What I learned ‘listening’ to Vulture Tweets

Despite my husband’s concern that I have been wasting time on Twitter recently, I really have been doing research. Anthropologists collect data in a lot of strange places. As part of a research team focused on the African vulture decline I have interviewed farmers, pastoralists, government workers, teachers, business people, and other conservation-oriented folks in the Maasai Mara and across multiple South African provinces and protected areas. I have also dug deep into online library archives. For my latest data collection job, I have been searching for and analyzing comments made on Twitter about vultures and vulture research.

The volume of relevant tweets is not great. Vultures are not charismatic megafauna like tigers, elephants, polar bears, or whales (see figure below), so they don’t generate tweetstorms unless there is a big event like the recent loss of 537 vultures in Botswana to poachers’ poison. These obligate scavengers aren’t really a primary target for pretty picture posts unless you’re a serious birder either. However, in reading vulture tweets I’ve made a few observations that might be valuable for social media science communication about endangered and threatened species – the popular and the lesser known, less visible, and less beloved.

Add images, videos, or gifs whenever possible. Humans are a visual species. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, unless the post is at the top of my feed or shows up in my notifications, it is the pictures and colors that get me to stop and read. With environmental and environmental-research related tweets, there are many cool and interesting images you could add that will show what your words say or back them up. One of the memorable vulture tweets I read used a mini-collage of three photos: researchers gently attaching a tracker to a vulture’s back, the bird getting ready to take off post-procedure, and a drone shot of the park landscape where the vulture had been captured to give the bird’s perspective.

Use/offer fresh images whenever you can. Many of the vulture images I saw posted on Twitter were used over and over and over. When the same images are recycled we tend to lose interest and skip on past the post. Researchers seem to be pretty good about posting new images although many times the content is similar. For example, I saw a lot of different vulture heads gently held by different anonymous researcher hands. News media may use stock images if they cannot get out to a location to conduct an interview with people involved in a story. I saw the same vultures feeding on a dead elephant or giraffe, dead vultures stacked like cordwood, and a vulture standing in grass when I read about the Botswana poisoning event. As science communicators we also need to think about contributing diverse images as well as words and ideas to the public discussion of science and conservation.

Remember that representation is important. My observations of vulture tweets highlight two different types of representation. First, vultures have an image problem. They are one of Africa’s Ugly Five, and many cultures have co-opted the word vulture to discuss nasty politicians, financial practices, and social media/cultural influencers. Twitter gifs include a number of Disney vultures that emphasize the menacing and the stupid, as well as some real vultures hunched over or devouring carcasses. Images influence our perception. Earlier this year, a vulture ecologist colleague of mine suggested I swap out a hunched over vulture clipart image for one of a vulture soaring. We were creating a graphic to demonstrate the central role of vultures in human, animal, and ecosystem health. It made the image more positive. Sharks and wolves have a similar problem with perception and how we use their name negatively in common language. Think Jaws, Sharknado, Shark Tank, pool sharks, Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo doo, Three Little Pigs, Peter and the Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf of Wall Street, and wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Secondly, science needs diversity to work. As I looked at photos of vulture researchers in the tweets, I saw a diverse group of people from many background and cultures contributing to vulture protection and that made me smile. Could it be better? Always. We need diverse people working in conservation because that is the only way conservation will work.

Don’t make a hash of your #hashtags. Hashtags can help a story go viral, but they are also super useful for those interested in a particular topic, want to learn more, and connect with others who have similar interests. For my data collection so far, I literally plugged in phrases like “vulture tagging,” “vulture research,” and “Africa vulture” into the Twitter search box. Of the tweets that appeared, and were related to the topic I was looking for, many had no hashtags or the hashtags didn’t do a good job of connecting to the broader topics of vultures, biodiversity, conservation, etc. While it is an extra step prior to posting, checking to see what hashtags people use for similar posts is valuable if you want your tweet to reach a wider audience. It can also help you find people with similar or related interests to build out your Twitter network.

Use two-tier hashtags if you have the characters. What am I talking about you might ask? There are specialty tags like #LoveVultures, #SaveVultures, and even the basic #vulture that show up on many of the tweets I’ve been reading. These sorts of tags ensure that the folks who are interested in vultures see your tweet. But the bigger #conservation issue is that vulture populations are declining across #Africa due to the #anthropogenic impacts of #poisoning, #wildlifeconflict, #poaching #crime, #wildlifetrade, #cultural #beliefuse, #bushmeat consumption, etc. When vultures are gone, the #ecosystemservices they contribute, like scavenging that help to remove #livestock, #wildlife, and sometimes human remains from the #environment to reduce #disease threats, will be gone. The #biodiversity loss from the threat of #extinction creates problems for #sustainability and #health . See what I did there? These bigger topic hashtags can be used to connect more specific issues to the bigger picture. Use a combination of hashtags to build out your network and help others see how their lives and interests intersect with yours.

Multilingual tweeting. There are roughly 6500 languages on Earth – the top 5 (in order of speakers) being Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic. Various websites say that Twitter has over 300 million active monthly users, of whom more than 250 million reside outside the United States. My vulture tweet research focused on English-language tweets, but I regularly receive Spanish-language tweets about vultures that didn’t make it into my search or data set. Of the English tweets, a couple that really stood out to me had been translated within the post to reach audiences in Italian and Arabic as well. Biodiversity loss and extinction are global problems that require people from all walks of life to care and contribute to sustainable solutions. Bilingual tweets seem like an easy way to get out your message to a more global audience.


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