Early in 2016, I wrote an essay for a biology journal encouraging scientists to communicate their research with the general public. Shortly after it was published, I tweeted a link to the article, which quickly got retweeted over 200 times, more social media shares than I’ve ever had before.
I strutted into the kitchen and said to my wife, “You are now looking at a Twitter celebrity. One of my papers is garnering a lot of attention online.” She gave me a suspicious look and then asked, “Good or bad attention?” “Well, good, of course,” I said, before hurrying back to my laptop to double-check.
It turned out that the Twitterverse had unanimously rallied against me for publishing an article promoting science communication in a subscription-only journal – or, as one tweet opined: “Unintentionally ridiculous: calling for #scientists to engage with the public in an article behind a paywall. Bad move.” (In my defence, it was the only journal I could find that would publish the piece.) My wife had a good chuckle as my online notoriety grew over the following days.
This is not the only online misstep that I’ve taken over the past few years, and as time goes by I’m having more and more misgivings about using social media. These days, I’m sad to admit, I fiercely avoid weighing in on any online debates, especially those related to social or political issues. This is unfortunate because, like most academics, I have strong opinions about many different issues, not just those related to my field, but I feel that the costs of voicing these ideas – and potentially offending someone or becoming an enemy of a movement – outweigh the benefits.
Who will fall next? Which person or profession will be called out, hauled out and digitally excoriated today?
This carries over into the lecture hall, as most university students have one or more social media accounts, often containing hundreds of friends or followers. This, in turn, greatly increases the number of possible “watchful eyes” in any given classroom. Unfortunately, I, as a professor of a fairly large genetics course, have usually underestimated the potential for embarrassment by two to three orders of magnitude.
This might sound overblown and paranoid, but I can assure you that since I was young, my public speaking style has had a healthy dose of awkwardness. Factor in my dyslexia and penchant for poorly timed science jokes, and you have a perfect recipe for a classroom tweet to go viral:
“#genetics prof tells worst DNA joke EVER!”
“OMG: biologist confuses Watson for Crick.”
“#weirdo tries to use frosh week as a metaphor for mating habits of ciliates.”
But, as we all know from the 24-hour news cycle, going viral on social media is no laughing matter.
Like, don’t like
Recently, I was on parental leave and spending way too much time scanning online news sites while bouncing my six-month-old son on an exercise ball. At one point, I found myself reading an article in The New Yorker about nationalism, part of which focused on the white supremacy website The Daily Stormer.
Intrigued and troubled by the article, I decided to see the website for myself, which led me to the Daily Stormer chatroom – it’s as atrocious as you would imagine – and eventually its Twitter feed.
There I was, on the exercise ball, baby in one arm, iPhone held at the end of the other, scrolling through these awful tweets, which only reinforced the points in The New Yorker article, when my thumb inadvertently hit the “like” button of one the Daily Stormer posts.
In a matter of seconds, I see my career and its demise flash before my eyes:
“Biology professor endorses racists views.”
“Western University faculty member fired for Neo-Nazi tweet.”
I maniacally Google “How to unlike a tweet” (which turns out to be surprisingly easy).
I guess if you put yourself out there, you’d better have a thick skin. But, it seems like the critics are louder and more vicious than they used to be and that anyone in the public eye, from athletes to politicians to professors, would be well-served by taking out some social media insurance: a safeguard for that accidental tweet, online coverage for when your genetics joke is taken out of context, a get-out-of-Facebook-free card if your paper becomes a punching bag.
The way the world is going, maybe every one of us will have to spend our token time in the social media penalty box, and maybe a little insurance would make us more open to sharing our thoughts.
David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University.