Other social media mavens at the meeting reported similar concerns. Freelance writer Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug and a Wired blog of the same name, is a frequent tweeter. “This is something I really have a lot of psychic stress about,” she said. “I drift to the computer early in the morning and fall into the Internet rabbit hole.”
McKenna, too, hopes to pare down her twelve-hour home computer workdays by adopting the strategy of turning her social media world off for blocks of time. “It’s simple when I say it, but challenging in practice,” she said.
The growing dominance of digital and social media has consequences not only for the lives of individual journalists but for the profession of science writing as well.
Boyle says that the 24/7 online environment “tends to make science journalism twitchy, which can be bad and also be good. Bad in the sense that the pace of keeping up with information and being so competitive that some may cut corners or not do the due diligence they should.” On the good side, “there are lots of people willing to weigh in as part of an interactive community.”
The NASW panelists praised the informal “peer review” that vigorous global online science communities can quick bring to bear on new research or news stories, quickly sniffing out potential errors, poor science, or poor science writing. Silberman calls it “a rapid response immune system.”
But what about the online audience? Is this a case of preaching to the converted, with like-minded social media science enthusiasts talking to one another?
Just the opposite, contends Zivkovic. “I think we are reaching larger public audiences because of the concentric circles. We tweet and retweet, so it’s spreading information to people who may not be actively seeking science content,” he said. “We are throwing out science to people who would otherwise not know science is cool and fun and interesting and relevant to their lives.” In contrast, he sees dedicated online science media sites as often pulling in the other direction, attracting audiences that are already interested in science.
While many journalists have gotten to know their colleagues online, professional gatherings like the NASW meeting have the added benefit of bringing the virtual and real worlds together. Zivkovic bumped into science journalist Boonsri Dickinson at the conference hotel, and off they went for lunch.
“That was nice. I’ve known her online, on Twitter for more than a year,” he said. “So many people I have met here for the first time in person.”
Note: Twitter handles for the science writers mentioned above are: @BoraZ, @b0yle, @deborahblum, @stevesilberman, @marynmck, @edyong209, and @russellcris. Hashtags for this session at #sciwri11 #sciwrilife. A compilation of ScienceWriters11 tweets can be found at this Purdue University site.