Twitter for oncologists: More reflections.

One thing is apparent. Twitter as a service, is for sharing links alone. The original premise was to get the overall perspective of how users discuss issues in “real time” and function as a “real-time” search engine. Google, at some point, listed Twitter results but it ended for reasons best known to them.

The more the people on any platform leads to an excessive banter. Separating the signal from the noise becomes even more difficult as informational deluge overwhelms us. While it is fanciful to have more Twitter (or Instagram) followers and show off as “influencers”, it doesn’t help much because of abysmal rates of engagement. While I may consistently get a large number of “Tweet impressions” (mumbo-jumbo of acronyms that Twitter is marketing), this is useless as it doesn’t translate to real life behavioural change.

It is evident from the fact that engagement with my shared links is abysmally poor. My idea of being on the social network is an academic exchange. Suppose I share in a link which is opened and read by another- it would foster a dialogue of information.

On the other extreme, I have come across “verified” accounts of “star-influencers” in Oncology community who push out links with annotations, pictures, survival curves and proper attribution to the authors. How do those “star-influencers” manage it?

I have a strong reason to believe that these links are pushed by dedicated teams using enterprise accounts. A lot of window dressing takes place and after “approval” is “tweeted” out. You have to see the pattern to understand it. It is impossible to juggle professional commitments with tweeting links all the time. There has to be a team involved.

The race for “followers” has polluted the ecosystem. Automated bots propel the specific “likes” making it impossible to differentiate legitimate traffic from bot sponsored and propagated traffic.

I am not cynical. I use Twitter for ideas to write on this blog here. I observe trends. I interact with virtual selves of humans, genteel people scattered all over the planet. It is fun to learn from there, to ping them and understand their perspectives. The trick is to moderate, turning off retweets which don’t concern you, muting specific words and staying focused on what you wish to gain. As a result, I have whittled down to less than half off my previous unread tweets on the timeline. It took time to cull away the deadwood and the fresh perspectives soak in. In the end, it was worth it.

How Twitter enriched me professionally as a radiation oncologist

I am a recent convert to Twitter but have flirted with it in its earlier days of inception when 140 characters were the norm. It wasn’t apparent as to why this service came into existence in the first place. Facebook started off with a similar pretence of “connecting dorm mates”, and it grew viral pretty fast from an invite-only platform to connect a majority of the online population.

I will not go in its politics or how toxic it has become. Its algorithms are an opaque science, and Facebook is a platform for social and psychological manipulation (despite public claims to the contrary). For this write-up, I’ll focus only on Twitter since I am engaging with it on a daily basis.

Twitter offers a place for discussion, sharing links, some media (pictures) and a medium to reach out to other users for marketing. Advertisers see some value in it (because Twitter offers granular options for targeting users). Beyond that, most scientists and doctors have discovered this as a platform to articulate their viewpoints. There’s life beyond academia as well, and most events affect us collectively. However, it blurs lines between personal and professional lives, often. This has prompted several professional organisations coming in with their “recommendations”, but social media is like any other platform which is public.

There is no inherent privacy if you get online. Period. Likewise, all this serves as a construct to showcase or to interact (like presenting a paper in conference or hanging out with colleagues post lunch). This also leads to a considerable scope for confusion because of the inherent limitation of characters. Like any written word, it cannot offer tone, tenor and contextual meanings which leaves things open to interpretation. However, Twitter provides only a limited scope of interaction via “re-tweet” or “like” which signals the intent. Beyond this engagement, it is a very limited platform.

With these caveats, Twitter offers a rich experience in professional interaction. I chanced on pathology colleagues, for example, who could reach out others in the world for a rapid “second opinion”. Pathological inferences usually require objective criteria, and it is not possible to be swayed by “wisdom of the crowd”. It makes it easier to nail the diagnosis for anything that’s obscure. Likewise, I interacted with a radiation oncologist, who advocated “shining the light in the basement”- exhorting fellow oncologists to embrace this medium. Another instance wherein I interacted with someone from the US to discuss the QA for a newer gamma knife machine. The follow-up comments were interesting, and I learned a lot in the process.

Similarly, it was fun to interact with professionals from down under! They are using social media in a very positive way (by dancing!) to target cancer and bring about an attitudinal change for radiation oncology (unstated and underused, like anywhere else in the world). I love their imaginative use of “targeting cancer” pin-ups with the backdrop of landmarks. Cats and dogs are also a part of it, for good measure! The idea is to get the word out to patients, who shouldn’t ever feel that they are alone. We are all a part of the team to take care of them.

These advocacy efforts on behalf of professionals are in addition to a lot of other patient advocates- one who has gone through the trauma of diagnosis and treatment and have lived to tell their stories.It is instructive for us to learn, as doctors, to understand and be empathic to their fears, concerns and how cancer diagnosis fundamentally changes their lives. A prominent patient advocate, for example, even suggested having “lego based models” to show what patients would be going through (radiation therapy mockups). A brilliant idea indeed!

Scientists have also joined in this chorus and have added their might to it. I follow their efforts to bring science to the public domain, how they navigate through government bureaucracy and how translational science can become the cornerstone of “cure”.

So yes, there are multiple positive attributes to being here on social media! For those who are starting out, a quick re-cap. You can follow specific “hashtags” like #btsm (brain tumour social media) or #radonc which are widely used around. Topical conversation happens around these hashtags. If you suffix the character “@“ before anyone’s username, it is like a “shout-out” to draw their attention. (Similar technique works in Telegram).

Join in here for the conversation and enjoy! Remember, you have only one life to make a difference!

The launch of Telegram channel (CNSSM- Central Nervous System, Social Media).

Over the past few months, I have been exploring Telegram chat application over the choice of other options that have flooded the cyberspace. Telegram embodies the best prospects of all in one neat package. It’s apparent that its closest competitor WhatsApp is the most commonly used app on the planet, but it comes with several limitations. The chief amongst them is constant surveillance by Facebook which makes it impossible to be “private” even though; it may have end to end encryption. I won’t go into details here but suffice to say that Telegram offers a much better option to interact.

One of its redeeming features is channel and hashtag search. Channels are uni-directional flows for information. It means that users can read it but not reply to it. Subscribers can be directed to chat groups to discuss any pertinent issue. Since the channels have unlimited members, Telegram offers a perfect scalable option for that. The exciting bit is hashtag function which, for me, was quite serendipitous. The posts come tagged automatically like #events #charity (pushed by different brain tumour charities), #updates and my favourite #motivation (posters with quotes). I can also add reminders for various websites/ events over a recurring interval.

A Telegram group works like any other chat application but with distinct advantages. It can have multiple administrators (to moderate discussions over different time zones), users can also add hashtags to search (or do a global search for anything discussed), access to all previous messages for new members, mute notifications and notification alert only if their username is tagged in replies. I prefer anonymity and privacy in social networks. Twitter may serve as an excellent platform but is not altruistic- it logs and tracks every user. Further, it has a severe limitation of characters which does not address individual queries effectively.

The idea behind is to consolidate everything in one application. The telegram app is accessible via desktops and multiple platforms (including a web browser) which doesn’t constrain users from one locked in place. Phone numbers aren’t required to join a group or channel. They just need to do a global search via public username; here in this case “cnssm” (without quotes).

Another distinct advantage is an amplification of social media messages. We are drowned in by mobile notifications and Telegram offers granular control over what gets your attention. Much of what I do on Telegram is automated which makes things easier to manage.

I hope that most charities would consider this platform- its fast, quick, private, secure, scalable; indeed, everything that’s required to keep privacy intact. Once the channel grows, I plan to introduce video messages; a quick blurb on what patients need to do and focus on; have a separate group for professionals to share best practises and files. Ideally, we could have a rehabilitation specialist, a dietician and social workers. Charities should also keep a token presence here to identify users and guide them efficiently for financial issues.

How to use Telegram chat app for academics

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This post is prompted by a discussion I had with a few people on Twitter recently.

Instant messaging applications abound; the most popular amongst them is WhatsApp. It relies on phone numbers to get the work done. By being dead simple, WhatsApp became the most popular application for majority of the users. I believe that it is only a SMS replacement and nothing else. Furthermore, other reason I don’t use it is because its now completely owned by Facebook. The wealth of data related to our social interactions is more important for the company (and thats the reason why its free). Nevertheless, I’ll come straight to the point. How I found Telegram to be better than any chat application and how I use it effectively.

  1. The most important aspect: Bots. They are small nifty software programs that run on the application and automate things. For example, in a group, a Group Butler bot will assist the administrator in welcoming users, make them aware about the rules, limit the media (from pre-arranged rules) and prevent users from flooding. There is a classical music bot that works like Spotify 🙂 The possibilities with bots are endless. Payment bots are maturing on the platform as well.
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  2. Notifications: This is the biggest bane of chat applications and serves to distract us most of the time. As a result, we are hooked to the devices. In Telegram, I have muted all users/groups/channels. The group notifies me only when someone mentions me by my screen name (like Twitter). This indeed is a life saver!
  3. Instant view for articles. It loads up the article (for example from New York Times) inside the app itself. This ensures that I don’t have to jump to the browser.
    instant-view-telegram-updated
  4. Channels serve as a mechanism for one way flow of information. Channel owners can post in media (file limits of 1.5 GB are pretty generous); videos, files, pictures etc but the subscribers cannot comment on it. This avoids the hassles with comment moderation. Channels can have unlimited number of subscribers while groups can accommodate upto 50,000 users (easily managed by bots!) Channels with companion groups can serve as a decent platform for two way communication between users. I manage couple of channels (which are automated) and serve as an admin for several groups without breaking into a sweat.
    Telegram-Channels-List
  5. Last but the not the least. It is a cloud based platform which ensures complete cross platform availability. I can start the conversation on my desktop and continue the same on my mobile device. It can also be accessed via browser. A personal cloud storage comes with it that can store my files indefinitely. Numerous granular privacy controls ensure that I can restrict users from adding me to groups or controlling who can initiate voice calls with me.
    telegram-two-step-verification

Publishers should explore Telegram channels; they can have dedicated systems for payments for premium content (which is invite only link); instant view from the app can ensure filtered information. This app can serve as a distribution hub for media. Bots can be used to link Telegram channel with Twitter, for example. The possibilities, actually are endless! Better still, you get to control access to your busy schedules (Personal chats, except family, groups and channels are all muted).

I really hope academicians and fellow professionals explore this application in right earnestness!