Science Communication Tips: We Can Hear You

Jun 04 2013 Published by under Academia

I have been known, in my day, to give talks on social media for scientists. Normally, I'm a big fan of social media for scientists. I think it can do a lot for your scientific career, do a lot for your networking skills, and get you an amazing support group. It can also help you get a broader education, finding out about science outside your subfield, and give you a crash course in how to communicate with people outside your field. It's definitely helped me.

But even as I try to tell people that social media can do a LOT for scientists, some scientists give me the side eye. Some have told me they deleted their Facebook accounts because they were so worried about privacy. Some have told me that it's a time sink, or that social media is full of trolls, or what have you.

Usually I tell people what social media can do for them, how it can help their science communication and their careers. But it is important to throw in a note of caution. There are things, on social media, that it's not a good idea to do.

Social media comes with pitfalls. Like any discipline, in academia or out of it, there are things you need to watch out for. Scientific things, of course, but also social things. Be polite, don't insult the department head to their face. Be nice to people, you never know when you might need them to have your back, or when you might find out they are a really nice person. You may have snarky thoughts, but you keep them behind your teeth until you get home and tell them to your dog.

Why do you do this? Because actions have consequences. At work, if you snark off, someone might hear you. Emails can be spread around and read. Things said in confidence can get repeated. We make mistakes in the beginning, but as you mature, you learn to keep stuff behind your teeth, unless you're with people you really trust.

And the internet? It's like a really, REALLY big workplace. And that means that we can hear you. It doesn't matter if it's on Facebook, and supposedly restricted to your friends. If you make someone mad, they can take that post, and share it around. And we will be able to hear you. Even if you've only got 200 followers on twitter, if you say something, and it gets tweeted around (either because people like it, or because it reveals you to be a total jerk), we can hear you.

This scares a lot of people away. People are worried about stuff they might say, or stuff their friends might say. Some scientists figure that it's better to have no social media presence at all than to take the chance of saying something embarrassing.

And that's ok. But the fact that we can hear you shouldn't necessarily turn you off, especially if you think social media could have great things to teach you. All you have to do is take your social media seriously.

except lolcats
(Well except cute pictures. I mean, who doesn't love those? Source: I made it)

This isn't as hard as it seems. From day one, even back when I was in grad school and had no idea what I was doing, I treated my writing on the internet KNOWING that someone I knew would find it. Knowing that someday I would someday have to stand behind it. To that end, I work hard to make my presence on the internet a professional one (and yes, Friday Weird Science is still professional! It may be gross, but it's still professional). I say nothing on my blog that I would not say in a public seminar, at a meeting, or to someone's face, someone that I work with. I treat my Facebook and Twitter the same way. Sure, I say silly things. I say weird things. But I say nothing that's going to harm my reputation, either as a writer or as a scientist (except, possibly, for people thinking my taste in scientific literature is very strange). And I'm not the only one who does this. The vast majority of the people on my twitter feed are interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking. All without saying things that are likely to get them fired.

Why be so careful? Because the internet is forever. Sunday, a professor tweeted something really awful (I could go in to all the reasons why I feel this tweet is both immensely harmful and scientifically wrong, but that's not the point of this post). As a firestorm began to gather around him in response to his nasty tweet, he deleted the tweet and others defending it. He locked down his account. But it was too late. There were screencaps and pictures. That tweet is NOT going away. Now he's trying to claim it as a social psychology experiment, wherein he was using provocative tweets to measure people's reaction. If so, I look forward to seeing the data, as I think would be very interesting.

But if it's NOT a social psychology experiment....that's the kind of thing you need to think about when you go on the internet. Do you really want to say that? Would you shout it in a crowded room? State it at a seminar in front of an audience? No? Then why would you say it on twitter? Twitter, as I sometimes try to describe it to people, is like a constantly running cocktail party. You go in, and there are loads of people standing around, having any number of conversations, any of which you might be able to join (I also like to envision us dressed very swanky and there being one of those chocolate fountains). It's possible to have a great time at a cocktail party, to learn new things, make new connections. I have a good time on twitter almost every day. But it's also possible to be THAT person at the cocktail party. You know, the one with the sexist jokes. You wouldn't be that person at a cocktail party, why would you be that person on Twitter? We all know that we sometimes need to think before we speak. Similarly, think before you hit post or send.

So don't let social media scare you away. Join the conversations! Enjoy the flow. Laugh at the LOLcats. But remember, we can hear you. That's often a very good thing! The fact that tweets can go viral can spread the reality of science, the amazing things we find! It can make us awesome new communicators! But when you go on Twitter, be prepared to deal with the consequences. Twitter, Facebook, social media in general, are a lot like a big party, or a large workplace. And we can hear you.

19 responses so far

  • Great post, Sci. I love how you put it in a friendly and engaging way.

  • Ilovepigenetics says:

    Recommended reading for all.

  • Bashir says:

    That is part of the reason I am hesitant to sign up IRL. Even though I keep in pretty tame I am not so sure how possible employers view these things.

    • scicurious says:

      Really, I don't think you should be so worried. Just keep in mind who your potential audience might be. Potential employers probably wouldn't be worried about you sharing science or family activities.

  • Jessica Lu says:

    Great post- good summary of what has been happening on twitter! and I love the analogy to twitter as a cocktail party :)

  • Hal says:

    Actually, it's worse than just "we can hear you". It's "if you say something that makes you sound like a god-awful jackass especially given who you are, then hundreds of thousands of us can hear you. whereas if you say something calmly insightful that reflects well on you, [your # of followers plus hopefully a few others] can hear you."

    • scicurious says:

      I don't know about that, I've seen very GOOD tweets get retweeted and built upon just as much as bad ones. The whole #overlyhonestmethods hashtag that built up, links to really excellent content.

      But yeah, twitter is like all of media. You get MORE attention if you're being a jerk. Good reason not to be a jerk.

  • Jaleh BE says:

    I think you're spot on! It took ages for people to convince me to get twitter, because I didn't want to waste time on it and with all the other networking websites around I was genuinely concerned for privacy. But I suppose it's good to know you can be heard or seen in a good way, too!

  • Ian says:

    All good tips. I'm someone who avoided social media for a long time. I now love Twitter and am much more conscious about what I post (my- probably not original- joke about social media/the internet is that in the future, no one will be able to hold public office or be employed because of what we've all put out there).

    I still have a pretty thick wall up of putting myself out there; in real life or online, but living in a bunker is no way to live- or get ahead...networking with people is critical. So I started a blog where I write about my subjective experiences as a postdoc and my journey to get beyond a deep depression- It's still all up there, and I think it gets better over time, but I am still a little paranoid that it will all come back to bite me somehow. but I started it because I needed to prove to myself that writing things and posting them doesn't mean that the sky will fall and my world would end. (I also follow the rule that I use my real name when I post things/comment/tweet- which may not be the best idea ever, but as you say, I'm willing to be seen and genuinely connect with other humans). I'll even shamelessly post my twitter handle here: @ I H Street (there are no spaces, but I'm putting them in here in case a spam bot is watching).

    Thanks for stating the balanced approach to being a netizen.

  • Sara says:

    I think that people do need to worry because at times it seems like the bar for acceptable behavior from academics is set at "witch hunt".

    Is is really that bad to say your co-workers are ugly? On a private Facebook page? Really? To the point that there needs to be thousands of tweets and blog posts about it? Who cares!

    It was mean, surely, but the level of vitriol and navel-gazing that erupts from these incidents, and the amount of energy they consume, is silly. And it replaces more substantive discourse.

    And if others dare to respond by saying "that's not that bad" they themselves are abused as sexist or whatnot.

    I think it's out of control, myself.

  • Kimberley says:

    Great post and love the party analogy. I've often found myself getting quite worked up over people telling me their opinions of social media, especially twitter, when all they have done is dip their toes in the twitter ocean and recoiled because they didn't like the temperature (as you will find here - http://bit.ly/ZrKkpL - in a blog post I wrote last week).

    I'm writing my thesis on social media & science communication at the Centre for Science Communication in New Zealand on the subject and would be really interested to see how a crash cource in social media for graduate students within Universities would be utilized.

  • I'd counter that the screenshot demonstrates that this is nothing like a cocktail party. If you're a dick at a cocktail party, and say something dickish, the response to your dickitude is usually immediate and short-lived. But, in the morning when everyone has sobered up, people frequently can't remember the exact dick thing you said. They just have a general sense that you're a dick and, eventually, many of them will get over it. And most people will never have experienced your dick first hand. (That didn't come out how I intended).

    The screenshot that you show demonstrates that, on the Internet, your dickness is forever. There is no sobering up and the cocked up thing is archived for perpetuity. That's a very real lesson that too many people learn the hard way.

    On the other hand, there is less question on the Internet who the dicks are.

    • scicurious says:

      I think you make a very good point. Internet memories are definitely longer. It makes it even more imperative NOT to be a jerk on the internet.

  • If a publisher really wants to listen to me, I'll tell you now I am interested in an original clinical way in the fight against Rett Syndrome, an incurable disease of neuronal development. I propose the Pre-Primary and Primary Prevention, made possible by the Inherited Real Risk of Rett Syndrome, bedside recognized from indiavidual's birth with a stethoscope, which is reversible under Quantum Therapy. References on request.

  • Unhealthyecon says:

    Isis is right and I would extend her point a little further. When you're a dick at a cocktail party, not only is it likely to be forgotten much more quickly, but you've a chance at redemption. When you're a dick on the internet, that hangs around forever and redemption is much harder.

    People change - I used to be a much bigger dick IRL than I am now - but a record of dickery on the internet hangs around like a fetid, putrifying dead skunk. That obese student hating ass-clown may learn a lesson and become a better person. Let's hope so.

    But no one other than his friends and family will ever know or care if he learns a lesson, because for years when people google his name this will be what they see. So don't be a dick online, because if you get called out it may haunt you forever, no matter how good a person you are otherwise.

  • Scireflector says:

    Great Post! I love the phrase, "We can hear you". I think you should start a "We can hear you" initiative for science trainees who want to get into science writing via media outlets. You could even create a really nice logo to go with it. I think that would be very cool! The ideas that you present are very important because people are always trying to not play the "social media" game. But in all actuality, social media can be life changing for people, by giving them a voice.

  • Andreas Johansson says:

    I agree with Isis and Unhealthyecon. The bar for saying something on social media (or other online fora) should be higher than saying it in a crowded room or a seminar.

  • [...] is a constantly running cocktail party. This means we can hear [...]