The dangers of twitter


When I first joined twitter, I was nervous I might mess up somehow. I wanted to use my professional identity but because no one around me* was using twitter, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. Also, we’ve all heard about disastrous mistakes on social media that have lead to personal and professional fallout. Although I didn’t think I would do anything that extreme I was worried about job applications and such. So in short, I was cautious and worried about the dangers of putting myself out there on twitter. Now over two years and some 6000+ tweets later, I am less so**. I am still conscious of the kind of thing I post both here and on twitter. For me, my filter is whether I would be comfortable saying something to a colleague or someone I would meet at a conference. Sometimes I might over share a bit but I do that in real life also, so I guess it is honest. My hope is that anyone looking at my on-line presence would get a good impression of me as an academic and a professional. Although I share personal things at times, I do so in relation to my academic life.

While teaching a class recently in science communication, I was reminded about my own nervousness about twitter when I saw that in the participants. Standing there in front of a room of researchers, reflecting on my own experience I really couldn’t think of any negative impacts I’ve had coming from twitter. We instead discussed some cases of trolling, on-line harassment and such but from my perspective the biggest danger I have been exposed to is the potential to get caught up in negativity.

As Stephen Heard recently wrote, we can sometimes feel like everything is broken. The danger is that tuning in can lead to the perception that everything really is broken. As much as we share the good stuff, the juicy dirty secrets of the dark side of academia are fascinating. So those stories tend to show up and get spread around like wildfire. Mostly I think that is a good thing because it can be really important to bring these issues to light. But if you spend a lot of time focusing on the negative it can also be emotionally draining.

When I first seriously starting following twitter a little more than two years ago, I wasn’t even really aware that there was a whole science communication blog community. I got to know more about that community when a prominent member was exposed for his sexual harassment of female writers and it was all over twitter and blogs and elsewhere. I also knew quickly about a Nobel scientist saying stupid stuff about women in science, the licencing of software based on countries stance on refuges, and the latest big case of sexual harassment by a prominent astronomer.***

Alongside these negative and somewhat depressing stories, I’ve also seen such acts of courage, humour and celebration of science like #ripplesofdoubt #girlswithtoys #distractinglysexy #ManicureMonday. That doesn’t include all the other great efforts of community building, sharing of science and support. As I’ve said in the past, for me twitter has been a great place to find information and share in a broader community of scientists beyond my research.

So for me the real danger of twitter is the danger of knowledge. By listening in, you’ll see more of the negative side of academia**** but you also get to see much more of the positive. I try to pay more attention to those working to change academia for the better in our culture (ie the positive that comes from these stories) rather than to take on too much emotion from negative stories. In the end, twitter isn’t such a dangerous place after all.



*At least no one that I knew of. Since joining I’ve connected with colleagues in my building and field that I didn’t know were on twitter as well as so many more.

**I’m not worried at all about the big picture of being on twitter and the benefits are so great at this point that I can’t imagine …

***I’m purposely not linking to any of these stories because the point is not to highlight these negative cases. Shouldn’t take much searching to find information if you are interested.

****Which if you’re honest, we all know is there with or without twitter.

5 thoughts on “The dangers of twitter

  1. I tend to agree with you about the positive outweighing the negative on Twitter.

    I’m not sure how to solve the problems of harassment and trolling that Twitter enables (the worst I’ve gotten is some anti-GMO people sending me some nasty comments).

    Twitter has been where I’ve been most successful as an academic too…and it enabled me to talk (possibly overshare) about my struggles with depression…which I do worry might reflect badly, but in a way, it feels really bold of me to speak up about it & I (so far) haven’t faced any negative consequences from it.

    I also need to bring more of the positive in…lately all I can see is the downside/negative lens. Not that the positive isn’t there, it’s just muted in my mind (signs I might still be depressed, I suppose).

  2. I spend enough times on screens and I guess I am of an age bracket that more time on a screen is not welcomed. I actually enjoy privacy and also don’t feel I have anything earth shattering to contribute as I have so much to do with teaching, running a field course, and research. It is hard enough to find time for face to face communication with my colleagues and collaborators.

  3. Ian, one of the things I like about twitter is seeing more of the human side of scientists. I think that is really important and of course, not everything is positive (I write about my own struggles there too). I was trying to say that personally I attempt to keep a balanced view of the positives and negatives, even when the negative stuff is popping up everywhere. And I don’t mean that I ignore the negative either–but just that I try not to get to the point of ‘everything is broken’.

    Andrea, I don’t think you need to use twitter or to share anything of yourself on-line if you don’t want. Those of us that do obviously get a lot out of it but that doesn’t mean that it is for everyone. Like everything we only have so much time in a day and we each have to decide how to best use it. As for not having anything earth shattering to contribute–I feel that way about everything I write and am always grateful (and often surprised) that people appreciate it.🙂

  4. Excellent – mirrors my experience pretty much – overwhelmingly positive about it and like you I now give talks to postgrads about why they should use it and join the scientific community

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