Two years ago, I caved in to the pressure and signed up for a Twitter account. I had been resisting for months. Millions of people were flocking to the 140-character microblogging service, but from what I could see then, it looked like a time-wasting fad.
Hardly anybody in the business I write about, biotechnology, was using it. Since no one in my niche was there, who would care to read my writing? Worse, it seemed like a good way to fragment my attention span into a million little pieces by consuming gossip and trivia, diluting the focus needed to produce in-depth biotech news and feature stories on tight deadlines.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. While I do still have some concerns about what real-time connectivity is doing to humanity, which Bill Keller voiced recently in the New York Times, I’ve come around to the idea that Twitter, used wisely, has potential to be a great force for good in biotech. I’ve been careful to follow people that have valuable and relevant information to report and share, while unfollowing everything else. I’ve expanded my professional network around the world by having conversations with readers I never would have met any other way. I’ve gotten story tips. And this is all happening even while I surmise that fewer than 1 percent of all U.S. life sciences professionals are using the service.
Given how biotech usage of Twitter is still so small, I’ve become convinced that as it grows it will help make the industry much better connected, and maybe even more effective at tackling hard problems like new drug development. It’s already getting to the point where biotechies who aren’t paying attention are putting themselves a few steps behind everyone else who uses it.
The latest example of Twitter’s rising prominence in biotech came from the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference. Last week at this huge gathering in Chicago, there were thousands of real-time bursts of information and commentary on the latest in cancer drug R&D. No one person can keep up with all the details from simultaneous presentations around McCormick Place. And if you rely on major media outlets for coverage, you’re really only hearing about the top dozen or so stories that ASCO’s PR machine doles out to hundreds of reporters there who are writing different versions of the same stories.
With Twitter, the information exchange is real-time, continuous, and comes from a much richer variety of sources than that. It can be overwhelming and messy. But because so many people from various rooms at the conference were filing Tweets in real-time, and funneling them into one place by using the signature #ASCO11, I was able to monitor what was happening at ASCO in real-time from 2,000 miles away. And these dispatches came from an amazing array of people with different kinds of expertise. There were doctors on handheld devices tapping away like @DrAnasYounes and @teamoncology. There was the indefatigable cancer consultant @maverickny. There were stock analysts, like @biotechstockrsr. There were top biotech journalists like @matthewherper and @adamfeuerstein. There were a few pharma companies like @roche_com, @novartis, and @genentechnews who have social media people getting the word out about their products, sometimes in a more thoughtful way than the average press release. If you followed the #ASCO11 topic, you ended up getting some noise, but also a lot of signal. For me, it provided a pretty broad and deep appreciation for what was going on at the conference—like how people were talking about cost-effectiveness of cancer drugs much more this year than in years past.
I’ve talked to a handful of biotech executives about this, and I’ve heard all kinds of objections to signing up to this service. Most of it boils down to fear of the unknown, like I felt two years ago. Biotech is a highly regulated business after all, so executives can’t just go around firing off missives on a smartphone about how wonderful their drugs are if they want to stay on the good side of the FDA. Beyond that, everyone’s busy. I don’t know anybody who feels they have extra … Next Page »
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