Is social media ruining everything?


I have been involved with a few conversations in the last month that basically went along the lines of social media is ruining X. It got me thinking is that really true?

The first conversation was about twitter and how it is ruining conferences. The thesis was that people don’t listen to the talks as carefully because they are too busy tweeting about them. Therefore the question periods suffer from this lack of in-depth attention. Hmm.

The second conversation was about PhD student morale. Basically that thesis was that students share too much these days (like on facebook) and this over sharing leads to them feeling down about their research/chances in academia/etc. Hmmm.

Both conversations left me a little dissatisfied, although neither was really in-depth and the second was a bit tongue in cheek. But is social media ruining our academic lives? I could see some valid points raised but those arguing against the practice of social media in these contexts were not users themselves. So is it just the case that from the outside these tools seem like distractions but really aren’t? Or are the users so blinded by their near addiction to the mediums that they can’t see how they are harming themselves and others?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to address this issue as a blogger and tweeter and facebook user. Scratch that, I’m definitely not. I have had too many positive outcomes* from these on-line ways of connecting with people that I won’t give them up and am pretty convinced that they aren’t ruining anything. Given that stance, I certainly don’t think social media is for everybody and there are plenty that don’t participate in certain platforms because it doesn’t work for them. But just because a platform doesn’t work for you doesn’t make it useless or even bad. I like the comments on this DynamicEcology post about conference hashtags. I think this highlights how different people feel about the use of these kinds of social media tools and gives a broad perspective of how something that doesn’t seem relevant to some can be really useful to others.

Arguments about use of social media/smart phones/etc are certainly not limited to academia but it strikes me that they are often polarized. Maybe we can move beyond the dichotomy of “things were much better in the past, this new stuff makes everything horrible” and “the new stuff is great, you’re just being a fuddy duddy”. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

I’m not sure I had put forth a good argument in either conversation that social media can be a force for good because I also think that it can ruin everything. The key is that social media, twitter, facebook, or what have you can be used poorly. Smartphones can distract you from what is going on in real life right in front of you and tweeting during a conference might mean that you don’t pay the same kind of attention to a talk that you would otherwise. Facebook might make you feel more disconnected and comparatively a loser when your achievements are stacked against your peers but I would argue coffee room chat could do that same. But negative outcomes are  not necessarily the result of the tools but how we use them.

I guess I am more interested in conversations about how we can use these tools to improve our academic lives rather than black and white stances on their merits. We should also appreciate that, like for most things, different people have different ways of working and what works for them. A more inclusive academic life will find ways to accommodate these different styles and tools. Even better, we can help teach those around us how to use these tools effectively if they want to.


*For example, my on-line community has been a great support this last year. I’ve spent most of the year unemployed after my contract position ended and none of the options I applied for came through. The unemployment and associated stress of focusing on getting a position is mostly why you haven’t seen much of me here but I hope to change that! I got good news this week that my grant was funded and my on-line community have made my celebrations even sweeter.

10 thoughts on “Is social media ruining everything?

  1. You are entirely right: social media are like everything else, something you can use to great effect or can let ruin things. Just like a hammer. It’s all in how you use it.

    I was a major skeptic (and made fun of Twitter in particular) until my grad students made me try it. Much like green eggs and ham, it turned out I was wrong. I’ve had wonderful interactions spurred by Twitter and by blogging.

    Of course, we’re preaching to the choir here.

  2. Funnily enough, I was just having a conversation with colleagues that was in part about exactly this issue.

    Re: tweeting ruining question time at conferences, that hasn’t been my experience. I think people who live tweet talks have to pay attention closely to do it. And in my experience live tweeters are mostly grad students who (unfortunately) usually wouldn’t ask a question anyway. Obviously, my experience is anecdotal and limited almost entirely to the ESA meeting. (As an aside, when I first learned of the practice of people tweeting talks I assumed it would get in the way of their ability to pay attention and said so in a blog post. Commenters made me rethink.)

    Re: social media ruining our lives more generally, e.g., by amplifying polarization at the expense of nuance, yes, I think so. And that’s something I’ve heard people who are on social media say, not just people like me who aren’t. FWIW.

    I think you’re right that it’s a matter of how these tools are used. I think the problem is that the tools are harder to use for some purposes than others, and that uses of the tools for some purposes are at odds with and crowd out uses for other purposes. “Nuanced, thoughtful conversation about important, sensitive issues among people who might seriously disagree but who will still respect each other anyway” is one of the uses that gets crowded out by other uses (like various ways of using social media for purposes of activism). In retrospect, the late-90s and early-oughts dream that the web would be a good venue for such conversations was probably always an unrealistic dream that was never going to survive mass uptake of the web.

    Hard to answer these questions though because the rise of social media is roughly coincident with other big changes in our lives, such as the financial crisis and its ongoing aftermath. Possibly, social media gets blamed for widespread feelings of angst/pessimism/anger that would’ve been there anyway. And possibly, there’s an interaction, with social media amplifying or making more widespread feelings of angst/pessimism/anger that would’ve been there anyway. I sometimes wonder if we’d feel differently about social media if they’d been invented in 1995, during an economic boom.

  3. I too come down on the pro-social media side after being a huge skeptic of Twitter for many years, it’s now my primary social network.

    I can directly trace almost everything good that’s happened in my life the past few years to Twitter- writing opportunities, networking, becoming more aware of issues of inclusion in academia, etc. are all to its positive. And finding other early career researchers (& even some PIs) seeing that there are some glaring issues with the scientific enterprise as constituted has helped me feel like it’s not just me.

    I’d say a lot is in how you use it. And for anyone considering starting on Twitter, I suggest they first use it to just listen- follow some people/accounts that are relevant to your interests and just listen to what’s there, respond via other means if need be; email, phone, etc.

    And maybe this is just me, but I’ve had plenty of nuanced conversations on Twitter, though I agree it’s not best suited for those kinds of interactions.

    And I agree that live tweeting talks makes me pay more attention to them and the amount of attention paid also can depend on the device you’re using to live tweet (on my phone, it feels a bit distracting), but from my computer, it feels like I pay more attention.

    I think it is perfectly possible to have a great time as a PhD or a postdoc or even as a faculty member. And some of it is down to our approach and attitude as individuals. that said, there are systemic issues and more and more people feel caught up in them, and they need addressing (even though it’s not easy).

    I don’t buy that the levels of depression, anxiety, and general negative feelings about science/academia are a massive case of confirmation bias (and yes, I do worry that it is just that sometimes). However, the fact that we still default train PhDs and postdocs to become faculty despite the fact that the vast majority will go onto other career paths argues that it isn’t nothing.

  4. Excellent stuff, and reflects my experiences as well. Positives & opportunities hugely outweigh the negatives.

    One aspect of Twitter that, while not “ruining”, is something that I have had to actively mitigate in my life is the feeling of not doing enough. This isn’t because of the idea that “you should be writing” (or at least not just because of that), but more from the near constant deluge of posts exclaiming “Accepted!” “Funded!”, etc by awesome friends online. While I love to celebrate the accomplishments of my friends and peers online, the sheer number of them and their frequency when sampling so broadly across the people I follow can create an appearance that everyone is being super successful all the time while I’m slogging away in the corner. Obviously, applying the aggregated success of a community to a mythical individual isn’t correct, and comparing oneself to others (particularly such a broad range of others at tremendously varied stages of their careers) is never a good idea, but it’s something that I’ve found I have to take a step back and remind myself of from time to time.

  5. Great post. Agree, pretty much everything has a good & a bad side. I think learning how to use those negatives to your advantage is a great way to deal with it. I only use Twitter, so I’m not sure about other media. I think Twitter’s biggest problem is its immediacy – it can be easy to forget about interesting people you followed ages ago if they’re not constantly appearing in your feed (which would quickly make them uninteresting!). Also the timezone issue can create geographical silos, where you are mostly interacting & sharing ideas with people in the same timezone/country – for people working in academia, where education systems & research practices vary enormously between countries, I think this can really have a limiting effect on your perspective. My main tool to deal with this is using lists to collate interesting people that don’t tweet regularly so I can find them again!

  6. I have definitely found that tweeting is the best possible way for me to incorporate and remember a talk. Having to figure out how to summarize the most important parts of a 15 minute talk into one or two tweets is an incredibly complex process. I have to engage much more with the material than I would if I were just listening and maybe jotting down a note now and then.

  7. Twitter in particular has enhanced my academic life, not “ruined” it. It’s invaluable for anyone who is part of any minority group for finding others like them. I follow so many LGBT scientists on Twitter who share really thoughtful articles.

  8. Recently I watched as a young colleague had her face planted firmly in her iPhone during a week long course. Every now and then she would look up and ask a question that had been answered 5 minutes earlier. This happened dozens of times, and frankly I was surprised that the facilitator/trainer didn’t call her out on this behavior. So the problem, as I see it, is that people can’t multi-task as well as they think they can. It’s one of the reasons why we have ‘distracted driving’ laws with stiff penalties for texting while driving. It’s hazardous to your health, and to the people around you. Social media has it’s place, but being plugged-in much of the time is definitely anti-social, and in some cases, down right rude.

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