Early in 2011, Ichthyologist (fish biologist) Brian Sidlauskas led an expedition to catalogue biodiversity in a remote river in Guyana. His goal was to bring back over 5,000 fish. According to Guyana’s customs laws, in order remove specimens from the country, each must be documented and identified. This presented an obstacle for Sidlauskas, considering the number of specimens he wished to obtain.
To complete this task, Sidlauskas appealed to an unlikely tool: Facebook. Rather than spend months cataloguing and documenting fish, Sidlauskas uploaded all of his photographs to Facebook and tagged researchers from around the world who might be able to help identify the fish. In less than twenty four hours, Sidlauskas and his team were able to identify all 5,000 specimens.
The general proliferation of social media has had interesting implications for scientific research. In addition to cutting cumbersome research corners, social media has also become an important tool for improving scientific literacy.
Until recently, the general public’s access to science has been limited to few channels: thick journals tucked away on library shelves, intimidating research papers, or scientific documentaries on TV.
While documentaries like Planet Earth and magazines such as Scientific American are evidence that, for decades, scientists have attempted to make their areas of expertise more accessible, the scientific community continues to be perceived as inaccessible to many. This issue is not limited to those considering dabbling in the field—even students studying science have struggled to find methods of maintaining an up–to–date understanding of the subject without an excessive time investment.
However, social media has begun to improve the public’s user interface with science. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter are not only changing how scientific discoveries are perceived, they are also making these ideas much more accessible, providing resources by which information is readily available in short, condensed formats, social media allows anyone with even a remote interest in the subject to access this knowledge in a matter of seconds.
The Facebook page ‘I Fucking Love Science’ is one testament to this development. The page describes itself as a “community built for the posting and sharing of scientific updates, quotes… and photographs…dedicated to bringing the amazing world of science straight to your newsfeed in an amusing and accessible way.”
The page features quirky posts accompanied by eye-catching images. Furthermore, each blurb is written in layman’s terms. This is a conscious choice to avoid overburdening the site with scientific terms—or defining them if they must be used—allowing just about anyone to appreciate the information.
The intertwining of social media with science has a good chance to break down the barrier between the public and the scientific community. The web has allowed science to grab the attention of a much larger audience; 1.1 million people ‘like’ the ‘I F***ing Love Science’ page, and the Mars Rover’s Twitter account, @MarsCuriosity, has about 1.2 million followers.
Whether it is a Facebook page dedicated to presenting scientific updates, or funny Tweets by a space rover, this popularization of science has increased interest in people of a variety of ages and backgrounds interested in new discoveries.