Discovering the Value of Social Media in Horticulture Research and Extension

Many of us are challenged to find ways to better disseminate our research and Extension findings. Administrators, legislators, and the public are demanding to know our “impact”.  Thus, using all available tools to our advantage only makes sense. Social media has been around for more than a decade now. Facebook is the most popular, with others like Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Periscope, and Instagram following in its wake. From the outside looking in it may be difficult to see the value in using these digital tools. Unfortunately, a lot of what we see on them is photos of babies, lunch plates, and celebrities. Ugh, who needs that?  Well, we do – not the pointless junk, but the social interaction with the public. There is a lack of public understanding of science and these social tools allow us to reach people who could learn from us.

But you don’t have time and you don’t get credit for doing it, right? We are all busy with the demands of our jobs and granted, most promotion and tenure committees have not figured where these activities fit into job parameters; however, the reason for using social media to disseminate our work is not for fortune and glory. Having used these social tools for more than five years now, I believe the best way to state the case for using social media is by providing some examples from my experiences.

To be clear, I am not a super star social media user. I choose which platforms best fit my interest and what I want to get out of them. I use Twitter and have a WordPress blog, but I also have LinkedIn and ResearchGate accounts. For now, I want to focus just on Twitter and the blog. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have zillions of followers. My reach and engagement are fairly small; yet, in context, what does small mean in social media?  As I write this I have 799 followers on Twitter. This included folks from all over the world who are interested in fruit crops. I have fewer followers on my blog, about 120, but each blog post is linked to Twitter and LinkedIn. Currently, I more than 60,000 views on my blog. Posts have been shared 2,696 times (via blog, does not include other outlets). Places that refer back to my blog: Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.), online forums (graduate student, commodity specific, etc.), popular press websites/blogs (New York Times, Scientific American, Growing Produce, etc.), online newspapers (Clarion-Ledger, etc.), and many, many more. To put this in perspective, there are people I never would have reached had I done nothing. These folks are not reading my journal articles – even those that are open access – but they are reading my blog, and better yet, sharing it with others.

Another interesting thing happened recently – a peer-reviewed journal article cited a post from my blog. This was the first time for my blog, but I have cited blog posts in some of my writings and I know others have as well. Does this mean anything in the larger scope of digital scholarship? As an isolated incident, no, but as a piece of an ever-growing mountain of social media validation, yes. ASHS recently launched a blog as part of their website. Blogs are a great way to communicate research in ways that traditional journals cannot. An enticing aspect of online blogs is that the author is not limited to only text. Color photos, video, and audio are all now in play. Someday more academic journals will catch up with these “advancements” but even so, blogs allow the communication to be more intimate between researcher and interested public. Many good horticulture blogs are online. The folks contributing to these are in the vanguard of new science communicators.

Social media allows one to condense information, make it more digestible, and more relatable. I recently saw a quote that went something like this, “At no point in the history of mankind have we had so much access to bad information”.  There is an enormous need to combat the torrents of misinformation that foment inside the social media world (which is essentially the entire world). Ultimately our job is to educate the public and advance science – with social media we can do both. It can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. Some obvious benefits are that you will reach a larger audience, provide a service to your university/department/program, and also further educate yourself. The benefits to you will become apparent with time and engagement. What doesn’t seem so obvious now may allow your career to grow into another direction.

My use of social media got me invited to serve on the Guiding Committee for an eXtension Learning Network. And, among other things, it also got me invited to write this newsletter article. You see, by using social media you will be going down a rabbit hole with all of its twists and turns, dead ends and collapsed tunnels, and you can follow it as far as you have the desire and interest to do so, but just remember, at some point someone will end up following you.

This is a slightly modified version of the article first published as:

Stafne, E.T. 2015. Finding the Value of Social Media in Horticulture Research and Extension. ASHS Newsletter 31 (11):1,7.