Posted by Rory on January 13th, 2011 @ 11:17 am
In the last post I reviewed social networking sites specifically aimed at scientists, and in the post before that I looked at how scientists are using general purpose social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. In this post I’d like to look ahead and ask, where is the innovation in social networking for scientists likely to come from: general purpose sites, sites aimed specifically at scientists, or new services which don’t yet exist?
Existing social networking sites for scientists
As I noted in the last post, no significant new social networking sites for scientists have been established since the initial rush in 2008, and the existing sites have their hands full trying to satisfy their users and build out existing features. Based on the incremental changes they have been introducing to their sites, and the conversations that they are involved in — on blogs, in Twitter, in the press — there are no indications that any of the existing providers are planning major innovations.
Existing general purpose social networking sites
More innovation is coming from existing general purpose social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter than from sites specifically aimed at scientists. Some of this innovation is relevant to scientists and some is not. The recent introduction of Facebook’s new messaging system is an example of innovation which is not relevant to scientists, because Facebook is not heavily used for scientific discussions.
Twitter, unlike Facebook, is extensively used by some scientists — an admittedly small group compared to all the scientists out there — to discuss their work, trends in their fields, and ‘real time’ things like what is happening at a conference they are attending. A major question is whether this small group are early adopters who are pointing to the way scientific communication will be carried out in future, or, as argued in this post, an unrepresentative group of techies, open science proponents and bloggers who will always be outside the mainstream. Only time will tell, but a recent study, If you build it, will they come? How researchers perceive and use web 2.0, concluded that an increasing percentage of scientists(13% of those surveyed) are adopting web 2.0 services (to be clear, this was a general conclusion not related to Twitter in particular) as a regular part of their working lives, and provided evidence of varying kinds that web 2.0 tools are moving into the mainstream. This tends support to the view that innovations in ‘social’ applications like Twitter that are used by large numbers of scientists will be put to use in scientific communication as ways of communicating continue to evolve.
New general purpose social networking sites
The rapid uptake of scientists asking and answering questions relating to science, including detailed and technical scientific questions, on Quora, is an example of a new general purpose social networking site quickly finding a role in scientific communication, notwithstanding the plethora of other forums which scientists have already been using to ask and answer questions, and the ability to do that on specialized scientific networking sites like ResearchGATE. Since not many general purpose social networking sites find an ongoing role, and of those not many will be relevant to scientific communication, it’s not likely that Quora’s example will be repeated regularly, but it is an indication that general innovations in social media can be relevant to scientists and that scientists can be among the early adopters of these innovations.
New science-specific social networking sites
Since no significant scientific social networking sites have been established since the first generation sites came on the scene in 2008, it is hard to say with any certainty what kind of innovation is likely to come from the next generation, when it does arrive. But given the relentless waves of innovation occurring in the way research is being undertaken and ‘packaged’ it is would be highly surprising if some of these did not find their way into a second generation of social networking sites aimed at scientists. This month two important gatherings, Science Online 2011 and Beyond the PDF, will be hosting discussions about a number of innovations which are already taking place or emerging. These gatherings are fertile ground for pointers to the kinds of capabilities scientists will be looking for in social networking sites.