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Nick's Picks (#134)

Should the GS be on Facebook?

So, I finally did it. I joined Facebook. To the students reading this, that’s probably not very shocking, as practically all of the other students in my department seem to have beaten me to it. I was reluctant at first but I finally gave in, partly because of peer pressure and partly because of curiosity. I couldn’t help wanting to know what was so enticing, so fun, and so cool about it. Sadly, I was so far behind in my ‘e-cool’ that even “old fogeys” and some moms have been connected for a long time. Considering that, everybody must be on these sites, right? As it turns out, that’s actually pretty close.

Facebook (73,500,000 members) and other more popular sites like MySpace (289,000,000 members) are growing at a remarkable rate, especially considering their modest origins. Facebook was originally developed at Harvard for students to network online, but it was soon made available to other Boston-area schools until eventually students, staff, and faculty from universities across the world had access. Now anyone above the age of 13 can get their very own Facebook page which has opened up many more networking channels yet still retained it’s dominance among college students when compared with MySpace. As a result of Facebook’s ubiquity and highly fun/functional applications, it has grown three times faster than MySpace in the past year. Its societal influence offline is growing too; in the U.S., Facebook sponsored the New Hampshire presidential primary debates with the ABC Network on January 5, 2008. You’d pretty much have to be living under a rock to have not yet at least heard of Facebook by now.

As it turns out, when I started writing this column for Geochemical News, GS past-president Sue Brantley asked me to do some investigating about if the GS could/should have a presence on Facebook-type websites. Having not yet succumbed to the pressures of joining, I asked other geochemists that I knew were frequent users of these sites what they thought. To them, the benefits for GS on Facebook would be that anyone who joined the ‘Geochemical Society’ group would be able to stay up-to-date with events, announcements, and publications from the GS and catch up with colleagues or friends they may have lost touch with over the years. Okay, so increased awareness of GS activities and increased communication among geochemists? So far, so good. As of January 2008, several other professional societies have already created group pages on Facebook including the British Ecological Society (633 members), Society of American Foresters (331), American Association for the Advancement of Science (965), American Chemical Society (157 members), and American Society of Limnology & Oceanography (20 members). Apparently other scientists and professional organizations see the benefit of using Facebook as well.

If the GS did have a presence on Facebook, it wouldn’t be the only geology-related group. There is a group page for the so-called ‘Organic Geochemistry Network’ (43 members) whose function is “to foster academic and social links between Organic Geochemists as well as people in other related fields.” The American Geological Institute also has a group page to relay important information about the geosciences community as a whole.

But is Facebook really appropriate for social networking with fellow scientists on a professional level? The boundary between networking with friends and establishing professional contacts sometimes becomes blurry, and never before has that been as clear to me as when I started using Facebook. For instance, I recently had a discussion with an old lab mate on my Facebook page about some future experiments I have been planning to do for quite some time. This discussion appeared between conversations with other friends sharing online video links and stories from the past weekend hardly appropriate in a professional context.

Other online social networking sites

As a result of this apparent disconnect, a few sites have sprouted up with a more professional focus. LinkedIn was created specifically for establishing professional contacts within companies and educational institutions, particularly in the business world. The Prometeo Network is for doctors and life sciences researchers, and Pronetos is specifically for academic professors. But the most appropriate social networking site specifically for scientists that I’ve found is Nature Network (read an article in The Guardian about it here). Nature Network is owned and operated by Nature Publishing Group, the publishers of Nature (and the new journal Nature Geoscience).

Nature Network allows you to create your own profile complete with publications, research interests, and current projects (watch a video overview here). It also allows you to join science-themed discussion groups and read blogs by other Nature Network users. Another advantage with Nature Network that differentiates itself from Facebook is that it is not in a ‘walled garden,’ i.e. anyone can access your page or group even if they don’t have a Nature account. This makes finding content on its site very easy. Nature Network allows you to have a link specific to your page (the Geochemistry and Mineralogy group page, for example, can be found at http://network.nature.com/group/GeoMin). In contrast, if you try and go to a group's Facebook page, you’re out of luck unless you’re a member (there’s a good commentary piece about this here. Some people really don’t like Facebook because of this but it certainly limits the access of online ‘snoopers’).

So Nature Network may be a more appropriate forum for professional discussions and networking, but its full potential has probably yet to be realized because not very many people seem to know about it (it hasn’t even existed a full year yet). One of Nature Network’s great features that will certainly rise with the number of users is the ‘Local’ network feature where you can see content specific to your geographical location including announcements for seminars and workshops. Right now only Boston and London nodes exist but they are planning to open several more in 2008.

The experiment

But when compared to Facebook, Nature Network doesn’t even come close to reaching a large number of scientists, students, or professors. Facebook is one of the most popular and influential web technologies today, and is in the top-ten most visited sites on the web. Some groups, especially educators, opine that Facebook is essentially a huge distraction, but appealing to students should be a primary goal for academic and scientific organizations. As a result, some professors have started using it as a teaching aid. Why shouldn’t the Geochemical Society take advantage of Facebook’s omnipresence to promote and advance our field? To test this theory, we’ve started a Facebook group for the Geochemical Society as well as the aforementioned Geochemistry and Mineralogy Group on Nature Network.

On the GS Facebook page, there is already information posted about Goldschmidt 2008, the publications that the GS offers, and a discussion board for topics related to geochemistry. I think that the GS and its members stand to gain a lot with a presence on Facebook, particularly with exposure to students, but only time will tell. In the meantime, feel free to email me with comments on if you feel the GS (or science in general) has a place on Facebook. If you’re feeling curious like I was, sign up for Facebook today (it's easy) and join the GS group by searching for 'Geochemical Society' in the site's search box. Keep in mind that as with most social networking sites online, the content and discussion get increasingly better with the number of users. So far there are just over 20 members in the GS group.

As GS works on a more active role in establishing a web-presence, stay on the lookout for further 'Web 2.0' additions to www.geochemsoc.org including RSS feeds and various ways to share online GS content with colleagues in 2008.

Other useful links:

7 things you should know about Facebook, from the Educase Learning Initiative:

Criticism of Facebook on Wikipedia

Commentary on Facebook and other ‘Web 2.0’ resources from the Medical Library Association

A video overview of Facebook from the perspective of a Marketing blogger

Science 2.0: Great new tool, or great risk?