The easiest, but also most passive way, is to purely consume content. It is entirely acceptable to just read, watch or listen before starting to post, and many people never post anything at all. Usually it is not even necessary to sign up for a social media service to access its content. Registering an account however makes it easier to keep track of content because it opens the possibility to add to favourites or create lists. These features can help with time management, as interesting content can so be marked to return to at a more convenient time. Alternatively, web services like Instapaper, Pocket, Evernote, Feedly, or a simple Word document (ideally stored in a Cloud service) fulfil the same purpose.
Social media users connect with others by following their updates, responding and commenting on them and by favouriting or amplifying content (e.g. by re-tweeting or re-sharing). With the exception of some websites, like Facebook or LinkedIn, it is generally not necessary to know or contact users with public accounts before subscribing to their updates. When using social media for networking, a professional and informative profile is necessary to be found by people with similar interests and to be recognised as an authentic user. The standard photo should be replaced with a personal avatar, which could be a portrait or a representative scientific image. The profile description or short biography should contain relevant keywords such as the subject field, university, location, profession or other interests. Interesting contacts can not only be found via the search function, but also in contact lists of others, as contributors to relevant topics or on curated public subject lists [8, 9]. Adding links to social media accounts on presentation slides or posters allows others to connect and keep updated in an informal way. When participating in online discussions it is essential to remember that the internet is a public space where comments are cached, shared and may be spread beyond your control. A good rule of thumb is to only put things online that you would be happy for the rest of the world to see, even if content is seemingly posted to a restricted number of people (screenshots can travel surprisingly far). Respect the social rules of the ‘netiquette, the network etiquette, and be aware of copyright and libel laws (see also advice in Table 1). Most institutions can offer advice or have official guidelines on the use of social media in a professional capacity.
Curating and creating content requires more time and engagement, but can be more rewarding and beneficial in terms of skill and knowledge development and dissemination of plant science to wider audiences. Table 2 shows a small selection of examples, highlighting the wide range of possibilities to use social media for plant science communication. It is important to be realistic about one’s existing skills and the time investment required. Writing a blog entry might take a few hours but will get easier with practice; uploading micrographs or short videos might just be a quick additional step after curating existing data; tweeting an interesting paper takes only a moment. A larger or complex social media project however might benefit from working together with other scientists, professional designers, programmers or communicators.