OPINION: Plenty of academics use social media. I follow literally hundreds of them on Twitter. They’re fascinating people who tweet links to diverse research and information. They have expanded my thinking in a variety of ways and are genuine ambassadors for the academy. They don’t need to be taught about science communications or translational research, they’re already doing it.

I have a confession though. I’m not entirely convinced they’re real people.

None of the people I have worked with across several Australian universities have had real interest in using social media. A few have made half-hearted stabs at it. They’ve set up a Twitter account. They’ve written a blog post. One even set up a Facebook page for a research project.

These efforts tend to shrivel on the vine though because they require a time investment. The pay-off isn’t immediate, academics feel harried, so social media remains a niche activity.

I’m not a social media or communications researcher. I’m just someone who uses social media. I started using it out of curiosity and a sense of fun. Since then I’ve come to use it as my primary source of news and cultural information. I rely on people on Twitter and app.net to tell me what’s happening and generally that works well. I also use social media as an ad hoc information network. If I’m grappling with an issue or an idea it’s likely one of the people who follows me will be able to steer me in the right direction. My plea for help about “creeping determinism” recently yielded a dozen responses almost immediately and saved me hours. They also helped to put some of the related disciplinary concepts in context.

This capacity to link you to new people, particularly from different fields of practice, is one of the best things about social media. I’ve met a number of people via Twitter who I’ve since collaborated with on research projects and publications, and many who I consider friends. I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to speak at events and in the media based solely on my social media use.

A good example of these serendipitous connections is the Health Care and Social Media Australia and New Zealand Twitter discussion group some colleagues and I set up two years ago. We’re a diverse group of people with an interest in health and social media who met through Twitter. Our regular online discussions have evolved into a place for sharing information, though I must admit I don’t play much of a role in it these days. It’s become a self-sustaining community.

Social media use also presents a number of challenges for academics. Students will follow you and they will hassle you. Expect Twitter messages about unmarked assignments in addition to the usual emails. There can be difficulties reconciling professional identities and the seeming informality of most social media platforms. It can be tricky to know how to use social media best as there’s more than one way to do it. Some people broadcast information, some share information and engage, some over-share, and some just follow people and never actively communicate. Effective use depends on what you want from it and what you’re trying to achieve.

Social media is imperfect and there’s certainly a lot of hype surrounding it, but as an academic if you’re not using it you’re atrophying. You’re communicating with the same people in the same ways you always have. You’re being exposed to the same old ideas. Discussions about the big issues that confront us are happening. Do you want to be part of it?

Ben Harris-Roxas is a conjoint lecturer at the UNSW Research Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, Faculty of Medicine. He’s on Twitter at @ben_hr

This opinion piece was first published in Uniken (Summer 2012/2013).