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.
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.