Social media evangelism

It's that time of the year. Spots for ScienceOnline are a hotter commodity than Justin Bieber concert tickets amongst the pre-teen crowd; The Open Laboratory 2011 has just come out in print; and academics are discussing the utility of social media in full force. This topic has long been an interest of mine; with Shelley Batts and Nick Anthis, I even wrote a peer-reviewed paper on the topic way back in 2008. And it's fresh on my mind, as last week I braved the world of the University of Iowa's Internal Medicine Grand Rounds to discuss "Social Media and Medicine," evangelizing for social media in an auditorium full of (mostly skeptical) physicians. When I came back to my computer, I saw this Twitter conversation about the utility of social media in academia (click to embiggen):


I agree with many of the points Patrick makes here. He describes how a student saw him browsing Twitter while proctoring an exam, and rolled her eyes. He notes though:

Certainly, Twitter and various other social media sites have a reputation for inanity...However, social media is a multifunctional tool that can be used in other, more productive, ways.

I’m an academic and an anthropologist, so I’ve tailored my social media use for those fields. Others may have different experiences. Certainly, I may use it for connecting with friends or family, sharing music or humor, or just venting. This isn’t to dismiss the personal – academics are people too! (so I’ve heard) – but there are more substantive benefits I wish I could have discussed with the eye-rolling student. A partial list includes: sharing news on research, professional networking, and engaging with a wider audience through blogging.

I discussed all of these today in my talk, tailoring them to physicians and med students. However, there are other reasons why I think social media is a good idea for today's academic. Here's how it's benefited me:

1) Networking via social media has been huge for my career. A fellow academic who I met through social media--and probably wouldn't have been in contact with otherwise because his work is on the very edge of intersecting with mine--ended up writing me a letter of recommendation for my K01 award, as I wanted to get more training in a field where he's already a noted expert. I've had colleagues whom I met via social media read grant drafts and provide me feedback, strengthening my writing and presentation. I've religiously followed blogs like DrugMonkey for general advice on the grants game. Hell, even back in the stone ages when I was interviewing for my current job, the first place I went for advice once I had an interview was an online forum I was involved in, which was chock-full of academics.

I got the job, and the K award, on my first try. I think a big part of that success was due to assistance I received via social media.

2) Blogging, too, has paid dividends. My work has been well-cited for my field and has received quite a bit of media attention, and I do think that part of that is because I bring attention to what I'm studying via the this blog and my Twitter account. I've also had invitations to speak about my work at a number of academic, government, and "regular citizen" venues, which again I feel partially stem from the publicity my research has received. I've also given talks on science denial, social media, and zombies--all of which follow directly from my blogging. I noted above my paper on academic blogging; another on HIV denial and the Internet was published in 2007 with fellow blogger Steven Novella. The latter article has been accessed over 50,000 times, part of that due to the attention it received on social media.

3) Networking via social media has been great for my personal life. (It doesn't have to all be about work, right?) I've met people online and in meatspace who are just fucking cool individuals, which is always a bonus. I even met my Significant Other via nerdy science-related social media, where we talked shop for years before ever meeting in person.

What about downsides?

1) Media attention. I mentioned this as a "pro" above, but it also can have its cons. I certainly still fear the Sagan effect. I do a good number of interviews--about one or two a month currently, but that can go up to one or two a day (or more) when there's a big new paper out from my group or in my general area of expertise. I've tried to cultivate good relationships with journalists, both locally and nationally, and try to practice what I preach to colleagues about being available for interviews and not just blowing off the press. So far, I don't know that it's caused me harm in any way, but that concern remains.

2) Perception. Certainly many faculty still don't "get" social media. The perception remains that it's a time sink and makes one less productive, or that it's something that "kids these days" do rather than professional adults. While I don't think my online activities played a role in my tenure evaluation (either positively or negatively), I've felt pressure over the years to exceed expectations for publishing leading up to tenure simply so no one could say my case was borderline, and "if only she hadn't wasted so much time blogging, she could have published more manuscripts and made a stronger case for herself." I consider my use of social media a hobby and a service activity, but it's a public hobby that can be easily viewed by colleagues--unlike hours on the golf course or time spent at home scrapbooking.

3) Creeps/trolls. I've had many of the same issues as other female bloggers: threatening emails sent personally to myself or to professional colleagues; commenters responding to my appearance rather than the content of my writing. I even had an HIV denialist show up at my office unannounced. Anytime you put yourself out there in an online venue, criticism is to be expected, but it seems to be nastier for women than for men. Blogger beware.

Even though the cons can be nasty, I still think the pros have far outweighed them over the past 10 years that I've been involved in science social media. And so, I will continue to evangelize and hope that other scientists and educators dip their toes into the social media waters--or at the very least, support their colleagues who test them out.

More like this

Well, here's an unexpected bonus: you introduced me (via the screen capture of your twitter feed) to a science AND roller derby blogger. Statistically there are only a few dozen of us worldwide, so finding one who blogs that i want to read is a major coup. Thank you :)

By Double Shelix (not verified) on 24 Sep 2012 #permalink

Tara - well done piece. I'm amazed at what you've done with social media ... I need to harness it to similar ends. I certainly agree that older faculty don't get it and possibly (no, probably) think we are wasting our time. Good points.


By Anne Wallis (not verified) on 24 Sep 2012 #permalink


Great points. I agree that the pros outweigh the cons, though I'm fortunate to have (mostly) avoided trolls. And thanks for the mention.

By Patrick Clarkin (not verified) on 24 Sep 2012 #permalink

Happened upon you interesting topic, as one will do while tripping through the twittosphere on yet another journey into the recently discovered powers and trappings of social media. As a seasoned geomicrobioogist with over 25 years as a soft money research scientist in government and private sector labs, time for family, let alone golfing or tweeting, were simply out of the picture. But during my past few weeks as an endowed chair in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I have ventured beyond the confines of chargeable project codes and started building a network that is science-based and humanity oriented. One objective is to help raise awareness regarding the lack of credible science related to the issue of high volume hydraulic fracturing for shale gas and oil. Along the way I took care to maintain my credibility as a scientist but acknowledging my solidarity with activism. So with this comment I take my next step so I can get back to some delinquent reviews and approaching proposal deadlines? Could you help me spread the word that ------ "we need an immediate moratorium on all high volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing to provide the time to collect the data necessary to evaluate short and long term effects on human and environmental health". You will be seeing a lot of chatter coming from my new friends and colleagues here at RPI on this topic....professors ranging from artists to engineers, biochemists to sociologists and economists. A few from the media department are on top of the outreach component, but I thought that I would throw in my two cents with a message to you and see what happens. Any help you can provide as a node in the network would be deeply appreciated. Thank you. Yuri

By Yuri Gorby (not verified) on 24 Sep 2012 #permalink

Only just now saw this due to a trackback to my blog. I'm glad we share a lot of the same thoughts about the usefulness of social media, and that you are doing so much to push against the folks who are perplexed by it. I wish I could remember who said it, but recently on twitter someone said that it's only with blogs that someone can proudly proclaim that they DON'T read. If we admit we don't read the news, or books, or journal articles, it is embarrassing. But people are proud of ignoring a part of the world where people engage in rich, interesting and important ways?

Anyway, thanks again! And if you haven't read it already, you might like this article from The New Inquiry, "The IRL Fetish:"

I'm going to start sharing it with people every time they tell me "I have never read a blog."

By Kate Clancy (not verified) on 08 Oct 2012 #permalink