So a couple of weeks ago I unfollowed every science-type person in my Twitter feed. Not because I don’t like them, in fact, many were friends and colleagues. But there’s something sickly in the online science community, and this was an experiment in ways I might build around that.
I have mixed feelings about Twitter. On the whole, I think it’s a marvellous invention, which exposes me to people and ideas that I might not ever come by otherwise. I’ve gotten work through it, made pals, and learned many interesting things. But there’s also a certain predisposition to sourness. It’s a poor format for nuanced views, and people grow comfortable enthusiastically supporting glib, stupid sentiments in the regular wildfires of hysteria that sweep through it weekly. But most of all, it’s too goddam negative. I get tired of waking up and checking my phone, only to invite a torrent of snide, bitter comments on the day’s happenings into my still-warm bed.
Now I realise that, if I’ve curated a feed that I don’t like, that’s entirely my own fault. I’m free to unfollow people whose needling voices I don’t like. And to a large extent, I have. At the start of the experiment, I only had some 120 people in my feed. I’d long since found it was better for my blood pressure and my soul to write off the people I found most objectionable. At the end of the day, it’s easier to just click that button than raise my voice in protest at the tenth boorish comment they’ve made that day.
But I’ve come to realise this solution only goes so far. The problem isn’t particular individuals per se, but a culture of combativeness and negativity that pervades the online science community. For sure, certain people more readily embrace it than others, but there’s a general antagonistic tone that all discussions gravitate towards. To pluck an example out of the air, here’s how Ben Goldacre announced the unveiling of a £1,000 prize for science bloggers:
Bloggers often reach more ppl than those getting cheques in the Royal Society science book prize shindingle. Justice: http://bit.ly/ShudJp
It’s weird to me to announce such an awesomely cool initiative in such a bellicose way. You have to be prepared to put a special bit of effort in to achieve that. And that’s not a criticism of Ben, he’s always been a pugilistic commentator. My complaint is rather the way his style is endlessly aped by other people who, consciously or unconsciously, have adopted it as the standard way to discuss science news. While across the board these people are wonderful, smart, funny, and incisive, I’m exhausted by the way all these tiny little brush strokes habitually arrange themselves into Goya landscapes.
For the large part, these people are privileged, well-educated, financially stable, they are in a position to realise their ambitions and have the respect of their peers; I don’t understand the culture of a group who can have so much and yet be so eternally disappointed with their world. I don’t understand their lack of joy. There’s so much wonderful cool science stuff in the world, it doesn’t make sense to me to only be willing to discuss it in argumentative terms. Strangely, the further you get from the online science crowd, the less cynical people seem to be about science. I adore the simple, honest, joyful way that lay people share science items in my feed. The ones that go “OMG check this crazy lizard out!”.
So, back to the experiment: I unfollowed everyone* in my feed who was predominantly science-based. Somewhat surprisingly, they only made up a third of my total. The first thing I noticed was that my stream got a lot slower, because the people I’d removed were also the most talkative. I followed a few extra non-science people. I tried to move instinctively toward whatever might improve the community of my feed. I found some cool new voices. So that’s a win. Secondly: the reality of missing out on cool science news is far less traumatic than the fear of missing out on cool science news. Honestly, you can dial down the firehose of your Twitter/FB/Feedburner/G+/rss etc and everything is just fine. Thirdly: I spend less time online, which I think is a good thing.
Ultimately it was an interesting experiment, but I think you can’t build a new Twitter feed if all you have is an axe. To make it really good, I need to discover not just good people to follow, but a positive community to be involved with. I guess it’s my responsibility as much as anyone’s to make that a reality, rather than just shying away from the existing one. So aside from trying to be more positive myself, perhaps I’ll start imploring other people to rediscover their childish joy of science too. What’s that expression, “be the change you want to see?”. Something like that.
Well, this got a lot more attention than I expected a little personal piece to, which is a shame as a) I’ve been too busy to curate discussion, and b) I would have written a better piece.
Some points to address: certainly it’s possible this is a more a skeptic / British thing, rather than a science thing. If so, I guess it’s evidence that the British science writing community is still dominated by skeptic writers. There’s obviously a lot of overlap.
More importantly, I should have clarified: this isn’t just about unfollowing negative people; it’s about how I go about building a positive community that includes people who I respect and admire as individuals, but who as a group tend towards negative discussion. I think the solution is really to follow, not unfollow: to follow so many people that I can keep those described above, but prevent them from defining the overall community. So the next part of my experiment? Follow everyone.
* except Ed Yong and Gimpy. They’re the last two people I’d unfollow.
** One very important thing I forgot to add: I miss the contact with my colleagues / pals on Twitter, and it encourages me to meet them face-to-face to catch up, which is a nice thing.