With a bizarre feeling of witnessing the future, I have just read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece in the New Yorker (dated 4/10/10!) on the problems that social networking will face in causing any social change. Over at Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has published an excellent reply challenging some of the claims Gladwell makes. This is a fascinating debate and a wonderful source of interesting distractions when you are meant to be working.

Any how, I want to take a different line and ask a related question about this. What do the differences between strong ties and weak ties imply for science communication?  There is currently an explosion of Web 2.0 interfaces for science communication. Aside from the blogosphere, there are a number of active Twitter feeds (eg #scicomm), Facebook communities and news feeds (eg Science Alert, or Wired Science). One can be quickly and comprehensively connected to science as it happens throughout the world. This is fantastic if you’re into this sort of thing. But how can this be used to actually engage otherwise unengaged people with science?

If weak ties are poor at effecting social change, as Gladwell suggests, then how are we to use tools like Twitter to change the level of science understanding and scientific thinking in society?

Quite aside from its amazing ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, I see science as a social movement (as well as a practice), one that has happened in fits and starts since at least the Renaissance. A notable recent variant is the Environmental Movement, which has found strength in science throughout the years, as well as its fair share of controversy (witness climate change). People have become more and more interested in scientific thinking as they witness the benefits of science throughout society.

The question is, then, is this the kind of movement that relies on strong or weak ties? Which is more important and for which ‘communities’?

Within scientific disciplines, it could be said that you have large networks of strong ties – these really are people you know or have read the writings of. Arguably, that makes it a stronger tie than a simple friend-of-a-friend analogy. So if that is the case, science struggles to conform with the models of strong and weak ties, because networks are usually of weak ties (as Gladwell points out). What is happening here?

I think what we might be seeing is that scientists are using social networking tools simply to communicate better within their (strong) network. First there were letters, then emails, now Facebook/twitter and blogs. But this then makes it a relatively closed community, only open to those who know or understand. Are we just preaching to the converted when we use these tools?

The wider social networks of ‘lay people’ are not well connected to these strong science networks, and subsequently, struggle to engage. Often, only through traditional media do these people ‘get science’. A great example would be Dr Karl. His radio program is fantastic, and people from all walks of life talk about it. No doubt, this has contributed to the public understanding of science greatly. Dr Karl also uses twitter. I wonder if the twitter feed has the same impact. After all, you have to follow him first.

Is social networking, then, doomed to play only a supporting role? Do we need to understand these networks better so as to exploit them effectively for science communication? I don’t claim to have the answers, but there is definitely something in this, I feel.

How can we use social networking to increase scientific thinking and understanding in society, as opposed to just supporting it?