Examining the Social Science

Using Twitter to make science more accessible to people from all walks of life.

Millions of years ago, the Tyrannosaurus rex now entertaining visitors to Chicago’s Field Museum was a ferocious, meat-eating carnivore, able to tear prey limb from limb.

But today, SUE the T. Rex—named after the fossil hunter who found her—is a more social dinosaur. Using Twitter, she shares pictures of fans, posts interesting science facts, and regularly encourages Chicago’s many sports teams.

And she does it all with a sense of humor. For example, when a recent study suggested that dinosaurs like her didn’t use their arms much, SUE took to Twitter to defend her species.

SUE is one of the Field Museum’s biggest draws, both in and out of cyberspace. According to one Twitter metric, SUE’s tweets have an average engagement rate of 2.6 percent, more than double the average rates of most large brands. But her popularity does not surprise Brad Dunn, the Web and digital communications director for the Field Museum.

“For most people, science is cool, but it doesn’t play an academic role in their lives,” he says. “SUE is popular because she fulfills peoples’ scientific curiosity and interest and has a lot of fun with her followers while doing it.”

SUE is also of interest to EDC’s Daniel Light. In an effort to understand the role that social media can play in promoting informal scientific discourse and discovery, Light has studied Twitter interactions and conversations among scientific institutions (including the Field Museum) and their followers for the past two years.

"Twitter is a way for people to keep alive the passion for science and learning that they felt as kids."– Daniel Light

His research confirms Dunn’s observations: many citizen scientists are using the social media platform to delve deep into the topics that interest them.

“Social media is a low-cost way for research institutions to engage the public in scientific exploration, especially in a time when science news largely goes uncovered by the press,” says Light. “Twitter is a way for people to keep alive the passion for science and learning that they felt as kids. Museums can really foster that.”

Science institutions are increasingly using Twitter to bring science news to the public. photo: NASA

Creating links to science

Along with EDC colleagues Michelle Cerrone and Noah Goodman, Light examined the Twitter interactions among five science organizations—the Cleveland Zoo, NASA, the American Museum of Natural History, NOAA, and the Field Museum—and their combined 15 million followers worldwide. The research team wanted to learn how people were interacting with museums, aquariums, and research institutions, as well as how they were using Twitter to examine scientific questions of personal interest.

Called Twitter and Informal Science Learning and Engagement (TwISLE), the research project was the first-ever National Science Foundation-funded study of the role of social media in fostering informal science engagement.

The EDC team found that the Twitter followers of these organization largely fell into one of two distinct groups: those who used Twitter to share and discuss science-related material and those who used Twitter simply to follow science news. Followers represented all types of people—including amateur scientists, teachers, professional engineers, and hobbyists, as well as people who did not work in science-related fields.

Goodman believes that the results of the study can help inform museums’ use of social media. He recommends that science institutions share content that builds a connection between their followers and the scientific work of the institution. This can be as simple as recruiting scientists, researchers, and museum curators to talk about their research and findings on Twitter. Or, as in the case of SUE, it can involve a bit of scientific humor and fantasy.

“Twitter is a place where scientists, science enthusiasts, and others with little connection to the science world can all converse about things that matter to them,” says Goodman. “It can feel very personal.”

Citizen scientists turn to Twitter to discuss topics of interest, from butterfly species to supernovae.

Making science social

Light says that the team focused its study on Twitter because, unlike content on other social media sites, individual tweets and interactions are publicly available for research and can be readily collected for analysis.

But scouring the millions of 140-character messages for evidence of scientific engagement was a challenge. If a user retweeted content from a museum, was that evidence of engagement? The research team began to consider a larger question: how do you measure the amount of scientific discussion in a single tweet?

“We wanted to capture the more personal experience that people have with social media, and learn about who they follow, what they tweet about, and why,” says Light. “So we decided to go small and speak directly with some of the followers of the science organizations we were studying.”

The interviews yielded some interesting stories. For example, one amateur butterfly collector spoke about posting an image of a butterfly that she could not identify on social media. Within hours, her Twitter connections had provided a correct identification.

These personal interviews also helped inspire a survey to find out about followers’ motivations in following certain Twitter accounts, interest in various science topics, and perceptions about their use of Twitter. The team also performed a text analysis of many tweets and eventually developed a system for categorizing the content and level of engagement—something Light hopes other researchers use to further social science research of social media.

All those interviews helped shed light on the popularity of the Field Museum’s most famous inhabitant—at least on Twitter.

“Trilobites and fossils get hits," laughs Light. “It’s as simple as that.”