A sudden desire to delete all my social media accounts manifests itself in me about every two or three days. To be honest, it’s always there. Gnawing away at me. Part of my particular problem is that I’ve so thoroughly mixed my professional and personal persona that in order to disengage from “work” I have to also disengage from social media. So I’m usually drawn to articles about people who have cut the chord, gone off the grid, or taken extended digital sabbaticals, but this latest, click-baity article at The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous blog entirely misses the point of jumping off the social media ship.
Almost every paragraph is a straw man. In fact, let’s address the points one at a time:
“Wherever you go in the world, you can pretty much guarantee that a good proportion of the people around you will be too busy checking their phones to look up and appreciate their surroundings.”
Start off with a tired cliché. Check.
“We are in the midst of a selfie epidemic. We document every moment of our lives – the places we visit, the people we meet, the things we achieve. And now this culture has infiltrated the world of academia.”
I’ve been tweeting within academic circles since 2010. Where have you been?
“Before I go any further, let me explain: I am speaking from the perspective of a young PhD student, not some cranky old professor harking back to the Good Old Days.”
Ageist much? Just as an aside, one of the first academic social media communities I got involved with was medievalists and the average medievalist is not exactly a spring chicken, but I digress.
“Using social media to impress people that you know – as well as those that you have never met – has now become a professional concern for many academics. I see more and more of them live tweeting and hashtagging their way through events.”
Ok, fair enough. People too busy live-tweeting to engage with a speaker is annoying.
“When did it become acceptable to use your phone throughout a lecture, let alone an entire conference? No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, you will not be truly focusing your attention on the speaker, who has no doubt spent hours preparing for this moment.”
Maybe. I would bet many of them spent only the length of a plane flight building their slide deck, but your comment on multitasking is true enough.
“Some advocates argue that social media provides a form of dissemination – a way to share the conference with those who are unable to attend. For some tweeters, I am sure that is the case. But it appears that the majority perform this ritual as proof of their dedication to the profession, as if posting a picture marks them out as more enthusiastic than their peers.”
I’m sure some people do indeed tweet for the fame but you know what: some people publish, present, and go to all sorts of unnecessary conferences for the same reason. That doesn’t mean we should do away with travel grants. The majority? Something tells me this is unique to your social circle.
“I suspect that this trend stems from the work of careers advice gurus. “You must remember, potential employers could be Googling your name right now, keeping an eye on your social media timelines,” they advise. “Try to Tweet regularly to ensure that people know that you love your work and are truly dedicated to the world of science.” Perhaps I’m naive, but I need to believe that employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts. I appear to be in the minority, however.”
As someone who has hired academics, yes: I will Google you and look at your various social media spaces. If they are personal in nature, I won’t give them a second thought. But if you maintain even a pseudo-professional space online, I will take that into consideration in the hiring process. Why? Because we all know that no one outside academia reads academic journals. So if you are serving as a bridge between your research and public discourse, I salute you.
“At my university, there are some who utter the words “make sure you tweet a picture” on what feels like a daily basis. These are not social media representatives or marketing executives, but scientific staff. I know many academics who are unwilling to engage in any form of conversation in person, yet will happily broadcast their opinions and conversations to the entire online world.”
Ok, sure. I’ve said “Pics or it didn’t happen” before but I’ve never heard anyone say that in earnest. As to “broadcasting opinions to the world,” I shouldn’t have to say much about the benefit that social media provides for introverts and those of us who find in-person social events to be nerve-shattering and sometimes outright terror-inducing.
“Then there are the staff who go further than just tweeting about lectures and conferences. In the wake of the EU referendum, I have seen many using social media to voice very strong opinions, often criticising the general public en masse. Given that taxpayer money forms a substantial portion of our research funding, this kind of outburst risks alienating the very people we are trying to engage with.”
Surprise! Academics are humans, too. Even citizens. And have opinions outside their field of study.
“It has got to the point where those of us who wish to keep our social media accounts private, or for personal use only, face being frowned upon for somehow being less enthusiastic about what we do.”
I don’t know what you’ve experienced at your place of work, but I would probably never notice if one of my colleagues’ social media accounts went dark. Unless it was a close friend with whom I interacted daily, I rarely think about how others use social media. After you start following more than 150 people, it’s impossible to keep up with that.
“But surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?”
Absolutely. Unless social media is part of your job description (which it is part of mine), no one should be forced to engage socially online. There are plenty of good reasons not to have a public online presence. Women and people of color know this more than anyone. But you are speaking within in the context of science and the public (who as you’ve said above pays for your funding) has a vested interest in your research, the results of which may end up in an inaccessible journal using inaccessible language. If social media can make that research palatable, approachable, and human, is it not worth the effort?
Oh, and you know that the grant committee is Googling you, right?