Social Software… toys or productivity?

A colleague of mine, Sébastien Paquet, wrote his Computer Science Ph.D. thesis on the benefits of social software for scientists. Sébastien determined through self-experimentation that using social software could improve substantially your network as a scientist. After years as a blogger, I can testify that blogging did improve substantially my network. I also believe it made me a better writer.

  • Better networking: My list of readers shows that I am read by a wide range of people, from famous scientists to entrepreneurs. Considering that, as a scientist, I rarely attend conferences or participate in large-scale projects, I am vastly more connected than I should be.
  • Better writing: When I write research papers or lecture notes, writing well is important, even essential, but the focus is on the scientific results. I find that blogging forces me to focus on writing better. Not to mention that some people criticize my writing publicly: that is a strong incentive to get better!

Secondary benefits include better knowledge management: often I can’t remember something, but I remember writing about it on my blog! However, I find that I am spending more and more time on sites such as facebook, friendfeed and twitter. I am slightly worried that these sites may have lesser benefits for scientists.

  • No better writing: Most of the social software sites require little prose. A lot of the interaction involves no writing at all! And the writting is simply not sophisticated enough to require much effort.
  • No better networking: It is much harder to build long-lasting content on these social sites. Many of the 1000+ subscribers to my blog subscribed because they found at least one blog post interesting. On facebook, I am only a stream of slightly incoherent bits of news.

Conclusion: I will not give up on this blog in the near future, no matter how good twitter or facebook get.

Reference: Aimeur, E. Brassard, G. Paquet, S., Personal knowledge publishing: fostering interdisciplinary communication, 2005.

4 thoughts on “Social Software… toys or productivity?”

  1. Interesting points, Daniel. Twitter certainly does very little to improve your writing although it makes for cheap advertising for your blog postings; and Facebook, well, you can always use it to network with your scientist friends, but it’s probably not the ideal tool to find new people in your domain. Although Groups does give you one way of reaching new people.

    I still haven’t been able to motivate myself to try out Friendfeed.

    OTOH, there is something to be said just to being present on all of these social networks, beyond the “we get it” message that is spreading through the political body at the moment. More of a “I want to interact with other researchers and you can reach me through this or this or this” message. And that too is very important.

  2. Of those 3 tools you mention, FriendFeed is by far the best tool for science related work, from my own experience. It is very good at creating discussions around shared items (blog posts, science articles, etc). One example of how it can be useful is conference reporting. I and others have even benefit directly from this by getting a publication out of a joint collaborative effort to cover a meeting using FrindFeed.

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