Social Media & Geology – Fall 2011

For the month of November I’ve pledged to join Anne Jefferson‘s #sciwrite science writing challenge. Whereas most of the folks participating have chosen to focus on journal articles or manuscripts that may not see the light of publication for months, I’ve chosen to take this opportunity to revitalize this blog, which has been neglected for far too long. Since I’m no longer actively teaching geology in academia, my focus has shifted to understanding the opportunities that exist to practice and promote science of geology in the rapidly evolving sphere of social media. In fact, I’ve been using online social tools – from geoblogs to Twitter, and recently Google+ to name just a few – with a geological focus for quite some time. Recently, however, a couple of folks have prompted me document how I’ve been using these tools. Since I know from experience that my usage evolves with the development of new products and platforms, I’d envision that this may be the first in a series of posts that track my changing social media usage through time. Moreover, as I began writing this post, I realized that I have more to say about this topic than I first realized. Consequently, I’m going to turn this initial post into a high level survey of my current usage of social media and use subsequent posts over the next week or two to dig deeper on individual subtopics.

Background – How I Got Here.

My interest in social media begins with the fact that I’ve been using computers practically every day now for most of my adolescent and adult life. As a consequence of using them primarily in an academic setting I’ve always had access to state of the art hardware and, perhaps more importantly, high speed internet access. Those circumstances have also conspired to give me a front row seat to the communications revolution that was sparked by the invention of the world wide web. Although geology has always held more appeal to me than straight up computer science, I have felt myself increasingly drawn to the latter as the scope of the communications revolution wrought by the internet has become apparent. I want to be entirely clear, though, that I still think of myself first as a geologist, and all that I’ve undertaken in learning and using social media has been focused on geological applications.

I’ve had a web presence since 1994 or 1995, when I was a graduate student in the Department of Geology & Geophysics at UW-Madison; NCSA Mosaic was my first web browser. I learned HTML by looking at the web page source of existing web pages and did all my coding by hand (for the most part, I still do). I have been making web pages to supplement teaching since 1997 or 1998. I tended to update my static webpages frequently. I was first introduced to the concept of Weblogs by Fred Siewers at Western Kentucky University, where I had my first full time geology teaching position, for his appropriately titled Geoblog, perhaps the first of its kind on the web. I made a few guest posts on Fred’s Geoblog, but since I was already coding and frequently updating my own web pages I didn’t see the appeal of using canned software to make updated web pages.

I began running my own web server to hosting my own web pages in 2001, bought my first domain ( in 2003 or 2004, but still didn’t see the value of blogging software until I finally “got on the Cluetrain” and began to appreciate the value of syndication (RSS) in late 2004 or early 2005. I established a self-hosted WordPress blog in March 2005 and have been geoblogging (sensu stricto) ever since.

If you’re just now thinking about getting started with social media and my litany of experiences thus far seems daunting, relax; today’s tools make it very easy to bypass almost all of that. I include it only to document my own background experiences and my winding path to the tools I currently use. I’ve certainly gained a lot of perspective through those experiences, but there’s no need for anyone just starting today to retrace my meandering path.

The Tools I Use Today

Geoblogging is at the core of the current nexus of geology and social media. Blogs are a personal publishing platform; geoblogs are simply blogs that focus on geology. The geoblogosphere really coalesced and took off in 2007, and has been steadily growing ever since. The key, early on, and what made geoblogs social was the community that developed around cross linking and commenting between geobloggers. 2007-2008 was really the heyday of the geoblog cross-commenting. While the number of geoblogs has continued to proliferate and commenting remains strong on some geoblogs (e.g., Eruptions), much of the conversational banter between geobloggers has moved away from blog comments and onto Twitter in recent years. Nonetheless, the core social experience in the online geoscience community continues to be focused on geoblogs. There’s no question I feel a stronger social bond to those who geoblog regularly than others. (Twitter users come in a strong second here, but even among those I feel a stronger affinity to those who do geoblog than those who don’t – perhaps this is why I feel so guilty for not updating this blog for long stretches, even when I’m very active on Twitter.) Early on, it was not uncommon for spontaneous geomemes to race through the geoblogosphere. Another thing that developed in 2007 was the first of the formalized geoblog-based games – Brian Romans’ Where on (Google) Earth? series. Blog carnivals came to the geoblogosphere with the arrival of the Accretionary Wedge series – in essence, the Wedge has recently formalized the geomeme genre. Geoblogs today have even wider exposure through blogging networks such as Wired Science and the AGU Blogosphere. I’ll briefly mention Google Reader’s sharing features – now defunct – that previously allowed for social sharing of a curated stream of media discovered via RSS; I used this feature extensively, but until a workaround is found I’ll limit further discussion of the social implications of this type of curation.

Geoblogs may be the core of the social experience in geology, but if you want to know what’s going on in the geological social sphere right this minute, you need to be a geotweep (geologist on Twitter). Twitter has been described as a microblogging platform – each individual entry is limited to no more than 140 characters; what it lacks in loquaciousness it makes up for in immediacy. Many geologists who tweet (post to Twitter) will monitor Twitter and see updates in near real-time (by contrast, blog updates in an RSS reader commonly show up minutes to hours after they’re posted), thus it’s possible to conduct real-time conversations in Twitter. (I paused twice while writing the last sentence to reply to a conversation on Twitter.) One of the drawbacks of Twitter conversations is that they tend to be ephemeral – it’s not easy to find or reconstruct them after a day or two. Storify is a social media tool built to overcome this limitation by archiving selected tweets (and other web based media). To best get a sense of the sort of geological conversations that can develop on Twitter see an example from “Geotweeps Discuss…” or another from Luis Fernández.

Podcasting and Netcasting
Surprisingly little has been done with podcasting and netcasting by geologists. The one semi-regularly held geology podcast was the Chris Town’s PodClast, however that series is currently dormant. I am currently working on developing a weekly Geology Roundtable format discussion using the Google+ Hangout feature (more below). In my opinion, these media are ripe for further development in a social vein in the geological community.

Facebook and LinkedIn
A number of geologists and geology organizations post to Facebook. My own experience there is limited for two reasons. First, my social network there developed around family and college and high school friends rather than professional interests. While some of these folks are interested in geology, many are not and until recently it was not possible to direct posts to specific subgroups there. Secondly, Facebook posts are not indexed by search engines like Google, so discovering people with like interests is not very easy. My experience with LinkedIn is even more limited than Facebook and suffers from the same limitations. Although there are certainly geologists on both of these sites, my experience is that the social discussions around geology have been limited to organizational pages such as that of the Geological Society of America.

Delicious, Flickr, and YouTube
Delicious is a social site for sharing bookmarks, Flickr is the dominant social site for sharing photos, and YouTube is the #1 site for sharing web video. All three integrate social elements but none has attracted a strong independent social group around geology. I have found many useful links, photos, and videos through these sites, but do not tend to engage regularly in conversations around geology on either site. For the most part, the valuable material that originates on these sites tends to be discovered by the geology community through incorporation into geoblog posts. Flickr and Delicious both offer the ability to syndicate RSS feeds on a search term such as “Geology” and I tend to use this method to discover material tagged with that or similar terms.

Many have classed Google+ as a social network akin to Facebook, and though there are similarities, Google+ also has a number of distinct social tools that go well beyond Facebook. At the moment, the killer social feature on Google+ is Hangouts – a free group video chat for up to 10 participants. For the last month or so, I’ve been holding regular “Geology Office Hours” hangouts to answer questions about geology and discuss geological events in the news. Initially I held these publicly (open to anyone who wandered in) but recently I’ve had to limit participation to those who indicate an interest ahead of time. Initially very few folks showed up, but as time has passed and word got around the attendance and level of conversation has gotten better and better. I haven’t yet found a way to record these sessions (Google+ will eventually make this a standard feature, along with the ability to upload them to YouTube), but I am working on that. Google+ also offers posting of text, photos, and video that rivals blogs for the amount of social participation – via comments, +1s, and sharing – if not yet the ability to customize and format material in the post. Google+ is still a rapidly evolving platform and many new features are released in beta on a weekly basis. Full integration with Google’s existing app suite with its already well developed collaboration features promises to make this an exciting social platform for productivity as well as information sharing.

There are certainly more specialized web properties that have social features (GigaPan comes to mind) and even some social media sites with more niche usage (Ning, for example), but I’ll halt my discussion at this point in hopes of hitting the publish button before midnight. I expect I’ll end up blogging about some of these social media tools in more detail over the course of the next few weeks. Your questions and comments are welcome – after all, it wouldn’t be very social of me to ignore your feedback.

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