140,000 Words

Too cool for school? Or just cool enough?

When I was about ten, I got a Far Side page-a-day calendar for Christmas. Of course I couldn’t wait a whole year to read the cartoons, so I sat down and flipped through the entire thing. I adored the gags, but I couldn’t understand many of them. My poor parents had to set a rule that they would explain only one joke per month, to minimize my pestering them with questions. That left me to research the others on my own, plunging me into books on prehistory, microbiology, and ecology.

So I learned a lot from Gary Larson. Inspired, I copied his style in my own attempts at humorous line drawing. As the child of two schoolteachers in rural Alaska, I spent a lot of time in classrooms both before and after the other students had to be there, which gave me plenty of access to barren blackboards. Day after day I illustrated scientific puns with chalk. I like cartooning, but my freehand skills are limited. I will never create gorgeous scientific sketches on par with Bird and Moon, American Beetles, or Stated Clearly. Still, I’ve always loved using simple whimsical pictures to share truths about nature.

A quarter-century later, I had a Twitter account. I tried my hand at nerdy wit, but the majority of my tweets, mostly notoriously the taxonomy-based limericks, remained rightfully ignored. While scrolling through my feed, I occasionally saw tiny images alongside the words. Of course these were emojis, text characters in the form of pictures rather than letters, numbers, or punctuation. Originating in Japan, emojis have no relation to emoticons, the little faces that people make with punctuation marks like :-). Some emojis are faces, but most are not. They are animals, symbols, buildings, whatever. They can be added to any string of text like this: 🐼🍒💡🗽. I was vaguely aware of them, though I didn’t realize their potential at the time.

Then I saw this:

AstroKatieIt was genius. A funny joke, teaching a real scientific concept, attractive to view with its charming little heavenly bodies, and understandable in the half-second attention span of the Internet. And if for some reason you didn’t get it, a quick googling of any of the three phrases would help clear things up. It was art that didn’t require any artistic skill. Plus, as a tweet, it was easy to share, and it had been retweeted thousands of times, probably viewed by millions. Nine emojis had taught a mini astronomy lesson to the entire Web. I had to try it. Of course, my field is biology, not space. I adapted a figure from my dissertation defense slides about types of natural selection. You could fit so much information into 140 characters this way! I even had room left over to throw in a joke about camels and bimodal distributions.

NatSal_IIt was an instant hit, more popular by far than any of my previous tweets. I tried again

NatSal_IIand thus produced my second-most-popular tweet ever. Over the next few months, I tried a few more, and they were almost always well received. I had stumbled upon an easy and entertaining way of conveying complex concepts. It was much less work to compose a tweet than, say a write a blog post. I was reliving my chalkboard cartoon days, but with a public audience, and in a way that fit into my busy schedule as an assistant professor and father. According to Twitter Analytics, the most successful tweets were reaching upwards of 100,000 viewers. If I spent my career teaching full classrooms of students, I could never match that number. So if one of my professional goals is pedagogy, surely I should be spending a little more time on this strategy that works so well. It baffled me that few others were trying it. I mostly saw Twitter scientists saying things like, “I study giraffes, and there’s no giraffe emoji, so I can’t explain my work that way.” Sure, but you’re presumably using giraffes as a model to illuminate something like biomechanics, population structure, or nutrient cycling, and those concepts can be illustrated with emojis.

I needed a dedicated account. Not everyone who likes emoji science wants to see my own personal tweets about whatever departmental seminar I just attended. And I suspected some of my own followers might not want to get inundated with emojis. So last Thanksgiving weekend I created @biolojical, devoted to emoji-based tweets about biology. I try to put out a new one every two or three days. I haven’t run out of ideas yet.

Is it successful? Well, in four months I’ve attracted over 900 followers, a feat that took me four years on my regular Twitter account. That’s still not huge by Twitter standards, but it’s a lot more than, say, the typical read count for these blog posts. Besides, it’s just the beginning. A more important question is whether I am reaching an audience that could use the information, or just my fellow biologists who already know this stuff. A lot of my followers are PhDs or grad students. But I try to include a few obscurities that even most scientists don’t know. And hopefully I’m giving other scholars ideas for their own classes and outreach activities. It’s a balancing act: I don’t want to dumb it down so much that diehard biology fans are bored, but I want to be as accessible as possible. The solution is to follow Gary Larson. I learned a lot from the Far Side, not because Larson skimped on the science but because he didn’t. I wanted to get every joke, so I was inspired to read up on the relevant subjects. Similarly, one goal of @biological is to make people want to google things. Indeed, that’s the heart of my academic teaching philosophy. The most important thing I can do as an instructor is to get students excited about a subject, such that they are inspired to value and retain what I’ve taught them and to keep learning about it long after they have left the classroom. Teach your students to fish, and they’ve learned one thing they may forget. Intrigue them with some evolution-themed fishing pictographs, and you just might spark a curiosity that lasts a lifetime.

One last point: Twitter is a community, not a publishing platform. @biolojical would not have succeeded without retweets and promotions by its fans, including @am_anatiala, @mwilsonsayres, @carlzimmer, @johnlogsdon, @WhySharksMatter, @biotweeps, and many others. Thanks!

A few popular @biolojical tweets:


One thought on “140,000 Words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s