Down to Earth: Discovering #ScienceTwitter

  • The logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Feb. 8, 2018.  AP PHOTO/Richard Drew

For the Gazette
Published: 11/28/2018 1:57:56 PM

A lot of us, when we think of Twitter, first bring to mind the frequently controversial, often belligerent, at times misspelled tweets of the current U.S. president. We may think of furious political discourse, of Russian bots, of doxxing and flaming and intemperate attacks by gangs of online trolls.

But over the last few years, somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered on Twitter one of the most active and appealing communities of scientists, environmentalists, nature writers, illustrators, and nature enthusiasts of all stripes that I’ve ever had the fortune to know.

It’s no real shock, I suppose, that I found them. Social media consist of a coalescence of linked microcosms, interconnected sets of specific groups. But I wasn’t expecting to discover something quite so satisfying, so full of little gems and surprises.

Before a couple years ago, I’d used Twitter only lightly, posting an article there from time to time. Twitter felt like a spectator sport: I watched the world go by on the platform from a considerable distance.

But then I wrote an article on the nesting terns of Northumberland in northeast England. Dutifully, I logged on and posted a link to my piece, along with my best photo of the terns and the hashtag #NorthumberlandUK.

That little hashtag was all it took to open a new door.

The Northumberland tourist office discovered and retweeted my article, as did the local organization overseeing nesting tern protection. My article soon bounced across the Twitter-literate birding enthusiasts of a region halfway across the world from me.

It didn’t exactly go viral — but it was my first experience getting reasonably modest play within a Twitter community.

Most importantly for my Twitter experience, a British bird illustrator in reply to my tweet shared a watercolor of a tern she’d painted. It was beautiful, so I followed her back. And via her feed, I was treated to retweet after retweet of amazing bird illustrations from the community of artists she follows.

From there, I started a treasure hunt, following breadcrumbs to new people and foci, and starting to pay more attention to people I’d already followed.

I followed Robert Macfarlane, a British nature writer whose book “The Wild Places” I’ve taught to students. Every day, he posts an unusual word describing nature, coupling it with an evocative photo of the outdoors. He started the project when he learned that many words describing nature are falling into disuse, even being removed by the dozens from the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children in favor of words like “blog” or “broadband.”

In his tweets, Macfarlane explains each word’s etymology or a little of its history. He finds words in English and Scottish, Icelandic and Welsh, from indigenous languages, from dialects around the world.

I also joined in on Macfarlane’s online book club. His participants read the same book and contribute to guided discussions, responding to questions that he posts about the book’s content. I encountered and followed a number of smart, thoughtful nature lovers that way, too.

I followed a suite of people who keep nature journals, an old practice of mine — writing and sketching the natural world while out on a walk or birding jaunt. One of them, whom I know only as @Bernoid, creates lush, detailed pen drawings of mushrooms, other fungi, and forest scenes.

I followed @AlongsideWild (David Steen), who posts about wildlife conservation but most particularly about snakes, educating people about the species ID and ecology of these remarkable but maligned animals. His feed led me to a community of herpetologists and grad students who post about turtles, toads, and all things creepy crawly.

I followed up-and-coming climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis (@KendraWrites). I got to celebrate with her from afar when her first front-page article debuted in the New York Times — a smart, scary piece about how a climate-change induced boom in purple sea urchins on the west coast is destroying critical kelp forest habitat.

I followed Alex Wild (@myrmecos), a Texas entomologist who posts high definition close-ups of ants and commentary on their lifecycle. Remarkably, his seemingly esoteric feed has over 20,000 followers.

Following Wild’s feed proved especially relevant to me when the Brazilian National Museum was incinerated in a tragic fire in September. Wild, who cares deeply about museums and natural history collections, was the person whose posts alerted me to the blaze as it was happening.

Because my parents hail from Brazil, Wild’s feed helped me reconnect to a part of my own heritage, even as we suffered its loss. His connection to the natural history community, the articles he posted, and the commentary he contributed gave me context and helped me understand why and how the fire had come about.

Some of the people I follow are famous, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astronomer and science communicator whose feed is so popular he’ll likely never notice me before the world ends.

But others have small enough follower counts that we’ve become friendly with one another even living halfway across the world. And I’ve even had short Twitter exchanges with heroes of mine like Macfarlane, connecting with them despite distance and difference of circumstances.

Contemplating #ScienceTwitter alongside the political fervor we so often associate with the platform makes me think how vital a sense of nonpolitical community, of people working together for other aims, can be for us in our own political survival.

I’m reminded of the powerful, seminal 1978 essay by Vaclav Havel on resistance, “The Power of the Powerless,” written shortly before he was imprisoned as a dissident in Czechoslovakia.

“Every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics,” Havel wrote. “A dissident is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are merely doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.”

Havel, who went on to become president of the Czech Republic, reminds us of the critical importance of quiet, committed communities focusing on life outside of politics. He speaks of these communities as basic to the power of resistance, since they’re motivated by “the real aims of life.”

“All attempts by society to resist the pressure of the system have their essential beginnings in the pre-political area,” he wrote, “a life that is in harmony with its own aims and which in turn structures itself in harmony with those aims.”

There’s something about the group of people I follow on Twitter now that works for me. They care about the things I care about. They’re curious and compassionate about the world. A suffering animal triggers their sympathy; environmental destruction prompts their anger; injustice drives them to fury and action.

Twitter undeniably has a dark underbelly, where people attack, denigrate, shame and intimidate under a cloak of relative anonymity. Maybe someday we’ll all agree on a set of legal constraints and cultural norms through which social media villains can be held responsible for the damage they cause, but until then, it remains a fraught environment.

Yet despite social media’s many problems — its addictiveness, its fake news, its divisions — platforms like Twitter are nevertheless a stage for the creation of vital, functional communities. They’re living, breathing exchanges of information and ideas, of exhortations toward good work, toward creation, building, helping.

They’re a reflection of the flow of our beings as communal, social selves. Of our need to share and connect and learn.

And that kind of groundswell of life, as Havel reminds us, much like that of the earth itself, is unstoppable.

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