The Bad Astronomer and the Good of Social Media

In Lifestyle, Social Media by UFSocial Staff

by David Lantrip, UFSocial Contributor

When I was young I devoured every episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. Although some of the concepts like higher dimensions and black holes went way over my head it helped nurture in me a life-long love of discovery and understanding the world through science. While Sagan is no longer with us others have carried his torch, urgently pressing us to care about science because it is the best tool we have to effect positive change. It could one day literally be the difference between our life or death as a species.

One person who is continuing Sagan’s legacy of bringing science to everyone is Dr. Phil Plait. An astronomer who describes himself on his Instagram profile as an

“astronomer, blogger, author, speaker, collection of a trillion cells and father”

Pic: Terry Robinson via CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

Pic: Terry Robinson via CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

Plait is best known for his Bad Astronomy features on Slate. I should point out here that he is far from a bad astronomer. Bad astronomers are not likely to have worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. The blog name and his nickname of The Bad Astronomer come from his earlier work writing on misconceptions and bad science  in movies and other pop culture. There is no shortage of material there, enough to fill a book.

As part of his work to popularize science and educate the general public, Plait has embraced social media, using it as a bullhorn to amplify his voice and reach as many people as possible. This embodies the idea of Web 2.0, an arena in which one person can reach tens of millions and not just hand down information from above, but interact with followers in a real dialog. It is clear that many people are interested in what he has to say. At the time of writing the astronomer has:

A couple of notable Twitter followers include Barack Obama and Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the mohawked engineer who helped land the Curiosity lander on Mars in 2012.

As any good writer should do, Plait uses social media to promote his work. Each new article or installment in his YouTube Crash Course Astronomy series is accompanied by a Facebook post or a tweet. A recent tweet promoting an article about strange bright spots on the asteroid Ceres was shared 105 times and favorite 113 times. Granted, it falls well short of nearly 16,000 retweets Oreos once received, but we’re talking about an asteroid here.

via https://twitter.com/BadAstronomer

via https://twitter.com/BadAstronomer

via https://www.facebook.com/philplait

via https://www.facebook.com/philplait

It’s not all about self promotion though. Dr. Plait also curates and shares content from many sources. The topics are not restricted to astronomy, rather they encompass topics including social issues, climate change, skeptical thinking, politics and evolution, especially articles in which two or more of the issues overlap. You might wonder how he has time to find so many compelling articles on such a wide variety of topics but that answer also comes from social media. Like all of us his newsfeed is full of information streaming from like-minded friends while social media management tools such as Hootsuite make it easier to listen for content that is valuable to his followers.

via https://twitter.com/BadAstronomer

via https://twitter.com/BadAstronomer

As a writer and speaker Plait’s personal brand is his product, and social media serves a vital role in developing relationships with his followers. To do that he shares some personal photos and thoughts in his travels. There is nothing too personal, very little about his home life or family, but scenes from his bike rides in Colorado or pictures from the Air & Space Museum. These personal touches round out his personality and create a more complete persona. In social media it is, remember, all about relationships.

via https://www.facebook.com/philplait

As a social media student there is just one bit of advice I would give Dr. Plait if he were to ask my opinion. As seen in the example above he often posts simultaneously to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This explains the triple caption and why it is not crafted in the best manner for the three platforms. Each has its own native language and crafting the posts individually would allow him to make the best of each one. It takes a little more time but the benefits are well worth the effort.

Plait takes advantage of social media to meet his goals:

  • Gain exposure
  • Build relationships with his readers
  • Share useful and engaging content
  • Establish himself as a thought leader (as though there was ever a doubt)

By doing these things he has built a wide and influential audience and is fighting the good fight expanding our knowledge and pushing back against rampant ignorance. All in all, a great job Dr. Plait.

Dr Plait at Dragoncon! Pic: Jamie Bernstein via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Flickr

Dr Plait at Dragoncon! Pic: Jamie Bernstein via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/Flickr

About the Author

David Lantrip is the director of education at Franchise Concepts, the franchisor for Deck The Walls, The Great Frame Up and Framing and Art Centre. He also is a contributing writer to Picture Framing Magazine, the industry’s leading trade journal and teach a number of classes at their annual trade show.

About the Author

UFSocial Staff