Case Studies

Notable case studies about the application of social media to public engagement issues

“For Simon Singh and Free Speech” – Various sites

Facebook groups represent a popular component of the networking site. Simple and free to establish, groups and pages exist for a huge array of reasons and subjects. For example, a group arguing in support of the recent Simon Singh libel case has over 10,000 members who are sharing links about similar topics and lending their support to the case. These groups represent a form of activism (similar to a petition) in that joining the group adds their name to the cause and demonstrates their support but also serves an administrative role in recruiting more people to the cause and sharing information within that community. For example, followers were invited to attend public sections of the trial in order to lend their support and links were shared to media coverage about the case and related issues.

The case spread to other networks and media; most notably from the blogger ‘Jack of Kent’ (a legal blog writer who championed the Singh case and helped to lead the support for the defence). Singh also regularly communicated about the case through his Twitter account and a regular e-newsletter. Although a complex case, comprising aspects of legal reform, health reporting and the freedom of the press, it concerned a science writer and a science topic and the campaigning by social media practitioners was acknowledged by Singh after the appeal in a Guardian article:
“Although the newspapers back then were largely ignoring the issue of libel and the need for libel reform, the blogosphere … managed to spread the word.”

@CERN – The Large Hadron Collider on Twitter

With over 151,000 followers, CERN prolifically ‘tweets’ the progress of the Large Hadron Collider, news and acts as a mouthpiece for the LHC individual experiments (most of which have their own Twitter feeds).

The feed combines serious (and very high level) physics (“Running with successful 'squeezed' beams, the LHC is providing 10 times more luminosity, giving more collisions for the experiments.”) as well as whimsical stories from CERN (“More a Capybara than a mouse? Here's what happened when CERN ordered bowling balls in 1972”). The feed is a good example of an organisation on Twitter – a mix of diverting stories and updates which are either complete in themselves (“Adding the tally from last weekend's runs, the LHC experiments have observed around half a billion collisions to date.”) or, like an opening line of a press release, urge the reader to continue (“With tens of millions of collisions recorded, LHC experiments spot rarer members of the particle family. See LHCb:”). The stories are also mixed by ‘level’ – some are obviously designed for the academic physics community, others are at a more accessible level to accommodate (or possibly accounting for?)their numerous following.

Link: CERN Twitter

Bang goes the theory

The Open University/BBC science television series also connects to a strong web presence: “Ask Dr Yan” enables viewers to engage directly with the show’s content and answer burning science questions. The questions are answered by a team of experts with selected enquiries answered via video by Dr Yan.

This also enables users to upload their own answers and explanations via video, picture and text in order to encourage engagement and provide further material for the broadcast. Initiatives such as this allow participation in science communication projects and although on a large scale, it shows a way of using the ‘user contribution’ factor to good effect by engaging the audience in a meaningful way.

Link: Bang goes the theory site

I’m a scientist, get me out of here

“X-Factor meets school science lessons” – Wellcome Trust funded initiative to connect researchers with school children to enrich curriculum. The competition involves 100 scientists competing for a £500 public engagement grant by interacting with 8,000 school children who can ask scientists questions in live chats and vote for their favourite scientist.

Each scientist has a profile page with more information about their research and a series of questions to provide some background colour to their personality. The project uses a social-network-style approach to provide a familiar environment for students to interact with scientists in order to enrich learning and engage students with ‘real life’ science. The project also introduces a competitive element by using the familiar ‘voting off’ method to award the grant as opposed to a more traditional peer-review process. However, it could be argued that the grant is awarded via ‘audience review’ and the competition provides a clear, engaging framework for this.

Link: I'm a scientist, get me out of here!

Lord Drayson and Dr Ben Goldacre: Science Reporting: Is it good for you?

In August 2009, former Science Minister Lord Drayson (a prolific Tweeter) entered into a Twitter-based debate with ‘Bad Science’ columnist, blogger and doctor Ben Goldacre about the state of UK science journalism. This debate then transferred into a real-life format with an on-stage debate at the Royal Institution in September 2009.

Lord Drayson at the time was quoted as saying that “the debate would not have happened without Twitter” and the debate was also participated in by Twitter users outside the venue.