the sun did not shine.
it was too wet to play.
so we sat in the house
all that cold, cold, wet day.
i sat there with sally.
we sat there, we two.
and i said, ‘how i wish
we had something to do!’
and then I thought
‘oh hang on, I could blog about the 23 things!’
(sorry, Doctor Seuss, for taking The Cat in the Hat in vain)
I just signed up for the 23things um… ‘thing’ on the University of Surrey Researcher Development Programme (check out http://23thingssurrey.wordpress.com/) which is intended as a training and reflective course for finding out about how to engage with online tools and social media as a researcher. So I thought I would reflect on social media, public engagement and associated um… ‘things’. (Note: thing 1 and thing 2 are chaotic little critters in the book, I do hope the allusion is not intentional…)
Twitter is really useful in my research, I find lots of handy papers which my Google Scholar alerts don’t necessarily pick up, and I have connected with people with similar or overlapping research interests from all kinds of places. I met social geographer Simon Cook on Twitter (@SimonIanCook jographies.wordpress.com) and aside from having some very interesting discussions about what our research has in common (he researches running), we have even managed to obtain funding for some interdisciplinary workshops about running (coming soon, VERY exciting!) which should lead to even more useful networking and collaboration. Twitter has a bit of a learning curve while you get your head round how hashtags work and how to follow people and so on, but it definitely seems worth it to me, I’ve had some interesting conversations on there with people I would never have met in real life, some of them quite eminent in my field. Hopefully I didn’t make a total idiot of myself in the process but hey, it comes naturally to me.
Twitter is also great for when you want to find out about conferences, workshops and other training and networking opportunities you would struggle to find out about otherwise. The only downside of Twitter (apart from getting sucked into academics’ cat photos, yes there really is a hashtag for that) is that when you follow a bunch of physical activity researchers and advocates you feel guilty whenever you sit down. Picture the scene: you sit down, open your laptop and check Twitter quickly. Twitter SCREAMS at you: ‘YOU SAT DOWN! DON’T YOU KNOW THAT SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING? YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!’ So my advice is to only check Twitter if you are standing up or have just come back from a run! Overall though, being on Twitter has been a very positive experience for me as a PhD researcher.
Blogging: well as you can see I have a research blog. It’s a bit random, but then so am I sometimes. I’ve used bits and pieces from it in my writing and other things and so far it’s been useful to reflect on things like transcription, literature handling, participant recruitment and the general messiness of research. Writing using an informal setting like a blog is pretty easy, you don’t have to spend hours fitting into tight word counts or making your prose all academic-y. See, you can even use words like ‘academic-y’. My blog, my rules! It’s a good way of having a bit of a mind dump of different research related stuff which you can then refer back to, it’s been surprisingly useful to me already I think. I should probably blog more often though. I don’t really use this blog to connect with other people, but somehow having it public rather than private gives it a bit more interest for me, I’m not sure why. I have another blog about my first study on beginner runners which has proven quite useful in having a resource with a bit more information to point people towards. Sometimes people don’t want to be bombarded with lots of information in an email, but give them a link and they can go and explore further if they fancy. I’m hoping once I have some results to talk about I can use it as something of a platform for disseminating research as well. You can find it here: https://runningcommentarystudy.wordpress.com/
Other social media: I’ve found facebook quite useful for finding people who may be able to give me access to participants and I’ve made a few handy connections on there. I don’t tend to use it that much though. And I really wish my mum would stop sending me friend requests… I also spend time on a running related website, I’ve met lots of people on there over the years and have made some real life friends on there, and I’ve also made a few connections for my research via the site.
I am also on ResearchGate, and although I haven’t had any of my research published yet (the downside to longitudinal research!), hopefully when I do it will be a good way of engaging with other researchers. I follow a couple of people on there and have found it an excellent way of tracking down a few papers I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I haven’t used academia.eu as, well, I have enough trouble just keeping up with one research-related portal let alone two. I’m on LinkedIn, but I can’t quite get over how aggressively corporate it seems. I’m probably doing it an injustice though, the other day I was chatting about participant recruitment to my electrician (yes, I’m that obsessed) and he recommended it as a good route if I want to find companies who might be willing to engage with my research. I should probably take the plunge there…
I’ve also done some public engagement stuff in person, in the format of talks and so on. If you are passionate about your research, have an interesting subject people can relate to and don’t mind getting up and talking, there are lots of opportunities available to you as a researcher. I’ve done two talks at Cafe Scientifique http://www.cafescientifique.org/ which is a nice, informal venue for talking about science (and social science) to a general, interested audience. You don’t usually have a Powerpoint or anything (though they vary), and they are usually held in a pub or a cafe or similar place. You stand up and chat about research-related stuff for about half an hour or so, people can stick their hand up and ask questions at any time, and at the end the audience have an opportunity to ask even more questions. It can be very interactive and a lot of fun, I really enjoyed doing both the ones I’ve done. It’s also a great opportunity to translate your research into some fundamental principles and working out how to communicate your research to a general audience is a good way to practice for conference presentations, teaching and generally standing up in front of a load of people and talking to them, without too much pressure. If you have a cafe scientifique near you and fancy giving it a bash, just email your local branch, they’re often looking for speakers. Better still, pop along and have a look at how it works while checking out someone else’s talk, it’s a really unscary way to talk about your research.
Talking of standing up, I also did some stand up comedy about my research in the form of Bright Club http://www.brightclub.org/ Bright Club takes researchers and puts them in front of a (lovely, sympathetic) audience to talk about their research for 8 minutes whilst (hopefully) making the research sound funny. The support is excellent: we had a brilliant training session showing us microphone technique, giving us useful tips and giving us a chance to practice being silly in front of people, we were given a book about stand up comedy to swot up on, and we had a rehearsal just before the show to run through our sets and iron out any problems.
I chose to talk about why questionnaires are not always the best way of finding out what you want to know (part of the reason why I did fieldwork), only I concentrated on some of the ridiculous stuff which arises from both questionnaires and from my research (I have particular issues with ‘the Felt Arousal Scale’…) It was both terrifying and fun, like many of the best learning experiences. Some people laughed (the rest was frankly a bit of a blur) but I think it went OK. The other researchers were all brilliant and I laughed my head off at their sets, the professional comedians who were interspersed with the researchers were fantastic, and the audience all seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves. If you are a researcher and you get the opportunity to do Bright Club, I would recommend it as a thoroughly scary yet extremely rewarding experience (and nobody minds if you swear a bit, bonus). If nothing else, it certainly makes it much easier to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and chat to them!
So there you go, those are my (limited) experiences to date of social media tools and public engagement. There is bound to be much more to come, it’s not like researchers can hide in a cupboard sending ink-splattered papers by carrier pigeon to academic journals for the rest of the century. The big scary world is out there wanting to know about our research, and we need to engage with it. It might even be fun…