Reddit science AMAs for ecologists


Word cloud produced by http://snoopsnoo.com/ using our Reddit AMA. See recommendation #3 for why our names are so prominent in it.

Last week, I ran a Reddit Science AMA with collaborators Koen Hufkens and Josh Gray on climate change, phenology, and citizen science. In the morning, a general post went up describing our research. By the time we started replying to questions at 1 pm, there were more than 100 questions waiting for us! I skimmed through them shortly before 1 pm and was really impressed with the insightfulness and thought that was put into them. Some of the question-writers were more up on their climate change research than I was! And I definitely learned some things in reading and replying to the questions.

Moreover, it was fun. The questions were wide-ranging, and generally in earnest. People really appeared to care about the answers. We answered questions for the recommended two hours and then two of the three of us kept going. By the end of the day, the post had amassed 430 comments (about 300 of which were questions) and 2400 up-votes. And we weren’t done answering questions yet! (We went back and answered some more the next day.)

UPDATE: I have since learned more about Reddit statistics. Our AMA received a total of about 3100 votes, including the week following the actual event. And the general rule of thumb is that the number of people who see a post is 10-20 times the number who vote on it. Which means that our AMA reached the eyeballs of (conservatively) 30,000 people. Not bad!

Our proximate purpose for doing the AMA was to drive some traffic to our Season Spotter citizen science project. And in this respect, it was modestly successful. We had 223 people click on over from the Reddit AMA to check it out. But if traffic is your only concern, it may be more effective to spend your twelve hours of combined effort elsewhere. Many scientists seem to do AMAs to promote their research, especially if they’ve had an important paper recently published. I think this is a great use of an AMA. Also useful is general scientific outreach and education, which is an ultimate goal of why we did our AMA. (Season Spotter was designed to be dual purpose – both science and outreach.) Thousands Tens of thousands of people saw our AMA and at least some of its content. A healthy fraction of those thousands Hundreds posted questions or commented on our answers. That’s a pretty good use of several hours in my book. (It’s about the same investment of time as a public talk I gave to 30 interested locals a couple months ago.)

Plus a third-party site called the Winnower automatically archives science AMAs, skimming off the most up-voted content, and issues them DOIs. (Here’s ours.) In other words, there is also a resulting product that you can cite in your next annual report or proposal, demonstrating broader impacts. All this for free and no effort!

Interested in running your own Reddit Science AMA?

Here’s what I would recommend:

  1. Recruit some collaborators. I am so glad Koen and Josh agreed to do the AMA with me. (Thanks again, guys!) I can’t imagine answering all those questions solo. In addition, our broader combined knowledge let us answer more questions comprehensively. And it allowed us to post multiple perspectives on complicated questions. And it was more fun!
  2. The time investment is relatively minimal, but intense. It might take an hour to schedule the AMA. (Follow the guidelines here to do so.) When the day arrives, the moderators of the science subreddit will email you a login username and password. You probably want to log in early (maybe a half hour before your scheduled answering time) and start checking out the accumulating questions and figuring out who will answer what. Then plan to spend more than 2 hours answering questions. Combined, the three of us put in 10 hours during the AMA answering questions, and a couple more hours for follow-up answers the next day.
  3. If you’ve roped in collaborators to help, you’ll have more than one person logged in to the same Reddit account. In order to know who’s responding to each question, begin each reply with your name. (If you forget, you can go back and edit your comment to add it back in.) For example: “Do you have a Boston accent?” “Margaret: Nope.”
  4. Set up a separate chat for you and your collaborators to communicate while the AMA is live. (We used Google Hangouts messaging.) The three of us were in three separate physical locations, so for us it was a must. But I can also see it being useful if you’re in the same room together. When you’re about to answer a question, copy it into the chat forum. That way you can avoid working on a question that your colleague is already answering and spread out your combined effort more. (And you can write fake answers to each other that you couldn’t possibly post on Reddit: “What was your incentive to become an ecologist?” “THE BIG BUCKS AND FAME!!!”)
  5. Bring snacks! A couple hours into question-answering, I could have used some nourishment. I dashed down to the library on the second floor where they always keep a stock of chocolate for just such an emergency, but it would have been better to be better prepared, gastronomically.
  6. Be mentally ready to answer depth and breadth. Some questions may be highly technical or scientific. Some of the questions might be from other scientists in your field or related fields! The question that rose highest in our AMA was asking us to comment on a published paper. We also had questions as wide as ‘how do I talk about climate change with my climate-denying relatives?’ and ‘what’s the best way to reduce my carbon footprint?’ to ‘how does climate change affect my garden?’ and ‘what about effects of climate change on mushrooms?’ to ‘how much do you make?’ and ‘how do you sleep at night?’
  7. Have fun! You don’t have to be a dry scientist. A little humor can go a long way.

I hope to see more Reddit science AMAs by ecologists in the future. It’s a low-investment and fun way to have a direct impact thousands of people. Give it a try!

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/04/04/reddit-science-amas-for-ecologists/

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