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 time to devote to this thing when they don’t see the value.
Bit by bit, there are a few people out there in biotech showing the way. Michael Gilman, @michael_gilman, has become a master Yoda of sorts for biotech executives curious about entering the social media arena. Gilman, who described his Twitter experience in an Xconomy guest post last November, has expanded his professional network and reputation by making concise, witty comments about biotech news of the day, and passing along story links. Bruce Booth of Atlas Venture, @lifesciVC, is another who has quickly made a bigger name for himself by passing along links to sharp blog posts that I think have to be considered a must-read for any biotech executive or investor. One of the few Twitter-savvy executives at a publicly traded biotech company, Richard Pops of Alkermes @popsalks, has found clever ways to speak out on issues that are important to him, and his company, with a highly targeted audience of followers.
Slowly but surely, I’m running into more biotech execs who are dipping their toes in. Carol Gallagher, the CEO of Calistoga Pharmaceuticals when it was sold to Gilead Sciences earlier this year, said she took the first step by signing up for an account, @carol_gallagher, in mid-May. She had been reluctant for the reasons mentioned above—lack of time, lack of understanding the value. But since she attended ASCO, and monitored the news flow from some of the Twitterers listed above, the light bulb flipped on. “It greatly expands the discussion among people talking about biotech news,” Gallagher says.
She has been hesitant to do much Tweeting herself until she gets the hang of it. But Gallagher says she’s become comfortable now that she realizes she can mostly listen to what people are saying about topics she’s interested in. Even before she really actively engages, Gallagher says she’s already finding networks of people she never would have encountered before.
“In this business, you need all the help you can get in building bridges,” she says. “I’m realizing that I might find a new employee, a new investor, a new partner through this. It really is broadening.”
No doubt, Twitter has a long way to go before it will achieve critical mass among thousands of biotech companies and professionals. The content can get spammy in a hurry if you aren’t careful about who you follow. Brian Reid, a life sciences public relations professional with WCG, has been pushing for companies and researchers to develop more advanced social media habits. He’s been encouraging people to embed QR codes in data posters, so that if somebody tweets “great data from Company X’s drug for breast cancer” they can also snap a photo of the QR code, so there’s a way for followers to click on a link to details that support the claim, which otherwise could look like just some ephemeral blast of hot air.
Personally, I’ve found over time that Twitter is what you want to make of it. It’s more than just a place to share links to my Xconomy stories. It’s become an important way I communicate every day with readers. Besides my stories, it’s a place to comment in real-time with some snappy quotes from a conference, to add two cents on a sporting event (Go Mavs!), or let my followers know where I am in case they want to meet in person. (I’m in Boston this week for a big Xconomy event).
I’ve learned I need to carefully discipline myself to avoid spending too much time trying to monitor everything on Twitter, or even half of what was going on at #ASCO11. That would be a waste of time, and a good way to get ADHD. I try to monitor the stream only a handful of times a day, as a sort of break between other tasks. But I can’t imagine going back to 2009 when I didn’t have this channel for sending and receiving biotech news from a whole lot of very smart people. My bet is that a lot more biotechies are going to see the same thing in the year ahead.
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