Exploring Social Media as a Research Tool for Measuring Engagement in a Paleontological Community of Practice

Document Type

Conference Paper

Journal/Book Title/Conference

Geological Society of America Annual Meeting


Baltimore, MD

Publication Date



The FOSSIL Project, a web-based initiative, is using social media as a research tool to investigate the engagement levels of professional and amateur paleontologists online. The FOSSIL Project includes face-to-face and online interactions which bring amateur and professional paleontologists together in a community of practice. The community of practice entails an online space through which amateurs and professionals commune in an inclusive form of computer-supported scientific inquiry that we call “social paleontology.” A key component to establishing our community of practice is social media. By examining the ways in which our community engages with the social media platforms of Twitter and Facebook, we can offer unique insights into best practices for using social media to support science-based communities of practice. This longitudinal study examined the ways in which our social media audience(s) engaged with content on various platforms. An encompassing question for this study was: “Which social media components are most engaging, for whom, and under what conditions?” We focused on describing which types of posts generated the most conversations about scientific topics. Using descriptive statistics to quantify post engagement, we saw changes in levels of engagement based on social media post type. Content analysis of the community’s comments reveal that basic conversations about science (those without much scientific merit) occur on social media. Our results indicate that engagement level is dependent upon: (1) social media post type, such as research-focused stories, informative stories, stories featuring opportunities for community members, and paleontological news stories; (2) the different forms of audience segmentation occurring within social media platforms, such as the plethora of professional paleontologists on Twitter, yet low professional numbers on Facebook; and (3) best practices for creating a community through social media. This study suggests that social media is a useful but underutilized tool in building scientific communities of practice.

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