Social Media for Academics
This page provides a brief description of some of the most popular social media sites that are used for academic collaboration, although there are many more. If you plan to use any social media in your work, please read the University's social media guidelines. These contain useful guidance on using social media successfully and avoiding pitfalls.
A wiki is a simple website that allows the creation and editing of interlinked web pages via a web browser, and can be used collaboratively by groups of users.
A wiki is a useful way for a multidisciplinary research group to discuss a topic, plan a meeting or share ideas for a grant proposal. Unlike with email, all contributions on a topic are kept together and in order. All University of Exeter staff are welcome to use the Bridging the Gaps Wiki.
Facebook presents both an opportunity and a potential hazard for academic research and education. Before considering setting up a work-related Facebook account, University of Exeter staff need to consult the University's guidance on using Facebook and contact the Web Team to discuss their requirements.
The registration process is straightforward: you will be asked to provide a link to your email account so that Facebook can match your contact list with its records and suggest people to virtually make friends with. You will also be asked for basic profile information, such as where you went to school and work. Be aware that these are the types of questions also used by banks for security and you don't have to provide a full profile. Uploading a picture of yourself is also optional.
From there you have the ability to create groups and 'fan pages' to collaborate with colleagues. Groups are recommended as they allow you to share comments, ideas and photos. However, if you wish to promote a project or research interest, try a fan page. These tend to be used as sources of corporate information, where fans of a site can leave comments, promote and discuss a product or service. They also allow you to draw on your followers as a 'crowd sourcing engine'. The University of Exeter has an official fan page. Such corporate presences have the same functionality as social pages, but the presentation is more formal and focussed.
In the world of social media platforms, few compare to Twitter in terms of sheer scope and appeal. This microblogging site began in 2006 and has since exploded in popularity, with a staggering number of guides available on how to use Twitter for your business or organisation. If you are looking for like-minded colleagues for an academic project, Twitter is a useful database of people summed up with astounding brevity. You can use the search function without being a member, but to really get the most out of it, you have to contribute to discussions, provide a source of unique information and most importantly adhere to the mechanics of Twitter.
How does it work?
Say you wanted to promote a research conference and you have a Twitter account: you could 'tweet' a message to your followers saying "[subject] conference on 23rd October". This is sent to account-holders who have chosen to follow you. They may in turn spread the message to their followers by 're-tweeting' (or 'rt') until people all over the world know about your conference. This is called 'viral marketing', since the message spreads like a virus. Of course you would be unlikely to advertise an academic conference this way, but this illustrates how you can reach a meaningful audience for your announcement.
Twitter is like a megaphone, but you have to turn it in the right direction towards the right audience and then prove yourself as a valuable source of information ('crowd sourcing'). You need to give advice, opinions, describe your interests and provide links to web pages with related content.
Why use Twitter?
Before you do anything else it is important to stop and write down what you want to use Twitter for; define your purpose, either in detail, as a few brief bullet points or a diagram, considering:
- What do I want from Twitter? To learn? To mine a new educational and research resource? To make new connections with like-minded academics? For fun?
- How am I going to engage with Twitter? Will I proactively seek out followers to exchange knowledge with? Follow others but not reciprocate? Engage as a one-off for a meet up? There are a number of different approaches, but it is important to give this some careful thought because as in real life, once you start building a reputation online it can be quite challenging to change.
- Again, the University asks staff to read the official guidance on Twitter and to contact the Web Team before setting up an account related to work. The University also has a Twitter account with the ID @uniofexeter, which staff can use to send tweets.
Can Twitter help break down communication barriers between academics in different disciplines? It is a whole new way of communicating; one that requires brevity and clarity of posts to be successful. Describing a complex method in 140 characters would not be an easy feat.
Here's a useful video from 2008 on the basics - somewhat dated, but the mechanics of Twitter have largely remained the same. Note that hash tags (#) are used to participate in conversations on particular themes.
Academia.edu is built on the Facebook model of social networking, but geared towards academic researchers. You can update your status with information about what you are doing or current events that may be of interest to others; but this is not the place to discuss what you had for breakfast this morning. You can upload one photo of yourself only and there is no inbox or chat functionality. However, you can upload, track and download academic papers. Some of these can be followed as they are being written, with academics asking for peer reviews of drafts of papers. The ability to download academic papers for free surely means this website should be actively promoted to students.
You can also pose questions to your followers in much the same was as you can on Twitter; however, you can expect much longer answers as there is much higher character limit. You can easily invite colleagues to the site and by filling out your profile in detail, you can create an easy road map for potential future collaborations and also stay in touch with previous colleagues.
One drawback is the rather bland activity stream. This means that Academia.edu misses the point of a social network, which is not to flood the individual with all their selected peers' content, but to learn from the user's interaction with the software to highlight content that is of interest to them. Even selecting key areas of research in your profile does nothing to alter the stream.
LinkedIn is a social networking website aimed at professionals. Users can add people as contacts and send them messages, update their personal profiles to notify contacts about their activities, and both recommend and be recommended by contacts for their professional skills. Users can join groups to communicate with others in their field and can ask and answer questions related to their area of work, making LinkedIn potentially useful for academic collaboration. For more details, see the University's guide to LinkedIn.
Although it is early days, this is a promising new social network with an array of inbuilt features, such as multiple-person video conversations, that may see it challenge Facebook for dominance of the social media landscape.
Not so much a social network, Mendeley is more a useful tool for academic papers, notes and draft work. You can store any text and image-based file in this programme. It has a very similar interface to iTunes, with local storage of information and the ability to synch your library of digital papers across multiple computers. The ability to email multiple papers from this to colleagues is particularly useful.
Researchgate is the social network for scientists, in a similar vein to Academia.edu but without the useful grouping feature to bring individuals from your department together. Also, although you can publish abstracts from papers and journal articles, few do, and you can't download whole articles. But apart from these two drawbacks, it is solid and useable platform.
You can find colleagues by inputting their emails (as in Facebook), create and track conferences (similar to Facebook events), search for conferences, view the speakers and sessions and contact the organisers to request more information. The activity stream is of a higher quality then the Academia.edu model and can provide more specialised information for individual users, narrowing down what updates you see. The status bar and question functionality is combined, but there is a severe character limit for replies and comments. You can update your profile with awards, grants, societies and journal memberships, find and apply for jobs and recruit staff.
Dropbox is one of several web-based file hosting services, which allow you to access your documents from anywhere and share them easily. It uses cloud computing and is particularly useful for sharing files that are too large to email and for accessing documents when working in different locations.
Dropbox initially allows you up to 2GB of storage for free, but you can gain up to 8GB by referring others to Dropbox.
myExperiment is a social networking site for scientists primarily built around sharing scientific workflows and providing peer review and feedback for these documents.
The setup procedure is remarkable simple with just name, email and password creation - then you can begin delving through the shared stockpile of scientific workflows. You can create a more in depth profile by adding locations, work details and a brief summary of your work, as well as uploading a profile picture.
The key features of myExperiment are:
- Ease of signing up and profile creation
- RSS feed for site announcements
- Facebook style newsfeed
- Small in social networking terms, under 5000 users (as of 09/2011)
- You can create digital versions of your scientific workflow
- Largest public repository of scientific workflow and linked data using tags
- Receive reviews of your workflow and review others' workflows
- Create wish lists of works internal to your documents and distribute among the sites' data packs. This works similar to the Amazon wish list function, allowing you to browse workflows and then decide how to organise them later.
- Create groups with private memberships
- Discussion groups
- View your timeline of interactions to help assess your own development
- Browse other users for potential research collaboration opportunities
Elgg boasts a powerful data model engine for constructing customer and client based social media networks. It features excellent integration with existing API, allowing the creation of unique modules for your individual purpose. However this also proves to be a slight wrinkle, as normal PHP threads of 8 or 12M are insufficient for Elgg. On balance the software does boast excellent activity stream functionality, and user management is also exceptionally well developed. Couple the competency level of this software with the open source nature of the product and you have a powerful corporate networking tool.
Innocentive is a market model of problem solving, which works by offering a cash reward for a solution to your problems. The commercial, government and non-profit aspects focus on engaging with technology as a means of global collaborative problem solving - very much in the spirit of the Bridging the Gaps project, but not necessarily as an academic resource.
The basic procedure is as follows: you create a post detailing a challenge or problem you need a solution for. Your post is labelled in the marketplace along with an appropriate award you decide upon for the solution to your challenge. If you receive no suitable resolutions you keep your reward. You pay one person for their successful solution.