There has recently been something of a backlash over scientists using social media with many suggesting that it's puerile and pointless but others actually abandoning science in favor of a new career that embraces what we used to quaintly refer to as web 2.0. It's bizarre, I created a Twitter list of people in science before Twitter had official lists and shared it widely, early adopters of the service clamored to be added to my list and I think it was partly to blame for my ascent to the giddy heights of The Independent newspaper Top 100 Brits on Twitter...but that was several years and many tweets past.
Meanwhile, malicious malcontents commonly known as trolls have emerged on social media in force and en masse to try and spoil the game for those of us who find it an entertaining and often informative distraction. They are failing, even if there have been several prominent trollings sensationalized by the tabloid press. Those of us who see the benefits of social media report and block the trolls when they appear. It is a frustrating game of whack-a-mole, unfortunately, but has to be done. Similarly, spotting the shills and sock puppets can be almost as time-consuming as blocking porn bots.
Fascinating conversations do occur spontaneously. Earlier this week, I blogged on my personal site Sciencebase about problems down in Rio, where it looked like the Olympic diving pool was being subjected to an algal bloom. The bloom had turned the water green and cloudy, which is not only less aesthetically pleasing than the crystal-clear blue of the nearby swimming pool, but also hazardous for those taking part in the diving events. Imagine the scene if an athlete suffered an injury in the middle of a dive and plunged into the murky depths out of sight of the lifeguards. There could be a serious incident.
Anyway, I discussed the algal bloom on Facebook as well as in my blog and had useful and informative comments, although the official line had not been toed at this point (later that day my hunch was vindicated). Indeed, there were all kinds of theories being bandied about. However, I've worked at outdoor pools and seen how they can turn green and cloudy over the course of a sunny day or two and this looked so familiar I was convinced there could be no other explanation.
However, science types on social media were suggesting that perhaps it was iron in the water somehow reacting with the sodium hypochlorite, the "chlorine", added to pools as disinfectant. This seemed rather unlikely, iron salts give a rusty, ruddy brown tinge to water, never green, surely. So, could it have been copper, perhaps, that would generate a bluey-green hue, but wouldn't make it cloudy. Either way, what would be the source of the requisite concentrations of either metal to generate a color with chlorine through some kind of oxidation reaction? Then the officials tried to claim it was simply down to a drop in alkalilinity as they'd ran out of treatment chemicals in the system. The discussions went on, my blog was updated and I wrote a short news item about the topic for a chemistry magazine.
The discussion went back and forth, but I was never convinced that it was anything but an algal bloom and promised to eat my Speedos with a side order of fries if it proved to be a chemical problem rather than a biological one. The official announcement came and yes, it was algae, so no I don't have to eat my swimming costume. And, although the diving and swimming pools are next to each other and exposed to the same ambient conditions and sunlight that might trigger an algal bloom should spores be present, the diving pool water is heated to a higher temperature for the comfort of the divers, so that could easily explain the more rapid growth of the bloom in that pool. It may be a matter of time before the other pool succumbs. At the time of writing, it's raining on the girl from Ipanema
Now, the pool maintenance team needs to "shock" the pool with a large quantity of chlorine to kill the bloom, let the filters take care of the microscopic detritus and then balance the pH and keep on top of the problem should it look like happening again.
Anyway, the moral of the tale is that social media is a tool. It's a tool for communication. It can be a tool for abuse and disinformation but equally it can be a great tool for thrashing out ideas scientific and otherwise and getting to the bottom of a problem relatively quickly. I've been on the web since the mid-1990s and adopted each social media tool as it emerged, I've been trolled once or twice and blocked my fair share of porn bots, but 99.999% of the time, the waters are crystal clear, if you're thinking of leaving don't head for the showers and your warm towel just yet and if you haven't even dipped a toe now's the time to dive in, the water's lovely.
David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".