An oral history of Ocean Science Twitter

I created my Twitter account in the spring of 2009. Back then, science blogging was new and we all though that using pseudonyms for anonymity was the pragmatic and cool thing to do. Southern Friend Science had been cooking for over a year at that point, and we were excited about the near-limitless potential of the social web.

Blogs were still king, with Deep Sea News, and Oyster’s Garter, and Malaria, Bedbugs, Sealice, and Sunsets and myriad others speaking up for the oceans, online. But this isn’t a history of ocean science bloggers, this is a history of Ocean Science Twitter.

Those early days were, more than anything, fun. We were still finding our voices and finding our communities. David joined soon after and the rest of the core Ocean’s Online crew arrived soon after. We were live-tweeting experiments, sharing hypotheses, planning research projects, starting collaborations, forming communities.

Twitter is gone now, replaced by the impersonal X, not just a new brand name, but a reminder that you should close that tab. Since its acquisition by Elon Musk, the once-vibrant site has been slowly gutted, transformed into a desperate grab for cash from subscribers and an endless sea of paid content. But if this last year has been a tale of slow decline, this last few weeks have been the final death roll. The rebrand to X was bad, but far, far worse was the protection, promotion, and financial compensation of a user who posted explicit child sexual abuse material. There’s nothing left of the Twitter that was.

Everything changed for Ocean Science Twitter on April 20, 2010, when the Macondo oil well rupture, setting the Deepwater Horizon aflame. Eleven oil rig workers died and 200 million gallon of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. The community mobilized quickly to provide critical context and public outreach as the disaster stretched from days to months. Ocean scientists on Twitter were positioned to respond to media queries and act as expert sources, but beyond the communications push, scientific collaborations emerged from these very large, very public discussions. As one example, we determined that I had some of the most recent pre-spill sediment samples from the areas near the disasters and identified the right researchers to work up those samples and provide a necessary baseline for understand the scope and scale of the spill.

In one of many congressional report outlining the response to the crisis, Deep-sea News and Southern Fried Science were identified by name as an example of rapid dissemination of accurate information and ruthless debunking of misinformation by experts.

Ocean Science Twitter wasn’t a fun little hobby anymore, it had become a serious tool for outreach, emergency communications, and professional development. And it was about to be put to the test.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rocked the seafloor just east of Japan, shaking the island for six minutes and sending a wall of water towards shore. It was the strongest earthquake to ever strike Japan and the fourth strongest Earthquake ever recorded. And right in its path was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

While ocean science Twitter wasn’t on the front line for disaster comms during the Tsunami, as it became apparent that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was undergoing a meltdown and the resulting radioactive water from within the cooling system needed to be dumped into the ocean, a flood of misinformation followed. Within days of the incident, attention grifters were reporting impacts as far away as the US West Coast, an impossible distance for the waste to cover in the time frame. Every piece of marine debris was ascribed to not just the tsunami, but the nuclear plant, specifically.

The misinformation spread for years. Even in 2013, we we still debunking outrageous and impossible claims about the impact of Fukushima. It bled across social media and even today the old claims still rise up to mislead a new generation of social media users.

The 2012 to 2015 era felt like the golden age for online science outreach. The community had professionalized, but social media was still fun. There were obvious red flags on the horizon, but the realm still felt as if it belonged to us. We did weird things, like DrownYourTown. We did a whole coordinated campaign around an Exploding Whale that did not even explode, but which was so effective it inspired a sketch on Saturday Night Live. We took on Shark Week, and got so much traffic from one article that I can still tell when Discovery re-airs that terrible show because we get a traffic spike of several orders of magnitude.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the biggest moments for ocean science Twitter correlate to the formation of Upwell. Designed to be a PR Firm for the Ocean, Upwell took on the burden of compiling and analyzing the firehose of social media data and distilling it into key communications strategies for the ocean science and conservation community. Upwell did the hard work of figuring out how and why certain stories went viral and building campaigns around that work.

What was truly novel about Upwell was that they weren’t their own brand. They existed to help the entirety of the ocean community, providing services to NGOs and individuals and releasing a huge amount of “unbranded content” in order to grow the online conversation about the oceans.

They were wildly effective. And then, in 2015, they were gone.

Nothing in the following years quite compares to the 2010-2015 era of Ocean Science Twitter. What we built was wonderful, but it wouldn’t last. There were several major initiatives, including Oceans Online (the revival of Science Online Oceans which happened concurrently with IMCC). We continued tackling disinformation around things like the Ocean Cleanup, I made a bunch of weird, sci-fi tools for educators, and we even campaigned (ineffectively) to create new ocean emojis. But nothing never quite rose to the same level as the early 2010s.

Southern Fried Science traffic has been on a downward spiral ever since its peak in 2014.

The Pandemic broke me. It was decade after the Deepwater Horizon Disaster and the professionalization of Ocean Science Twitter, and for all the lessons learned and strategies developed, for all the papers published about effect dissemination of knowledge and tactical tools for challenging misinformation, for all the Nerds of Trust and Moment Inertia, we were, collectively, wholly unprepared to rise to information challenge brought about by the Pandemic. The landscape had changed so much, had been eroded by a four year dataclysm initiated in service of the 2016 US Election. The Merchants of Doubt had made social media their domain, and we lacked the tools and the financial resources to effectively challenge them.

And now, three years later, Elon Musk has positioned himself to become the Rupert Murdoch of social media, controlling who and how information can disseminate across not just his newly acquired social media platform, but across the connective tissue of the internet.

Twitter is dead, and with it one of the most powerful tools for wide-scale dissemination of information. In its place is a platform hostile to knowledge and fed by ego. For all that Twitter once was, there is nothing left to bury.

Misinformation is a grift. It’s not just people incredulously sharing alarming news. It’s not well-meaning people being misinformed. It’s an engine, financed by people with a vested interest in making it impossible to find reliable information online. It is an industry that has learned that attention is valuable and that being right isn’t nearly as profitable as being mad.

We’re lucky. For over a decade we’ve been told to pivot to social or create a substack or move to a new platform, all of which would mean trading control of Southern Friend Science for potential access to a broader audience. But Southern Fried Science has always been ours, supported by crowdfunding when possible, but always free and independent. For all our efforts across the internet (we once even launched out own Mastodon instance), this has always been our home.

And it always will be.

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