Science communication on social media largely happens through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (you can find the ScIU blog on all three platforms), but in reality, it extends beyond these three primary sites into platforms such as TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, and more. On any one of these platforms, people from around the world are able to form digital communities where they can talk, educate, learn, advocate, and make new friends. I have been the Social Media Chair for ScIU for over a year now, and in that time, I have learned quite a lot about science communication from social media.
The first thing I learned is that having a presence on social media is a lot of work, but it can also be very rewarding. Kudos to all those influencers who built their career from 0 followers. To you and me, it might look like they’re just taking photos of themselves for Instagram or running their mouth on Twitter, but there’s a lot of prep work and effort that goes behind a post. For a science communication blog, our goal is to stick to the facts, and in order to do that, we have to do the research behind every link that we post to make sure we aren’t spreading false information AND still keep readers up to date with all the cool information coming out in the world of science. Social media can also be a dangerous tool for spreading fake news and false information. Once I realized this, I had to figure out a way to get some help filtering through everything. So, with the additional goals of education and outreach, ScIU started the Social Media Undergraduate Internship Program last fall. Navigating social media and getting your science news (rather than fake news) from digital platforms, especially during this pandemic, is so important that one of our interns even wrote about it last semester.
The second thing I learned is that social media connects researchers in a way that traditional academic communication (like emails and networking at conferences) could never accomplish. Just as an observer on my personal account, I have seen at least three collaborations start as Twitter rants and turn into full-blown publications. One of the most relevant examples to my own research is when one researcher was venting on Twitter about her frustrations with the eye-tracking technology being used in her study on capuchin monkeys. One year later, she published a comprehensive guide on eye-tracking with primates with collaborators from this Twitter thread! Now, my best advice to prospective graduate students is to look through Twitter and Instagram and see what sort of presence the programs and people they want to work with have. You can learn so much more about your future advisor and what kind of mentor they’ll be based on their social media presence than their university page. Not everyone is on social media, but if they are, how they conduct themselves on various platforms is very indicative of who they really are as a person. Someone who takes advantage of the semi-anonymity of the internet to make some Reviewer 2-esque comments is not the type of person you would want for a mentor.
Finally, as Social Media Chair, I spend a lot of time scrolling through multiple platforms to stay up to date and have gotten to see how researchers, grad students, and educators grow, change, and experience hardship and happiness. We always hear that scientists are people too, but with social media, you get to actually see it. It’s not uncommon for a graduate student to receive advice that we should keep our social media platforms strictly academic because if we talk about anything else, it could cost us a job in the future. Some people even keep separate accounts, one personal and one professional, to avoid any issues. But the truth is, scientists have identities outside of the academy, and no one should have to worry about future job prospects when sharing any or all aspects of their life on social media.
As I say to the kids on my “Skype a Scientist” calls, you can find science all around you if you look hard enough. Even in social media.
The Reviewer 2 stereotype in academia is an aggressive bully keen on hurting someone’s feelings rather than providing constructive criticism during the peer review process.
Edited by Vaishnavi Muralikrishnan and Evan Leake