Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day – how was it for you?

The pains and pleasures of tweeting science and technology innovation, 140 characters at a time.

Five days, 539 words and 3,447 characters later, the Twitter experiment is over. Did I succeed in communicating on emerging science and technology in 700 characters a day?  I’m not sure.  The whole exercise was harder than I expected.  Trying to come up with something interesting and relevant five times a day was a challenge.  Thursday was a particularly tough day—and the entries show it!

But at the end of the exercise, I must admit it was fun.  And even though tweeting will never supplant full-on blogging for communicating stuff in depth, it clearly has a place.

I’m not sure I would do a five-day stint like this again, but the medium is clearly open to innovative use.  And with some thought, could be used to convey more complex information than trivial thoughts and web links.  Personally, I think my writing-style took a dive with the constraints imposed by the character-limit and serial-posts.  But I was surprised at how much could be crammed into 140 characters, with some thought.  And while the experiment had many flaws, I think there is scope to use Twitter and similar formats in ways that lead to engagement on issues with some depth.

As a result of the “experiment,” I will be playing around more with my “tweets” over the coming weeks.  You may have noticed the new “microblog” on the sidebar to 2020science, that will allow my progress to be monitored closely!

At the end of the day though, the real test is whether you, the readers, are convinced that science and technology can be conveyed in bite-sized chunks.

If you missed all the excitement, you can re-live it at the end of this email—all 25 tweets neatly laid out and ready to be mercilessly dissected!  Did I embarrass myself?  Did I miss the point of tweeting entirely, Was this an exercise destined to failure.  Or was there a hint that Twitter—and other microblogs—can be used in innovative ways to convey information?  Comments please!

In the meantime, some reflections of my own:

What I liked:

  • The discipline and challenge of conveying useful information in a few brief characters.
  • Watching my thoughts and ideas develop on the fly.
  • The immediacy of the medium.
  • The possibility of plugging into and engaging with people in a wide social network.

What I didn’t like:

  • Not being able to add links to posts (this was a self-imposed restriction, that I broke once, but links just suck up too many of the precious 140 characters—even small ones).
  • Not being able to scrub the whole chain of tweets and start again.
  • Running out of characters when I couldn’t quite fit an idea into the space.
  • Having to continue feeding the beast when all hell was breaking loose elsewhere… (another self-imposed rule).
  • Having to decide between maintaining a flow of ideas over several tweets, and replying to other tweeters—which would have disrupted the flow.

The tweets in full:


Why invest in science and technology? “Innovation” you are supposed to reply. But is scitech innovation all it’s cracked up to be?

Scitech innovation is clearly crucial to tackling issues that conventional tech falls short on – climate, energy, healthcare, clean water

And I’m pretty sure scitech innovation is a critical economic driver – new knowledge and know-how can add tremendous value to raw materials

OK so scitech innovation is important – just thought I would get that out of the way up-front. Next question – how do you get it right?

Answer: Keep the scitech pipeline flowing, enable tech transfer, and ensure “safe” use – sounds like something for the new stimulus package!


And the important scitec? Making stuff at the nanoscale (bio and non-bio), info gen/flow/use, and mashing it all up together (convergence)

Nanotech: making stuff that does stuff at the nanoscale; is already extending the reach of conventional tech. And you aint seen nothing yet

Small changes at the nanoscale can have profound impacts – think computers, data storage, super-strong lightweight materials, targeted drugs

Question is, how do we ensure we get the biggest bang for the buck from nanotechnology – without creating more problems than we solve?

Three steps which I suspect are key to realizing nanotech’s potential: relevant research, effective tech transfer, and responsive oversight.


Hot off the press: according to the National Academies the feds are still struggling with getting safe nano right: http://tinyurl.com/5mnxk9

But that’s an aside, because today I wanted to focus on playing with biology at the nanoscale, and specifically on synthetic biology.

Drew Endy: “Biology is nanotechnology that works.” If we can engineer bio like we do non-bio, is this a shortcut to some advanced nanotech?

Imagine being able to program living things through their DNA to do specific things – generate energy, synthesize fuels, construct materials

That’s where we are heading with synbio – a powerful mix of engineering and biology. Transformative stuff, but ethically complex I suspect!


Strip away the soft squidgy stuff and synbio is all about manipulating, transmitting and utilizing information; information tech writ small

Information provides meaning to things. Which means that innovation in info generation, interpretation, use etc commands a high premium.

Information storage – could you live without your computer, TiVo, iPod, iPhone, digital camera, on-line repository of digital bric-a-brac?

Information use – humans and machines are becoming nodes in a rapidly evolving and growing global “digital brain” – and innovation is rife!

Information technology is an incredible powerhouse of innovation that is evolving at breakneck speed; adding value, while challenging norms.


Separately, info nano and biotech have tremendous potential. But when they interact and overlap, innovation explodes. This is convergence.

Innovation most readily flourishes at the interface between disciplines/technologies/ideas – you know that. This is where the sparks fly.

But innovation at scitech interfaces isn’t easy. The sparks of new ideas are delicate, and easily doused by old ways of thinking and working

On the other hand, when convergent innovation gets going, it can burn like wildfire (internet, ICE?). Then the name of the game is control.

So back to the original Q’s: why invest in scitech, and what is needed for success? In 32 characters: Necessity, imagination & wisdom. OK?

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5 Responses to Emerging science and technology at 700 characters per day – how was it for you?

  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    Since I was following your experiment from the beginning and since Opinions ‘r’ Us, here are some of my thoughts:

    You could, of course, have crafted your messages all at once and then only Tweeted at intervals, 140 characters at a time – that might have made it easier (and wouldn’t have been cheating, honest. It would merely have been strategic.).

    Writing short but meaningful messages is always much harder than writing long. It’s a wonderful exercise though.

    I was hesitant to interrupt when I wanted clarification – I puzzled over ‘info gen’ for quite a while before concluding (rightly or wrongly) that you meant the generation of information. I had other questions as well: who is Drew Endy? Why can’t we program inanimate things too, like the kitchen floor, the mop and the bucket, so the floor gets washed without my intervention?

    Even though I can read quite well upside down and backwards, in order to follow your train of thought I found I had to separate your Tweets out from the several hundred others I was getting – otherwise I would be scrolling back down to reread the previous one and became distracted by links to local shootings, Sudanese war criminals, the latest media outlet to announce it was no longer going to publish or was laying off staff, etc.

    In the week prior to your experiment and the week of, I saw two cases of people live Tweeting events they were attending – one was Malcolm Gladwell’s talk at the Rotman School of Business in Toronto as part of the promotional tour for his new book, Outliers; the other was a Wally Lamb reading at a bookstore. I found them pretty easy to follow (again, when separated from all the other Tweets I was reading), but others didn’t seem to have thought of that workaround and were very puzzled by what was going on.

    I think a few probably quite simple tweaks to the Twitter user interface could solve those problems, as well as others posed by time zone differences when you’re following a lot of people – on the west coast of North America, for instance, a lot’s gone by already when you’re following folks in Europe and the UK. Paging back through 20 pages of Tweets isn’t really viable, nor is clicking on the icon of everyone you’re following.

    And no, you didn’t embarrass yourself or miss the point. I’m delighted to see a scientist using Twitter in such an innovative way. You’ve got most of the social media gurus beat by a mile – I’ve diagnosed ADHD amongst several of them; it’s the only explanation of why they’re telling us what they had for lunch and which tarmac they’re on. 🙂

  2. Andrew Maynard says:

    Thanks Ruth,

    The difficulties surrounding side conversations sparked off by the tweets and keeping them together as a coherent stream on the screen were pretty big ones. One work-round would be to use tags (precede each message with #scitechexpt or something, allowing searches to pick up the relevant messages) – but it does eat into the character limit.

    And Drew Endy – he is a leading synthetic biologist, but an ability to explain that would have been useful 🙂

  3. Phil Stiff says:

    The twitter character limit, for me, obliterates the ability to communicate effectively. The posts made me feel really on edge because they had to jump on point so fast and get crafted like a huffpost headline or a fortune cookie proverb. I must be getting old. It does look like a good practice exercise for trying to form concise thoughts and positions.

    I think Facebook allows a little more leeway for this kind of thing, but I don’t really know the demographics/user counts of twitter or facebook users. I’m seeing more and more 40something friends join fbook lately.

  4. Andrew Maynard says:

    I’m actually thinking of a counter-experiment (or at least a post) on “slow blogging” (not sure that is a real term – will have to Google it). i.e. going back to the old art of using what space it takes to get an idea across with clarity, elegance and persuasion 🙂

  5. Clif H says:

    Interesting experiment Andrew. I never understood the Twitter phenomenon myself until I saw it in action by some West Coast uber-twitter friends. It was clear to me then how a conversation over beers at bar in Boston soon became a global discourse on the state of technology. So while I agree with you that Twitter is not the place to flesh out an extended thought in single burst, if you view the intent of the tool that way you’re missing the point. Twitter is to blogs like IM is to email. Twitter is conversation, not lecture. And, like Facebook, a way to have an open, ongoing, global conversation with all of one’s friends/followers/colleagues/etc at the same time, in the same place, in the same public forum. Another way to maximize network response by permitting both global and individual conversation at the same it – put it out there and see what comes back from the network. Look at the quantity of folks integrating Twitter to Facebook statuses and the concept becomes quite clear.

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