How immutable are our social media consumption habits? Very few people would argue that immutable and social media should even be in the same sentence, except perhaps in that electronic paper trail that we leave behind us (“once it’s out on the internet you can never take it back!”). Vine, YikYak, and MySpace are just a few of the corpses that litter the social media platform floor.
With all of this in mind, #FoundThem, Duncan Forgan and Alexander Scholz’s paper about having SETI announcements keep pace with modern news consumption habits, is at once necessary and illuminating and simultaneously overly optimistic and prey to its own criticisms.
The authors consider the very important problem of public outreach and media image at a depth that most SETI scientists probably don’t think about. They argue that being aware of SETI’s perception in the media and taking active steps to prevent misunderstandings, preempt leaks, combat misreporting, and discourage sensationalism are a fundamental part of doing SETI science, and that proper protocols should be established and followed in this vein. It’s hard to argue with the sense in that!
But the execution of the idea would certainly be hard to pull off. Convincing scientists to coherently and publicly write about their methods before a search is even conducted seems whimsical at best. Old habits die hard, and changing the career habits of a generation of scientists is probably impossible. There’s an overriding fear of being scooped (see the 2003 EL61 incident) that makes some scientists wary of public information. And then there’s just the natural non-linearity that comes from being scatterbrained and/or busy and/or having organically evolving projects.
The authors argue that news is changing and that social media platforms will come and go. They give examples of Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo in their final section summarizing their proposed protocols. There are so many questions that this raises for me. The authors admit that the platforms are changing, but implicitly assume that, more generally, video publishing, “microblogging”, and medium to long form blogs will maintain popularity. I don’t have a good sense for how good an assumption that is, but perhaps they should’ve kept their suggestions more general, such that their paper will be relevant for longer.
In addition, the form of the content is not well discussed. Should these platforms be utilized to leave a publicly accessible research blog, polished and written for a general audience? Or just research notes, to leave a nice trail of proof but without the humor and shine* that you might include in a piece that’s actually meant to get “likes” and “retweets” and “views” and “shares”? Or just a video of a scientist at a desk, reciting the day’s progress in a jargon-y monotone? All of them require additional time which will not be spent doing science, some far more than others.
Suggesting that the journalists clean up their act instead seems disingenuous – like shifting the burden because we SETI practitioners don’t want to deal with it. At the same time, however, I feel like the most meticulously kept blog will fall like a domino in front of a single determined journalist with a sensationalist pen. Raise your hand if you’ve seen the Rio Scale used in an article (or even heard of the Rio Scale). My point exactly. Even if we could be as careful and involved with outreach as the authors suggest, the root of the problem might be deeper than a familiarity with WordPress can cure.
*some authors are probably incapable of humor and shine – what should they do in this case?