3 Ways for Engineers to Leverage Their Social Media Accounts

illustration of twitter bird over shadow of a man at a desk.
Illustration: Dan Page/The I Spot

By: Dinsa Sachan

Scientists and engineers are increasingly using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to promote their work. Look at Bill Nye. The mechanical engineer, TV and podcast host, and CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye is a Twitter superstar with 5.9 million followers. But can social media benefit regular engineers and academics as well? Yes, it can–once you hit a 1,000-follower threshold on the microblogging site, according to a June 2018 study in the Canadian journal Facets. That’s when your tweets start to reach a broader audience outside your immediate fraternity. If you are thinking of navigating the world of social media sites, here are some ways it can be useful and suggestions to get you started.

Keeping the public informed: While there are plenty of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, to choose from, Twitter seems to be the favorite of the research community and so attracts members of the general public interested in such topics.

Consequently, Twitter can help you counteract fake news in your discipline. Thomas G. Dietterich, an emeritus professor at Oregon State University, specializes in artificial intelligence and machine learning. He has 16,500 followers on Twitter and uses the social media channel for fact-checking misinformation floating around the Internet about AI. “Both media companies and research institutions have incentives to exaggerate the generality and significance of research,” says Dietterich. “If the public does not understand the technology, it may oppose it in situations where it could have great benefit or enthusiastically support it in cases where it could be dangerous.”

You can also use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to publicize your research and achievements. If that’s your goal, you should focus on boosting the number of your followers. “You can do that by joining conversations led by people who have many followers,” says Dietterich. “You also gain followers by posting interesting pieces (e.g., on a blog) and then linking to them from Twitter.”

Making real-world connections: Following and engaging with people you find fascinating on social media can sometimes lead to real-world connections.

When Megan Killian, a biomechanist at the University of Delaware, was looking to use some tools from the field of neurophysiology for her experiments, she started following and interacting with several neuroscientists on Twitter. One of them offered to help her out with her research. Ultimately, they applied for and won a grant together. “If it weren’t on Twitter, I don’t think I would have crossed paths with him,” says Killian.

Twitter can also make it easier to make friends at conferences. Whenever Killian goes to a conference, she puts out feelers on Twitter, asking who is going to be there. It opens up opportunities for her to make some virtual connections before she heads to the meeting. Killian also uses another trick to ignite conversations. She walks up to people whom she recognizes from the site and breaks the ice by saying, “I follow you on Twitter.”

Humanizing yourself: Even people who followed you to get updates on your work appreciate a peek into your personality once in a while. “I do think there’s benefit to being more human on Twitter than just a bot that puts out ‘Our paper came out recently’ and ‘We recently got this grant,’ ” says Killian. “Those announcements are great and should definitely be celebrated. But I think there’s a really great opportunity to use social media like Instagram, Twitter, and even Snapchat to connect with people on a personal level.” For example, don’t hesitate to share some slice-of-life posts about academia.

However, Dietterich says it’s wise to stay focused. “If you want to engage in political commentary or post vacation photos, create separate accounts for those (or maybe go to different platforms),” he says.

This article appears in the September 2019 print issue as “3 Ways to Leverage Your Social Media.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 29 August 2019.