Ubi sunt

This evening, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between Brian Stelter, host of the CNN show Reliable Sources, and Carol Costello, former host of CNN Newsroom. Their conversation floated effortlessly over, through, and between topics such as misinformation, the impact of mainstream media outlets like CNN and FoxNews, the Trump presidency, the intersection of journalism and entertainment, and social media. At one point in the conversation, Stelter reflected upon how social media has changed in the last decade, from the heyday of blogging and SMS-based Twitter to the notably ugly situation we are in now.

As someone who moved into adulthood during the emergence of “Web 2.0,” I often catch myself looking back longingly on the internet of the 21st century’s mid-aughts. Many of my friends and colleagues built careers, passions, and communities of practice that propelled them to where they are now through the connections they built in these proto-social media spaces. Some of those friends and colleagues have now left those spaces behind, leaving them to the wolves of hate, cynicism, and always-on indignation. These things have always existed on the internet, but their pervasiveness now feels unstoppable. It feels woven directly into the fabric of the web. To go online is to experience violence.

Nonetheless, I still have a small hope that we can make it through this time into something less violent, less polarizing, and less destructive to our civic discourse. I don’t know what that thing will be, but when I reflect upon how much the digital landscape has changed in just 10 years, I can imagine something entirely other taking its place in the next 10 years; and I invite it to arise.

Two years ago I quit LinkedIn. Last year, I erased by Facebook footprint. This year, I’m slowly letting go of Twitter. I don’t miss these things as they are in their current states, but I miss what they used to be (well, except LinkedIn. That was always a mess). Most of all, I miss the hope and optimism many of us held for these platforms.


Right speech and speaking rightly

I don’t think I need to read yet another “Buddhist approach to [insert tech]” article. The argument is well-worn and essentially a known entity. Nonetheless, I can’t resist the urge to throw them into my to-read queue.

Social media has the ability to connect us with many people, so we do have a responsibility to post things that are true, kind, beneficial, offered with good intention, and shared at the right time.

Lodro Rinzler, “Buddhism and Social Media

There is a lot wrong with Twitter these days. In my heart, there is still a spark of love for a possibly never-existing but perhaps always-possible inherent good of the internet, but that spark is quickly dying. I don’t expect the systems to correct themselves, but perhaps I can try to correct my own approach.


Don’t rain on my parade

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 journalsSo 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?


We’re eating ourselves alive

“Our current version of the internet lives and breathes off a currency of human attention. With the success and failure of many internet companies predicated on how much of a person’s time they can capture.” Jesse Weaver, Instagram and the cult of the attention web.

After stepping away from Facebook and Twitter for a month and subsisting on a diet of chronologically, self-customized feeds instead of algorithmily-defined ones, I realized how empty much of that content is. Also, I miss Google Reader.


March 30-day challenge: Twitter and Facebook

During the past 30 days, I decided to take a break from Twitter and Facebook. Here’s what I discovered:


I didn’t miss it much and, to my surprise, there wasn’t much in terms of news and announcements that I wasn’t able to get from other sources. There is one professional group that provides me access to information that I can’t get anywhere else (without as little effort) and it’s necessary for me to be on Facebook for my job, but I could easily let my profile go dark, quietly exit that space, and only use the FB messenger app to stay in contact with friends.


This was much more difficult to ignore. For real-time events, conversations, and news, there really isn’t an alternative for me. While I was certainly able to get by without it, I missed checking in during breaking news and, most of all, connecting with the community there. One obvious benefit: it’s been much easier for me to single-task. So I’m torn on whether I want to return to my previous levels of engagement.


All social media sites want to lock you in

From jwz. Instagram Hates the Internet:

“All of the “social media” services want to lock you in. That’s been the case for a while. They love their “walled gardens” and they think that so long as they tightly control their users and make it hard for them to escape, they will rule the world forever.“


We’re redefining our perspective

I’m not sure which is worse: the cruelty that public shaming often brings out in us or the companies piggy-backing on it.