How One Scientist Learned to Tweet and Love to Blog

Recently I surpassed 5,000 followers on Twitter, achieving a milestone I set for myself when I began to use the social media platform in November 2011. I initially used Twitter in support of a gathering we hosted here at the Gates Foundation for grantees and partners working on Achieving Impact at Scale in Family Health. Passing this milestone caused me to pause and reflect on my journey with social media, and ask myself some questions: Why do I spend time engaging in social media? What do I get out of it? What does it achieve for the women and children in poor communities that I strive to reach with global health and development solutions? Might I do things differently going forward?

I originally engaged in social media as a means to be more transparent about our strategies in Maternal Newborn and Child Health, Nutrition, and Family Planning. The Gates Foundation has been and continues to be criticized for a lack of transparency, so I was looking for new ways to communicate and dialogue more effectively and comprehensively with our grantees and partners around the world. I wanted our grantees, partners and engaged public to have a better idea of who we are, what we focus our work on and why, how we work and who we work with to achieve our goals, what we are learning along the way, and what we are doing to improve our performance and impact.

Publishing results in peer reviewed journals is critically important, but our obligation for knowledge sharing does not stop there.

I was responding, in part, to a deeply held belief that our fundamental "currency" or value-add as a foundation is the knowledge and learning that we create. In order to optimize the spread and use of this knowledge, and ultimately to "leverage" our investments and fulfill our mission to give everyone the chance to live a healthy and productive life, we must reach out proactively to share this learning and to catalyze the adoption of knowledge by policy makers, researchers, program managers, frontline health workers, mothers, etc. Publishing results in peer reviewed journals is critically important, but our obligation for knowledge sharing does not stop there. The learning generated by our investments must be made more widely available, and ultimately be adopted, for it to impact women, children, families and communities.

A favorite social media activity of mine has been twitter chats linked to blog series each spring which attempt to capture our learning and stimulate dialogue on key challenges we are facing. The twitter chats were highly engaging, but the blog series seemed to be primarily a one-way flow of information out, with relatively little commentary coming back outside of the "chats." And the twitter chats didn't have the reach into poor communities that I look for. I felt that we were primarily "preaching to the choir," although it was encouraging to see many partners grappling with us to solve our most pressing challenges.

I continue to wrestle with these questions (as I know others do as well): How do I increase the two-way dialogue, and how do I achieve greater reach to women and families in poor communities?

In addition to using Twitter and blogging to share what we are learning, I use these vehicles as a chief means for my own learning. My "followers" become my teachers.

One mechanism that I have been excited to be part of as a founding curator is Catapult. This crowd-funding site enables me to link followers and people I meet in person and in social media spaces to a place where they can engage, identify projects and partners doing work they want to support, and follow the impact of their investments, which can be of any size. It's been very exciting for me to see several of the projects I highlighted become fully funded, and to see the boost this gives to the organizations and the communities that are supported.

In addition to using Twitter and blogging to share what we are learning, I use these vehicles as a chief means for my own learning. My "followers" become my teachers! I learn new perspectives and gain factual information on topics of interest, I become aware of important events, and I learn more about what resonates with an engaged public and how to communicate ideas more clearly and compellingly.

My followers also become catalysts for change through further spread of ideas and information. In tweeting out a message, I often imagine myself standing in front of an audience of 5000 enthusiastic listeners, each of whom, in turn, is speaking to an audience of their own. What do I want to tell them and how can I say it in a way that captures their interest and sparks their imagination, and stimulates them to spread the idea? What an amazing network of passionate individuals that I can tap into at any moment!

Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter has offered an analogy: While television shows were previously limited to the people watching in any one room, "Twitter expands the room... you're often better off focusing on the people who are likely to watch a particular program and then be inclined to talk about it."

In this way, I see Twitter and blogging as ways to reach a select group of people who are inclined to action, providing an important avenue for "leverage" and for achieving impact in the lives of women and children at scale.

Being a scientist who is driven by data and evidence, another shortcoming of social media that I also continue to grapple with is defining the return on the time I am investing in these vehicles. I have fun. I learn. I feel better connected. I am gratified to know that people are "listening" to my ideas. But what tangible impact is really being achieved by my presence on social media channels? This is a rapidly evolving and exciting area for monitoring and evaluation. I don't have an answer yet but I'm still tweeting and still blogging... for the health (and development) of it.

This post was written by Dr. Gary Darmstadt, Senior Fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow him at @gdarmsta.