A semi-serious defense of social media in science

A recent article takes the position that academics should avoid social media use for the purposes of expressing their enthusiasm in the field, or to please employers (something that is actually rarely, if ever, demanded of hiring committees). There was a quite humorous response that I will not try to match in style, but instead will further argue that the original article is quite naive about the use and benefits of social media for young scientists (partly drawing on my own experiences, and I will sometimes use ‘scientists’ interchangeably with ‘academics’ based on my own background. This is not meant to exclude other academics).

Like a hammer, social media is a tool that can be used for multiple purposes, and there will be a spectrum of effectiveness for both career advancement and for the dissemination (or intake) of information. Indeed, the writer of the original link simply sounds like they have not taken advantage of social media in a strategic way.

Twitter and other platforms can be used for both inreach (connecting among colleagues) and outreach (connecting to the public). It is a power that can be harnessed to fundamentally hasten the pace at which ideas are developed and shared. For example, Darling et al. identified Twitter as a ‘virtual department’ that is often much larger for a user than their actual academic department...and helps facilitate the generation, refinement, and sharing of ideas, and to rapidly increase connection to like-minded people.

It has also become popular to leverage the short text “micro-blogging” style of Twitter at conferences. Is this rude? Is the dissemination of information “merely [a] ritual as proof of their dedication to the profession,” as argued in the opening link?

The latter argument is not compelling. First, a common use of twitter is generating hashtags that raise awareness to an event that many others may not even know are taking place. #VICS16, for instance, was the hashtag to a conference I attended on how volcanic eruptions influence climate and society. Talks during this event would appeal to climate scientists, historians, geologists/volcanologists, archaeologists, among others. Quick summaries of each talk are a far more common practice than a mindless, frantic summary of each point the speaker is making. Indeed, it is difficult to articulate such a concise summary without being attentive. There is also no guarantee that non-Twitter participants will be paying a greater amount of attention. Many people play on their laptops, are preparing for their own talk, or may just be obsessing over the typo in the third bullet point that they lose track of the salient points.

If a speaker truly finds live tweeting rude, or are otherwise afraid of results being “stolen,” they can “opt out” of having their talk discussed on Twitter. While I don’t think this should be done, and haven’t actually seen it asked for, other participants should respect it. Presumably, there is no opting out of people playing Candy Crush or (more recently), looking at the Pidgey sitting on the podium.

As shown below, young people (and many young scientists) engage on social media, so it is not going away. Thus, an opportunity exists to rapidly connect with and “e-meet” similar aged users. I have been to many meetings where after the first second of meeting someone I was already talking to them like we were good friends and ready to go get a beer…because of our many re-tweet/favorite backs and forths online. In many ways, connecting with fellow graduate students and young researchers in this manner is far more useful than spending your conference time trying to interrupt a big shot’s conversation with another big shot in order to introduce yourself. You will be collaborating and possibly working with people in your own situation, and actively “creating” the next generation of big shots. Although that is cliche, it will be easier to join in if you are consistently conversing with them. This is likely a more robust and beneficial aspect of social media than just the influence that tweeting has on your citations, although anecdotally, increased visibility will work in a scientists favor.

From http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/

There is also evidence that women in STEM may be represented on social media to a much greater extent than their statistical representation in he field. There are still big problems with the culture in academia of women (and also LGBTQ and people of color), so discouraging platforms where they have a voice, may be more enthusiastic to comment on a scientific talk, or network with others who share similar experiences does not seem like an appropriate solution.

With respect to outreach, many scientists still hold a widespread conception among academics that dissemination of research beyond peer-reviewed journals is “dumbed-down” (not a good term for science communication) and is not for the most talented of researchers. It is true that encouragement at the institutional level is still lacking for outreach, despite the lip service given to it. Yet as someone who talks a lot about climate change, a topic of considerable public interest and controversy, I have seen the power that an online presence can have on visibility. An online presence for even young scientists may increase demand for media interviews, political testimony, talk shows, and other public commentary. Polls show that the perceived “contribution to society” is higher for scientists than lawyers, journalists, and even engineers(!), which is good for trust and recognition. The ivory tower model of science is vastly outdated.

The original article further argues that when scientists use social media to discuss their own political opinions, they may alienate a portion of the public that disagrees with them. Others argue that advocacy risks contaminating the scientist’s objectivity when doing science, as if holding in our opinion will somehow remove that bias when doing a calculation. I myself have talked about topics involving the (American) election, feminism, science policy, etc. Virtually all academics advocate for something, whether it be for funding, better science awareness, etc. If you are advocating for things, it is good to be upfront about why you are advocating for things, rather than hiding opinions under a mask of pseudo-objectivity. Scientists are not robots divorced from humanity. We are also all citizens and have the right to discuss our opinions, but it is not clear why my opinion about the election or brexit will alienate people at a deeper level than politicians, columnists, celebrities, or anyone else.

Finally, I suspect very few young scientists on social media are doing so in order to “get ahead.” I don’t. But, in fact, it is one vehicle in which to do so (and has helped me), if you engage with the right people. An emergent property of engagement is recognition and letters of recommendation. This is not something that should be discouraged.

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