question and answer site Quora, and I’m finding it be quite an effective science communication medium as well as excellent writing practice.
I can’t quite remember how I first came to join the site, a couple of years ago; I have a vague memory of all Twitter users being given automatic membership when Quora first started up, or something like that. I do remember poking around for a few minutes, not finding anything terribly interesting, and not returning for a long time.
However, I did somehow* end up subscribed to a weekly “best-of” email. I clicked through a couple of times, and the content I found there seemed to get more interesting over time. These emails survived the recent purge of my bac’n subscriptions (thank you Beth for introducing me to that term!), and I eventually added an answer to the featured question “What’s something that is common knowledge at your workplace, but would be mind-blowing to the rest of us?“. Before I knew it, I was getting votes, comments, and new followers galore – in other words, internet crack.
Having experimented a bit more over the last few months, I’ve found a pretty good balance of topics and people to follow that keeps my home page interesting and entertaining. I’ve had to tweak things a bit – I unfollowed some questions and some of the associated topics that came with them – but it seems to be a site with a good return on investment for this kind of tinkering.
For me, the primary value of the site is that it gives me experience in answering technical questions from non-experts. Writing for non-experts (in the form of lay abstracts for grants and content for our departmental website) is part of my job, but the little feedback I ever get from the target audience takes months to arrive. While serious Quora questions about the biology of cancer and other scientific subjects get much less traffic than threads about Game of Thrones theories and requests for everyone’s favourite puns, the feedback in the form of votes and comments is pretty much immediate, and I think I’ve already improved my non-technical writing as a result. Importantly for my continued participation, I’ve only encountered one user with a truly negative attitude (funnily enough, on a question I’d accidentally answered anonymously, which is an option for all questions and answers) – all my other interactions on the site have been great so far, including the “suggested edits” and other critiques I’ve received.
The primary advantage of practising for the unsolicited lay-language explanations I write at work by answering people’s specific questions is that I start to see some of the disconnects between my understanding of my field and the general public’s. I’ve seen some questions that twist my perception of a topic on its head, and make me look at it in a very different way – the best examples off the top of my head were the questions “Why do all living things have DNA (but rocks don’t?)“ and “What prevents Herceptin from binding to HER2 receptors in regular, non-cancerous cells?“, but there have been others too. And even when the question is more straightforward, seeing the kinds of questions that people have about topics in my field still helps me write better lay abstracts and website content.
I’ve also asked questions about work-related but non-scientific issues on Quora, and received some very helpful answers (most notably on my question “What’s a good way to add a new page to Wikipedia when you have a Conflict of Interest?”); I’ve answered questions about grant writing, non-traditional academic careers, and all kinds of other topics in and around the scientific career path.
I’ve found that answering very specific Quora questions on any topic also helps me break through writer’s block. This is my excuse for all my answers on the topics of Game of Thrones, Friends, X-Files, puns, jokes, and other silly stuff. Yes, it’s still procrastination – even the sciency bits – but it feels like much more productive procrastination than Facebook.
*realised as I was writing this that it was starting to sound a bit like a cult! I swear it’s not. I don’t get to reach a new level of enlightenment if this post encourages other people to check it out, I promise!