He’s also an award-winning science blogger who writes the always entertaining Not Exactly Rocket Science at Discover magazine, described by the National Association of Science Writers as “a consistently illuminating home for long, thoughtful and thorough explorations of science news.”
When Ed was awarded a National Academies communication award this year, his blog was called “engaging and jargon-free multimedia storytelling about science in the digital age.”
It currently features his multi-part review of the year, highlighting aspects of scientific achievement over the past twelve months.
In addition to his writing on NERS, Ed has contributed to a wide range of publications; New Scientist, Wired, Nature, The Economist, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, SEED and others.
When did you start using Twitter?
Somewhere in 2009, I think. I, like virtually everyone else I know, initially thought it seemed a bit obtuse and odd, and I think I kept that opinion for at least half a year. But after a bit of use, the possibilities become self-evident. And once you start building up a sizeable following, you really start to see what Twitter can actually do.
Do you use other social media to connect with readers?
My blog – Not Exactly Rocket Science – is still my first and foremost avenue for connecting with readers. About 3-4% of my blog traffic comes through Twitter so it’s certainly a channel to readers, but not the most prominent one by any means. I see it more as a channel to the science-writing community – interacting with them, exchanging ideas and interesting reads, supporting each other, crowdsourcing help, and so on.
Do you have separate Twitter identities for your personal and professional activities? If you have just one Twitter ID, roughly what proportion of your tweets each day are related to your beat, and what proportion are personal/fun/quirky?
No, just the one Twitter account. I think it’s impossible to delineate things into “beat” and “personal/fun/quirky”. Most of the science-related links I tweet tend to have some sort of quip. I’d say that my tweets roughly break down into quarters: straight retweets of something someone else has said, conversations with people, interesting links, and personal stuff. Maybe around three-quarters of all of those are science-related. But I try to make all of that fun and quirky because I think Twitter works best that way.
Some people think differently. I’ve been contacted by a colleague who was surprised at my Twitter stream and said that it was more controversial/profane/snarky than he expected. Then again, Deborah Blum said that she likes that persona, describing it as “funny, profane, caustic, smart”. Evidently, you can’t please everyone.
Does your news organization — or the outlet you write for most often — have a social media policy or any kind of formal guidelines about what you can and can’t do on Twitter?
I work for Cancer Research UK and they do have a formal social media policy, but I don’t tweet on their behalf and usually, I keep my social media presence and my day job separate. Otherwise, I write for myself (on my blog) or as a freelancer so my guidelines are pretty much whatever feels reasonable to me.
I’m not a big fan of restrictive Twitter guidelines and I think organizations would do better to produce guides on how to use Twitter productively, rather than a terrified list of things not to do on Twitter. The latter can basically be summed up by “Don’t get us sued, be responsible, don’t be an idiot.” The former is less obvious and much more interesting.
If you write a regular column or produce a podcast, do you announce each release on Twitter with a link?
Yep, I’ll tweet about new posts that I write on my blog.
Do you announce your exclusives with a link? Do you re-tweet exclusives by colleagues at your news org?
See above. I don’t care about “exclusives”. They’re like the newsroom equivalent of the geeks on internet messageboards who shout “First”. The joy of Twitter is that coming first carries little capital with it. It’s much more important to be better.
I don’t work for a news org, but I do heavily re-tweet links to work by colleagues who I respect and like. Science is important, and there’s a lot of science journalism of appalling quality. However, there’s also a wealth of fantastic material and it behooves science writers to point it out to others. There’s certainly a big culture of mutual support in the field that exists regardless of age, gender, previous experience, and so on.
Have you ever used Twitter to break a story before you had a version to link to?
No. I wouldn’t expect to, nor would I necessarily trust someone who did this. It goes against the whole ethos of Twitter, in that it’s about a journalist assuming a position of authority. You don’t get to do that online anymore – if you want to make a claim, you need to be able to back it up.
Has there been an example of a story recently that you know you have covered differently because of Twitter? And has there been a story that you have advanced or amended the same day because of reader feedback on Twitter?
Not in a major way, although I have used Twitter to crowdsource names of people to ask for second opinions on stories. However, if the embargo process didn’t exist, a whole new world of Twitter uses would open up.
For journalists, what do you think are the most and least beneficial aspects of being on Twitter?
I’ve said this repeatedly, but Twitter is one of the single most useful tools in the arsenal of a modern journalist. It puts you in direct contact with a massive network of people, who you can question, interact with, discuss with, and so on. It act as my personal newspaper (and replaces virtually all other news sources I used to read), where some of the world’s best writers have become my personal editors. It gives you practice at being succinct and witty.
Worst aspect? It sucks a lot of time. You need to be disciplined about it.
Finally, who are two or three of the most entertaining / informative people – not necessarily other journalists – that you follow?
For information, if I could only follow three people on Twitter, they would be @stevesilberman @BoraZ and @vaughanbell. They’re my personal newswire. I could feed off the links they provide me for hours at a time. For humour, @tvjrennie, @jenlucpiquant and @adamrutherford.