Wow factor in social media works for science too, study shows

Do people react to scientific images on Twitter differently than if they saw them on Facebook, researchers wondered

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Technion Israel Institute of Technology campus in Haifa (Courtesy)
Technion Israel Institute of Technology campus in Haifa (Courtesy)

If posts and images are surprising or funny, they will get liked and shared on social media platforms irrespective of where they are posted and of whether they are about cats or babies or subatomic particles, new research shows.

“We wanted to find out how people engage with science online and if the messages had a different impact if they were on different platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram,” Ayelet Baram-Tsabari from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology said in an interview.

“What we found is that scientific topics popular on one platform worked on different ones as well, irrespective of where they were posted. We also found that the same law that governs popularity in social media platforms — if the item is humorous, or surprising or enjoyable — also works for science.”

As scientific ideas, practices and findings are now increasingly communicated over various social media platforms, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Technion set out to identify the differences among the various platforms. Do people react to a scientific image posted on Twitter any differently than they would if they saw the same image on Facebook? the researchers wondered.

The study, published last week in the scholarly journal PLOS ONE, explored how users engaged with posts about particle physics on the different platforms of Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram and Twitter. The researchers also examined the characteristics of the posts that tended to attract large numbers of user interactions.

User interaction rates with nearly identical items, which were cross-posted on five of CERN’s official social media accounts over an eight-week period in 2014, were also monitored. The researchers tracked a wide range of interactions, including the number of “likes,” comments, shares, clicks on links, and time spent on CERN’s site.

Their findings suggest that similar scientific topics tend to receive similar rates of user engagement even though they are posted on different social media platforms.

In particular, awe-inspiring images tend to attract high engagement irrespective of the platform they were posted on — and in some cases, even if these images were not newsworthy at all. For example, the picture of a CERN dishwasher for circuit boards was viewed over 121,000 times on Facebook and retweeted over 1,200 times on Twitter.

CERN's dishwasher for circuit boards was viewed over 121,000 times on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter (Courtesy)
CERN’s dishwasher for circuit boards was viewed over 121,000 times on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter (Courtesy)

“Like for all subjects, the ‘wow factor’ works also for science,” Baram-Tsabari said.

As one would expect, on platforms where CERN operated accounts with larger audiences, such as CERN’s English-language Twitter account, posts about scientific topics tended to receive more shares and clicks overall. However, on average, on platforms where CERN had fewer followers, such as Instagram, each follower tended to be relatively more engaged, suggesting that perhaps in new platforms, early adopters might tend to be more engaged followers.

The study was conducted by Kate Kahle from CERN along with Aviv Sharon and Baram-Tsabari from the Technion. “To our knowledge, this study provides the first cross-platform characterization of public engagement with science on social media,” the researchers said in a statement. “Although the study focused on particle physics, its findings might serve to benchmark social media analytics in other areas of science as well.”

CERN is an international scientific research organization founded in 1954 as one of Europe’s first joint ventures, and now has 21 member states. The CERN laboratory sits astride the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, where researchers study particle physics using the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments. CERN, by the way, is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

“The research is important because more and more of what we do in science is posted on social media and so many of the life decisions we make have to do with science and technology — so we need to make this information accessible,” Baram-Tsabari said.

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