Friday 27 February 2015

Modern Balboas

Balboa. But not the Rocky one
Last week I gave a talk on using social media to support research development at an Association of Research Managers and Administrators training event. The keynote speaker was Andy Miah, professor of science communication and digital media at the University of Salford. His talk was inspiring, exhilarating—and terrifying. He made us all feel like Vasco Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific. The ocean's vast, uncharted waters lay before us, and its huge, untapped potential was awe-inspiring as it glistened in the sunlight.

Most of us have only paddled in the shallows of social media, but Miah exhorted us to cast off from the safety of the shore and head to the deeps. To feel the terror of drowning, before bobbing to the surface and enjoying the freedom of the medium. "If you’re not overwhelmed, you haven’t been paying attention," said Miah. It will be overwhelming and it will be terrifying, but ultimately we all have to take the plunge. The world is changing.

"Ignoring social media today is like ignoring emails in the 1990s," he said. He embedded two films in his talk, the second of which offered up some startling facts: 50 per cent of the world’s people are under 30, and 53 per cent of these ‘millennials’ would rather lose their sense of smell than their technology. To quote Erik Qualman, the author of Socialnomics, "We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media; the choice is in how well we do it."

So how can we make the case to our academics and support them in using social media well? I’ve spoken before in this column about encouraging others to use social media, and about the dangers I’ve experienced in blogging. To make the case, I think we need to show, as Miah did, the potential benefits.

We need to show them Make Paper, which helps academics meet collaborators and co-authors. If they already collaborate but struggle with multiple iterations of a paper, we should show them Google Drive. If they’re curious about research hotspots and lacuna, we should show them JournalMap. We should demonstrate how they can list their outputs at ResearchGate or, or how they can read, cite and reference with Scribd and Mendeley.

If they’re planning events, we should point them towards Lanyrd and EventBrite, and we could suggest using sites such as Polldaddy to carry out surveys. If they take to it, we might even suggest social media ‘aggregators’ such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite, to simplify and streamline their interaction with the virtual world, and automate these interactions with If That Then This or monitor their impact through Klout.

Even in this short list, the options are bewildering and some academics may claim not to have enough time. Miah would answer this by saying first that we don’t have a choice (remember those marching millennials and their devotion to technology) and second that social media used well should actually free up our time to concentrate more effectively on research. There will be less need for the cumbersome toing and froing of emails, of trying to work out which version of a document you’re working on, or having to go to the library to reference a work.

Miah finished by emphasising the need to act. You need to adopt new platforms early in order to get the most from them. This is easier said than done, and after he’d finished I looked around the room at the faces watching in rapt horror. It was just so overwhelming. But it need not be. You don’t have to adopt everything at once. You don’t have to traverse the ocean just yet—or ever. Start small. Explore the Twitter conversations and see how many funders, academics and other research administrators are already there. Tune in to this ‘shadow conversation’ and find out what is happening now and in the near future. As Franklin D Roosevelt said, you’ve nothing to fear but fear itself.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 9 December 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

If you are interested in the potential of social media, how it can be used to support your research and to raise your profile, we’re hosting Dr Nadine Muller on 27 March at 14:30. When she spoke last year she gave a great insight into the benefits she had got from engaging with social media.  If you are planning to come along, do drop Lynne Bennett a line. 

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