Trust in the Twitterverse

WEEK IN REVIEW / by Evan Lerner /

With the world scrambling to cover the recent devastating Haitian earthquake, journalists, neuroscientists, and everyone in between are testing the frontiers of social media.

Today, down in the descriptively named Research Triangle in North Carolina, more than 250 scientists, journalists, bloggers, programmers, and multi-hyphenated combinations thereof are planning the future of science communication on the web. (Practicing what it preaches, the conference has provided a wiki and an iPhone app as its go-to sources for information.)

Organized by a number of our own ScienceBloggers, among others, SciOnline’s multifarious panels and discussions touch on everything from the eminently practical to the deeply philosophical. But the overall takeaway is clear: Scientific information is fundamental to our society, so we might as well get really good at connecting it with the dominant communication medium of the foreseeable future. 

Sadly, the timing is perfect. On Tuesday, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. While the major news organizations struggled to get people on the scene, the world was already using social media sites—notably, Facebook and Twitter—for on-the-ground accounts and to organize aid donations. While cellular service quickly became overloaded and spotty, it enabled international communication that would have otherwise crumbled along with so much of the city’s physical infrastructure.

Whether these web-based communication tools were actually useful to the affected Hatians, as Curtis Brainard at CJR discussed on Wednesday, the impact on journalists is becoming increasingly clear. With each new disaster or emergency, these tools are being tested as supplements to—or potential replacements for—a news infrastructure that still bears a remarkable resemblance to the one that covered the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. Communication professionals send video, audio, and textual accounts from the scene, but have a disorganized-at-best way of receiving and compiling them from others.

That infrastructure is certainly in the process of evolving, though it is with the usual fits and starts. Other recent examples of social media experiments in news-gathering and dissemination included the Fort Hood shootings and Iran’s contested elections of last year. Web-savvy citizens may have beaten news organizations to the punch in using such tools in those cases; the latter seem to have learned their lesson for this disaster

But while such social crises and upheavals are primarily understood through a political lens, natural disasters require a scientific one as well. CNN may be able to fly Anderson Cooper into Haiti at the drop of a hat, but I’ve yet to see any of his contemporaries provide the kind of tectonic analysis that Chris Rowan posted at Highly Allochthonous within a few hours of the news.

What ScienceBlogs—and blogging in general—lacks in helicopters it makes up with a network of people and skill sets that are much broader than those traditionally employed by media organizations. When dealing with a subject matter that requires as much expertise as science, that fact is especially pertinent. Indeed, PBS MediaShift’s Andria Krewson recently held up Science Online as role model for the future of media specialists of all stripes. 

Science is a great model for examining the future of news, as it’s one of the few modern beats that actually involve real news: The very practice of science revolves around the production of knowledge heretofore unknown by anyone.

While scientists may expect, and even promote, journalistic coverage of their work, it doesn’t need to be publicly disseminated to be valuable. It does need to be privately disseminated, however. And by contrasting how new media tools are being used in the highly public realm of journalism with the historical privately realm of science, we’re getting at the core of their potential.

While this column was on break over the holidays, Nature Reviews Neuroscience published a great editorial on the need for the field to recognize and reward its members who take findings beyond their scientific community out to the world at large. Ironically, the editorial is behind a paywall but the key concepts therein are fostering “trust, reciprocity, and transparency” between researchers and the public. As the authors say, “Everyone has a stake in understanding how the brain works.”

The authors helpfully provide a table of pros and cons of participation in several forms of social media, including blogs, Twitter, and online discussion forums, among others. But it should be clear to anyone with even a passing familiarity with such media which factor will ultimately determine the success of similar communication efforts. The Nature authors certainly do: It’s trust.

Within the world of peer review, trust is conferred via the proxy of Impact Factor and other similar metrics. Those metrics are by no means infallible, but there’s little to replicate the function they serve online, at least not yet. As virtual reality guru Jaron Lainer suggests in his new book You are Not a Gadget, the diffuse and distributed nature of internet content is driving down quality because “drive-by anonymity” is so easy.

This might explain why a Twitter hoaxes about Haitian aid spread as fast as legitimate (and highly effective) SMS-based donation drives. Or why a specious paper in a no-impact journal regarding the safety of GM crops is a top story on Digg and Reddit. Online, trust and reputation is all-too-often determined by the quantity, and not the qualifications, of reviewers.

But this is not to say the web won’t eventually replicate, or even improve upon, the kind of trust system on which science is based. New media maven Jay Rosen is certainly exploring this terrain with And blogging pioneer (and Science Online attendee) Anil Dash is putting those ideals to the test for governments with his Expert Labs project.

Even with the collective brain power amassed at the Science Online conference, no one representing the journalists, scientists, web developers, or anyone else will have a crystal ball for the future of trust. But as a microcosm of the internet itself, that’s the beauty of the conference’s interdisciplinary collaborations. The resulting whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published January 15, 2010

Tags communication media neuroscience truth

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