08 October 2014

In which the PR guy calls BS on the science people

Welcome to the world of social media metrics
Everyone loves a good "top ten" list, and I'm not just talking about David Letterman.  We like top ten (or top 50, or top 100, or whatever) lists of people - mostly because it gives us an opportunity to judge other people and project our own personal issues and avoid things that really matter.

A few months back, a scientific journal published an article by genomicist Neil Hall about the "K-index," where K stands for "Kardashian." It was a measure of "unearned" popularity among scientists.  It compared a person's number of citations in scientific journals against their number of Twitter followers. 


Some noteworthy scientists  called out some of the article's nonsense. I had something to say about it too.  Science - the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science - responded by publishing not one but two "top scientists on Twitter" lists. 

(By the way, I  note the irony of Neil Hall being better known for his snark on unearned publicity than for his actual work in genomics.)

But here's the thing - the AAAS pieces had some semblance of a "methodology" in developing their lists.  I put methodology in quotation marks because it is full of caveats - including a lack of consensus on the definition of "scientist."

You read that right - Science Magazine's list of "top 50 science stars on Twitter" consists of people who - according to Science Magazine - may or may not be actual scientists.

The thing that bugs me the most about the lists, however, is the reliance on Twitter followers as their anchor metric.   

Social media metrics are daunting as it is, but vanity metrics such as number of likes or followers or even friends don't equate to influence.   For example, more than 150 of my Twitter followers are actually fake.  When Newt Gingrich ran for President, only 8 percent of his million-plus followers were actual people.

If I want a lot of  Twitter followers or Instagram followers, or Facebook friends, or YouTube video views, or blog comments, or blog links, or even search-engine-friendly blog posts,  I can just buy some.

I care much more about the quality of people I engage with on twitter.  I care much more about the kind of information I can get on twitter by following very specific groups of people.  True influence is earned online through candid and effective stakeholder engagement.

So unless you're just publishing click-bait - and I wouldn't be surprised if that's all this was - Don't describe your Twitter list as the "top" anything.  Use these lists as an opportunity to position yourself as a competent curator - someone who recognizes good content and organizes it effectively.  Explain why someone is on it without resorting to numbers anyone can buy.

Saying "this is a list of people I like to follow" also helps people know a little about you. 


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