Archive for June, 2009

Hope on Twitter Search

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Today’s post has been written by Hope Leman.  Hope is a research information technologist and also contributes regularly to

This will be a very unscientific, random stroll through science-related and search aspects of Twitter. There is a lot of talk about Twitter replacing this or that technology: Twitter is destroying whatever prospects RSS had for ever gaining traction among the general Web-using public; Twitter is the new Google and so on.

What I would like to do this morning (and I do most of my explorations of search tools in the early morning before I go to my job as a research information technologist—which tends to entail trying to find announcements of grants and scholarships in the health sciences to list on ScanGrants, a free listing for such—and I am about to try to determine how Twitter does when it comes to finding research funding as a case study here) is to try to discourse knowledgeably on using Twitter in science search without writing long, hard to follow sentences like the one you and I are both enmeshed in at this point. That is the thing about Twitter—you can get both absorbed in what you are doing and increasingly scatterbrained and unable to think or express yourself coherently because there is so much fascinating stuff that you bounce along hither and thither sounding increasingly like an exceedingly eccentric person.

For example, I had hoped to simply go to the Search page of Twitter in order to see what I could come up with by searching for terms such as “grants” and “scholarships” and “funding.” But once I opened Twitter, all hopes of sticking to my proposed project vaporized immediately because I made the crucial mistake of glancing down at the tweets on my home page and got immediately distracted by items the titles of which sounded edifying.

For example, one of the most useful things I have found about Twitter is the fact that you learn about industries and fields you knew little about simply because people in them start to follow you and then you follow them and pretty soon you are starting to learn about marketing strategies in pharma and just now I have received an email from Twitter saying that I am being followed by this gentleman, Justin Johnson:

whom I had already been following on Twitter probably having found him via the Life Sciences room of FriendFeed.

That is one frustrating aspect of Twitter—there is often no record of how I came across a person to follow. I do save the emails from Twitter saying someone is following me. But are such people doing so because I followed them or because they came across my Twitter feed in the same random fashion that I came across theirs? And does it matter how one finds people to follow? To search professionals, marketers and social anthropologists parsing the intricacies of social networking and its societal implications it probably does.

But as someone just trying to learn as much as I can on a very superficial level (no time for depth in Twitterdom) as quickly as possible about such subjects such as search, Science 2.0, Open Science, Big Science and so on I just have to leverage my ability to read quickly and not stop to think these things through lest I find myself entrapped in yet another meandering sentence of own devising.

And what do I read through as quickly as I can in order to find things to read, ideally, a thoughtful, contemplative frame of mind? I read my home page of Twitter, looking for items intriguingly titled such as the item I found this morning, “Ok, say you get a genome. What next?”

See here for what I saw.


That is the greatest danger of Twitter—the power of cleverly titled tweets.

This was one irresistible. It appealed to me as a non-scientist interested in science. In a few simple words, it promised to elucidate an important subject (genomics) in an approachable fashion.

That is what endows Twitter with its power as a tool for public education in science. Would I in the pre-Twitter era have visited something called the OpenHelix Blog or cared that there was a blog with this self-proclaimed mandate, “Here on the OpenHelix blog you will find a genomics resources news portal with daily postings about genomics resources, genomics news and research, science and more. Our goal is to keep you, the researcher, informed about the overwhelming amount of genomics data out there and how to access it through the tools, databases and resources that are publicly available to you.”

Would I have even known that such a blog existed? That is one of the reasons Twitter is a search story—I keep pushing scientist-bloggers to add Twitter buttons to their blogs so as to render their incredibly useful content discoverable. But they cling to RSS and email subscriptions as the primary modes of dissemination of their writings and seem to regard Twitter as beneath them. Major miscalculation. Increasingly, Twitter-generated material is appearing in Google results. Like it or not, if you aren’t in Google you are missing a missing an opportunity to garner readers.

And on the matter of whether material gets read. It is this simple: I scan the homepage on Twitter. I notice a fascinating item such as the one on genomics. I note bits of wording that look significant and worthy of my time to retweet for the benefit of others who might, like me, need a lighting fast glimpse into abstruse matters. (“To get appropriate data to display you need to annotate your genome. You need to curate your genome.”) By retweeting it, I have simultaneously saved it as a social bookmark and thereby create a personal library of useful items for my own use later on. And therein lies a problem—how do I search my own updates in Twitter? There must be a way to do so, but if so I have not found it. There are third-party Twitter-related apps galore (and searching for those would itself entail using such apps to find other apps in a never-ending cycle of appiness). Is there one for organizing one’s updates?

Okay, I have now written a great deal and never did get accomplish my aim of investigating the potential utility of Twitter as a way of finding grants and scholarships. I have spent the past month working on getting ScanGrants Twitterized and that has been much more difficult than I anticipated. I have had it done by a real pro, thank goodness. But listing your own material (in my case grants) is own thing—searching through Twitter is another and I will have to address that another day and one that smart people like the guys at DeepDyve are probably working on even as I prepare to end this sentence.