Everybody’s talking: social networking at NCAR and UCAR

Zhenya Gallon, UCAR Communications

Whether tweeting, blogging, or friending, these days it seems nearly everyone is into social networking—not just during off hours, but as a way to improve work—related interac­tions as well. This is true at our institution as well as at NSF, professional societies such as the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Soci­ety, and countless UCAR member universities.

Zhenya GallonZhenya Gallon, UCAR Communications

This past April, on behalf of Communications, I launched a Twitter site for NCAR and UCAR news; soon after, we launched an official YouTube channel. Since then, I've been talking to staff, sharing ideas, and continuing to learn as these new platforms take hold.

Internet services that facilitate discussion and com­ment, such as electronic bulletin boards, mailing lists, or Usenet, have been around for decades, especially in academia. But today's popular networks, from MySpace and Facebook to Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and others, have attracted millions more users around the world by lowering barriers to participation.

The trajectory of these sites is unpredictable—some could wind up in tomorrow's dustbin—but their popularity is undeniable. Twitter accounts are estimated to be in the tens of millions. Facebook claims more than 300 million active users in a recent news release.

Many social networks can be accessed as easily from a mobile phone as from a computer. Some high schoolers and undergraduates are so accustomed to interacting on these networks that they see e-mail as inconvenient. Communication behavior and expecta­tions are shifting for the growing number of adults using these platforms as well.

Becoming social

At UCAR, Facebook has been a logical platform for COMET, Unidata, and Windows to the Universe, which already have distinct, active communities, to announce releases of e-newsletters and disseminate opportunities and other news. EOL reports that it expects to launch a Facebook page soon as well.

COMET's Wendy Abshire finds that the information colleagues share on Facebook creates a new form of camaraderie. And for outreach to people in COMET's community who are oriented toward social network­ing, "if you're not there, it's like you don't exist." The good news, says Wendy, is that even a basic Facebook presence can establish community credibility: "You don't have to be that active for others to link to your group or your page."

Staff at the Unidata Program Center see their Facebook group and Twitter feed as experiments that evolved out of the program's interest in technology and longtime focus on community building. They were encouraged to take the plunge by Sean Arms (University of Oklahoma), the student member of Unidata's Users Committee.

A broad range of staff contribute Facebook up­dates on a variety of topics, mixing social and work-related themes. This blurring of boundaries reminds Jo Hansen of the way connections are made over the water cooler or during breaks between conference sessions. So even when the conversation isn't about some specific task or project, ties are being formed and relationships strengthened.

"A lot of networking has occurred at meetings and conferences," says Unidata director Mohan Ramamurthy. "Now it's way beyond that."

Software engineers Jeff McWhirter and Jennifer Oxelson Ganter are also exploring ways to integrate social networking services into event monitoring, announcements, and other parts of Unidata's data systems. Jeff inserted Facebook's comment feature into the interactive area of Unidata's RAMADDA (Repository for Archiving, Managing and Accessing Diverse Data), for example. When users add a comment within RAMADDA, it's also posted to the user's Facebook wall. Another experiment may lead to Twitter notifications when a new piece of data that matches a user's preferences is added to the repository.

"The ease with which social networking applications can now be integrated into our own software makes them ripe for experimentation," Jeff explains. "We don't know which new features will catch on with our users, but that's the experiment." Similar efforts are under way in GLOBE, EOL, and other groups.

In my own group, which serves journalists and the general public as well as staff and community, we've found that Twitter's 140-character, telegraphic news style and public searchability make it a strategic tool for bringing research news, current events, and other activities to new audiences. We've had slow but steady growth, and it's gratifying to see the mix of folks who follow us: meteorology students, science journalists, faculty members, weathercasters, envi­ronmental bloggers, and "just plain folks." CISL and the new Technology Innovation Forum based in EOL have also started Twitter feeds.

It's worth noting that the two social media sites created for the VORTEX2 field project by our colleagues at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory proved enormously popular with the sci­entific community and the tornado-fascinated public. Staff from EOL, MMM, Communications, and other groups across the organization contributed content. NSSL is continuing to post updates between field campaigns, asking for feedback and staying engaged with more than 6,000 fans on Facebook and nearly 2,000 Twitter followers. For a look at how a recent NCAR workshop used Twitter, see below.

Taking the plunge

Social networking can't do everything, and it's not for everyone. But if you're interested, how do you figure out where to start?

Perhaps you've heard the adage, "Facebook's for people you know; Twitter's for people you'd like to know." Or "Facebook's for fun; LinkedIn's for work." There is some truth to these formu­las, but groups across NCAR and UCAR are finding that each platform can serve a range of uses. A good starting point is to find out where peers who share your group's interests already tend to congregate online.

Social media have explicit and implicit rules for behavior—cultural or social norms, if you will. So spending time hanging out on a network, getting to know its culture through observation before posting anything yourself, is an essential exploratory step. The "getting started" or "help" feature on a site often has definitions of unfamiliar terms. Social media watchers publish advice and critiques in schol­arly journals and on news sites and blogs, so a literature search can also be useful.

To share strategies and experience, a new Social Media Working Group has formed with­in the Web Advisory Group. All staff are invited to sign up for news of the group's activities via mailman. An evolving list of UCAR/NCAR's social networks is available on the organization's website, along with social media tips for both newcomers and experienced users as well as academic research reports. I'm also happy to answer questions or meet with your group.

UCAR's social media policy

NCAR and UCAR have a long tradition of encouraging staff to exercise their First Amendment rights. We also have policies in place to assure that no one misrepresents themselves or their positions as coming from the organization. "We looked into whether we needed a specific social media policy in 2008 in conjunction with our Office of General Counsel," says Lucy Warner, director of Communications. "We concluded that our current policies cover social as well as other media." Since these policies cover personal use of government equipment, advocacy of political positions, and other relevant issues, there are no plans to write a separate social media policy at this time.

Social media and the scientific meeting

Biologist Andrew Maynard poses the question, "What's OK and what's not when you're at a scientific meeting?" in an article titled "To tweet or not to tweet" in the Summer 2009 issue of the professional magazine Science Writers. He notes that reporters, who have attended major conferences for some time, are now being joined by citizen journalists with blogs and Twitter accounts where they can get the word out faster than the reporters from the traditional news media. Counting himself among the nonprofessional group, Maynard then outlines his personal guidelines for meeting dos and don'ts, from asking whether a talk contains confidential or sensitive information, to respecting announced reporting limitations. The article, which may be useful to meeting and session organizers as they frame ground rules, is reprinted on Maynard's blog.

Tweeting the WAS*IS meeting

It's now possible to find out what's being reported at a conference across the country even before the speaker's red light comes on. Live updates from workshops and meetings have become an important use of Twitter's news capability (see above: "Social media and the scientific meeting")

This summer's Boulder workshop for WAS*IS (Weather and Society*Integrated Studies), run by the NCAR Societal Impacts Program and funded by the National Weather Service, provides a good example: several participants kept their conversations going and provided a window on the proceedings to people who couldn't attend by tweeting during the workshop. To help each other follow the meeting thread, they added what's known as a hashtag, in this case, #wasis, to each tweet to provide a universal search term for the topic on Twitter.

Sheldon Drobot of NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory attended many of the sessions and was an avid Tweeter. Some tweets sparked discussions over dinner during the workshop, he reports—a good illustration of how the socializing in social media often extends and supports face-to-face exchanges among colleagues.

Sheldon also appreciates the ability to cast a wider net. "One of the great things about Twitter is it gets the message out beyond your local circle," says Sheldon. "You have followers, and followers of your followers who retweet [what you've written]. It gets the message out to a larger community pretty quickly."