The new generation of the internet, known as Web 2.0, has changed the way we work, shop, keep in touch, even how we find love. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s also revolutionised the way the public engage with science and scientists, and vice versa. With social networking, video sharing, podcasting and blogging all at our fingertips, how many public engagement professionals are using these tools to their advantage?
Second Life is an online, three-dimensional, virtual world, where users can create a profile and an avatar (an animated character on the screen). They can use this to meet people, to learn and to educate others. The population of Second Life has a growing scientific sector which has contributed to the building of a virtual spaceflight museum, planetarium and several climate-related areas.
Flying with Nature
The journal Nature owns four dedicated virtual islands complete with conference centres and meeting rooms. Members of Nature’s islands can walk, fly, or even teleport to the venue, where they can watch presentations, listen to lectures and take part in discussions.
‘People have joined Second Life specifically to attend our events,’ says Joanna Scott, who is in charge of co-ordinating and maintaining Nature’s presence in Second Life. ‘They often go on to explore the world further, and end up getting involved with other science activities there.’
‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here! ’ (IAS) is an online science engagement and democracy event for schools. During its pilot run in 2008, IAS received positive feedback from students, teachers and scientists alike. Of the students surveyed, 60 per cent said they felt more confident or much more confident at debating science issues having taken part.
While social networking tools present an important opportunity for organisations to engage in dialogue with people online, it is important to recognise that success is limited by the amount of time and effort the organisation is prepared to contribute.
‘It’s no good having interactive websites unless the organisations behind them are genuinely interactive too,’ says Matthew Barker from the government’s Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), which has been experimenting over the last six months with a variety of social media tools and online engagement projects. ‘Making [them] work depends on a genuine commitment from government to listen to what people say and respond to their feedback.’
Also, a disproportionate percentage of internet and social network users are young and highly technologically literate, and do not reflect the general breakdown of the population. By focusing engagement initiatives solely online, it is possible to alienate other important sectors of society, including those not familiar with or able to use the internet.
Videos on the web
Web video is becoming increasingly popular, with one in thirty UK internet visits in 2009 being to a video sharing website, compared with just one in fifty in 2008. The medium offers a valuable opportunity to engage people with science, as TV producer Jonathan Sanderson has demonstrated. His online public engagement initiative Planet SciCast  allows users to share videos about physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, earth science and more. He runs a competition to encourage submissions.
‘We're trying to build the world's most entertaining science resource,’ says Jonathan. ‘SciCast is about turning the growing excitement around making films, to practical, collective benefit.’
The web has become an integral part of daily life to many people, and the advances in online social networking are changing how people interact. However, the process is gradual and until online social networks are truly established, it is important to see them for what they are: valuable and innovative tools that are best used alongside existing engagement initiatives.