Approximately 1.1 billion people in the world today have a Facebook account. I have one too, of course. I also have accounts on Twitter and Tumblr. But when I learned, that the German Archaeological Institute runs a Facebook account, I was surprised. The next accounts I found were those of the Regional Archive of Koper (I write my PhD about the 14th century history of that city) and of ICARUS, International Centre of Archival Research. My interest in „Science and Social Media“ was finally ignited, when a workshop about „Scientific blogging in Germany“ was held in Würzburg in April. The importance of social media grew in the last years in a way, I think some institutions did not expect. But those who could read the signs of the times, created accounts on variable platforms and linked them directly to their homepage.
Nearly every institution with social media accounts has one on Facebook and Twitter. Many have a Youtube-channel, some use Google+ or iTunesU. The main purpose is to brief the visitor about the latest news and developments, events to come and celebrations to note. For example, the German Archaeological Institute informs on Facebook about an upcoming workshop in September this year, Research data for others: Licenses & tools for Archaeology & Classical Studies, the newly enabled cooperation with ARIADNE, (Advanced Research Infrastructure for Archaeological Datasets Networking in Europe) or about sensationel discoveries at excavations like the marble portraits on the Kerameikos in Athene a few weeks ago. Youtube channels are most times used to provide general information or document important events or presentations.
Especially German institutions still have difficulties to wrap their heads around the fact, that it is much easier to communicate with their visitors or participants if they would point out the link icons, openly displayed on their homepages. So only a few German universities provide direct access to their social media accounts, like the University of Hamburg, the University of Leipzig or the Humboldt University in Berlin. Other important institutions refuse to show those links. But why? Are they afraid, that they would not be taken seriously as dignified institutions when they show their use of social media? The least represented institution is the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Foundation), the biggest sponsor of science in Europe. Its yearly volume reaches nearly 2.5 billion Euro. „The decision against using Facebook was a question of legal doubts as well as the equation of effort and benefit.“, stated Cornelia Lossau, spokeswoman of the DFG. But she does not completely rule out the use of social networks. „We consider an engagement on certain channels of social networks – always beholding the ambitions of the DFG and its communication with the public.“
Internationally known universities like Cambridge, Harvard and Yale or scientific institutions like the German Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft or the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft are not afraid of being laughed at. The links on their homepages are very prominent, the Helmholtz Association even has its own staff member for social media, Henning Krause. This position exists since August 2012. „We noticed the increasing interest and demands for presence on social media and because we are financed with public money, it was only logical to give something back. We inform citizens about our projects, so that they can see what their money is used for. Also we hope for dialogue, encouraged by the nature of social media.“ Asked about expanding for example to Tumblr – recently bought by Yahoo! – Krause points out, that they provide their own blog platforms, which shall be enlarged. „We try to be present on the most important platforms and supervise therefore very thoroughly every development. We have to be present at specific platform to reach the right people. Tumblr is a blog platform and what we see there is a problem of sustainability. What, if the platform is deleted? All our entries will be deleted, too. So we prefer our own blogging platforms.“
The first step towards blogs was taken in 1969 with the Arpanet, developed by the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and only four years later the first standard for e-mails was set up. The World Wide Web as we know it was developed already between 1989 and 1991, when HTML and HTTP were written. Science immediately leaped onto that new chance and 1990 the first Online Journal emerged: Postmodern Culture.
Web based media today range between four different points: a) monologic b) dialogic c) subject centred (author) and d) object centred (topic). For example: Social networks like Facebook are subject centred and dialogic, whereas Online Journals are monologic and object centred.
Blogs, personal as well as scientific ones are always dialogic, interactive; it is the nature of a blog. Connected with Twitter, other social networks, homepages of institutes, online journals and discussion forums a blog can reach a far wider readership then on its own. Those connections seem essential, especially the connection to Twitter, the so called „tweetreach“.
When I first set up my account on Tumblr to create my blog, my fiancé just laughed at me and commented, now I have reached the end of the internet. For anybody who does not know Tumblr: It is a platform for blogs that makes it very easy to create your own – sign in, decide for a design, start blogging. At the end of 2012 Tumblr hosted 73 millions blogs with over 61 million entries per day. Due to the fact that every blogger decides on his own what to post, reblog or like, a categorisation of the contents is nearly impossible. If you search for something specific, hashtags allow you to find it, unless the blogger forgot to set them.
But why did my fiancé laugh? Tumblr is known for the huge amount of blogs from several fandoms like BBC Sherlock, Supernatural and Dr Who, most of the users are between 13 and 22. But also, and that is very interesting, it is used as well by the US Neuro Sciences to blog about their recent researches, like the UC San Diego Health Sciences (http://ucsdhealthsciences.tumblr.com/)! Also, important journalistic organisations like Reuters run an account (http://reuters.tumblr.com/). Next to the „professional“ blogs there are also those of the fun approach like R.I.P., „Research in progress“ (researchinprogress.tumblr.com), which is humorously reflecting the everyday life of University, PhD students or professors with the aid of gifs.
In 1994 the internet boom started. Blogs and social networks spread, 1998 the first blogging software Open Diary was developed, which allowed a far more easier access. Since 2003 WordPress took over, now the biggest blogging platform. Also around 2003 the first scientific blog went online, Harvard provided it with its „weblog hosting service“. Now there are many platforms with scientific blogs. WordPress is, as already mentioned the biggest platform available, hosting blogs to every imaginary topic or issue. Other scientists use blogspot, a platform owned by Google.
Another providers for scientific blogs is hypotheses.org. It is WordPress based and currently three different subplatforms in French, Spanish and German are available, but scientists publish in much more languages then those three. The academic committees of hypotheses.org set the platform orientations whereas each language platform has its own academic committee. The members of those committees are not only PhDs but also professors like Prof. Gudrun Gersmann, professor for Early Modern Times at the University of Cologne. The platform has a good scientific reputation: The German Historical Institute Paris as well as the Max Weber Foundation are patrons. Some blogs even received an ISSN by the National Library of France, they are listed like journals, so that the question of sustainability reached a new level.
Hypotheses.org is hosts a various numbers of blogs: Researchgroups, PhD-projects, the supervision of a publishing process, courses at uni, newsletters, representation of whole institutes, archaeological excavations and much more.
Dr Anne Baillot for example blogs on hypotheses.org about the genesis of the digital edition of her research group, “Letters and texts. The intellectual Berlin around 1800” (http://digitalintellectuals.hypotheses.org/). Not only problems with her projects find their way into the blog but also notes on blogging itself, reviews of conferences or workshops or ironic notes towards dealing with the german academic policy. She sometimes writes in English, sometimes in French. „I love writing, always did, but suffered from being prisoner of the traditional scholarly formats for years. Blogging was a liberation to me,“ she writes in her review of the workshop in Würzburg in April. She blogs now for over one and a half years, and it has helped her „to rediscover the sheer pleasure of writing.“ So, blogging against writer’s block?
The blog can therefore be part of a digital academic identity. Blogging in scientific context can also help to reflect the own progress. Because scrolling through the entries once made is like an history of decisions. Some bloggers use the comunity to search for solutions of problems they have during research as well, may it be with for example scientific method or simply software issues.
Furthermore, writing a blog is a kind of self-marketing/promotion without being importunate. You can show what you are able to do, even before you have published anything, neither a paper nor a monograph.
But there are still problems with scientific blogs: The biggest is the self-censorship. Because you never know who is reading your blog, you start to think „What can I write? What should I write? Am I allowed to write that?“ Others could be offended by an entry, written on daily process or worse, somebody could use your results and publish them on its own.
And: What happens to the blogs in 20 years? Nobody knows, but still everyone is writing. Writing now for the unknown later.