Tracking Comet ISON through the Twittersphere: Visualizing Science Communication in Social Media

Tracking Comet ISON through the Twittersphere: Visualizing Science Communication in Social Media

Stuart Palmer (Deakin University, Waurn Ponds, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/IJVCSN.2015100104
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Abstract

People are increasingly turning to the Internet and social media for science-related information and communication. Online social media systems are a convenient source of timely and rapid information, including science-related information; however it is argued that the emergence of social media systems is a fundamentally new development in science communication. A distinguishing characteristic of social media systems is their support for ‘democratic,' user-generated content, and for the public debate and contestation of scientific ideas. The emergence of the online environment as an important source of science information is still comparatively new, as is research to understand how people find and use science information in this setting. This study investigates how information about comet ISON was communicated on the Twitter social media platform. Tweet time sequence visualization and network visualization were found to offer complementary insights into the Twitter data, and to offer a productive methodological approach for future research work.
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Introduction

The Internet has revolutionized the way people communicate and access information. Internationally, large numbers of people now get their news and other information from online sources (Anderson, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2010). In particular, in the USA, a number of surveys have indicated that the Internet is a very important source of public information about science (Sugimoto & Thelwall, 2013; Wilcox, 2012); with it reported as being the first place that most people would search to find out more about a specific science issue or question that they were interested in (Anderson et al., 2010; de Semir, 2010; Segev & Baram-Tsabari, 2012). Further, social media communications systems that operate via the Internet are becoming increasingly important as sources of science information for both the general public and science communication professionals (Pinholster & Ham, 2013; Runge et al., 2013; Veltri, 2013). Online social media systems may be a convenient source of timely and rapid information, including science-related information (Shan et al., 2014); however, it is argued that the emergence of social media systems is a fundamentally new development in science communication.

Social media systems include a wide range of generic and specific applications, including web logs (blogs), Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and others (Bik & Goldstein, 2013). The most fundamental aspects of these systems are that they support the rapid creation and sharing of user-generated content online. The emergence of these systems has meant that the Internet and World Wide Web (the web) have moved from being an online repository of knowledge to an environment where users of all kinds can interact with, and generate their own, science-related content (Watermeyer, 2010). It is suggested that social media have created a democratic online discussion environment (Himelboim, McCreery, & Smith, 2013), and that they offer the possibility of bypassing traditional ways of doing science communication (de Semir, 2010). They provide a space where interest groups communicate directly to wider audiences, unmediated by conventional information gatekeepers such as journalists, but often using similar communication formats to those previously used by ‘official’ news and information sources (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011). The new role that non-specialists in science and science communication have taken on has created a new conceptualization of the public understanding of science (Watermeyer, 2010), and changed how, and indeed what, science issues are communicated (Anderson et al., 2010).

There is evidence that compared to traditional media channels such as television, the proportion of science-related content in social media channels is significantly higher (Sugimoto & Thelwall, 2013). It is also suggested that social media provide important channels for both interpersonal influence about, and the propagation of, popular topics in science (Segev & Baram-Tsabari, 2012). All in all, social media offer a “spectacular opportunity” for (Pinholster & Ham, 2013), and are now an “integral part” of (Wilcox, 2012), the modern communication of science. In social media, “… scientists, journalists, advocates, and the people formerly known as audiences are all content contributors, each with varying knowledge, background and perspectives.” (Fahy & Nisbet, 2011, p. 782) However, the democratization of the production and communication of scientific knowledge raises questions about the reliability and validity of such knowledge (Watermeyer, 2010). The social media process can collect and propagate information very rapidly, but users may not be able to separate fact from fiction (Castillo, Mendoza, & Poblete, 2011; de Semir, 2010).

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