We still have generations of academics who are still in denial about how social media has changed how we are accountable for our actions.
Hello. I’m Ian, a shy introvert. And those two things are distinct. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve worked out a way to network and build social capital that works for me even though connecting to people is not exactly natural to me, as I know it isn’t for many academics.
Being an introvert in a world that seems to favor the expressive and extroverted can seem daunting and unwelcoming. A lot of the usual advice is to just act against type*. In other words, be extroverted for as long as you can sustain it, especially at conferences or other events where connecting with people is the goal.
Part of favoring of extroverts is that they announce themselves and seem like the movers, shakers, and doers in the world. In the United States at least, taking (overt) action is favored over introspection or making the decision to do nothing even though taking that decision may well be the right one depending on the situation.
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 Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.
So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?
Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean?
As I was avoiding real work and morning traffic, there were a bunch of interesting things on twitter, as usual. Two things stood out.
First was a conversation among science writers, about how to find good science stories among press releases. I was wondering about all of the fascinating papers that never get press releases, but I didn’t want to butt into that conversation.
Has Small Pond Science helped increase broader awareness and respect for university scientists and students working outside the R1 environment?
I think, well, maybe, a little bit. Enough to keep me from closing shop. There are a lot of known unknowns, but I’ll focus on some known knowns.
A few weeks ago Terry wrote about going to conferences, networking and social capital. The post struck home for me for a couple of reasons. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the diffuse benefits that come from interacting with people at conferences. I’ve made friends, started collaborations, been invited to give departmental seminars and gotten paper invitations, all of which I am sure wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given a talk and talked to people at conferences. Of course, there are challenges to these intense social and scientific interactions too (e.g. the conference hangover) but conferences are a really important part of developing your scientific career.
Guest post by Ian Lunt.
In popular culture, peak beard has been defined as the point in time when the rate of beard destruction exceeds the rate of beard production. By extension, peak tweet can be defined as the time when the rate of tweet production far exceeds the rate of potential consumption.
In 2015, a sizable ecology conference exceeded peak tweet. Attendees live-tweeted far more messages than readers could feasibly find or read. Which creates a quandary we haven’t before had to face:
Now that live-tweeting has mainstreamed, how can we increase the utility of conference tweeting to improve outreach?
LinkedIn, Facebook, ORCID, Twitter, Instagram, Klout, Mendeley, ResearchGate.
I’m signed up for all of these things. Some are useful, some can be annoying, some I just ignore.
Some vague time ago, a friend in my department mentioned that I should sign up for ResearchGate. I said something like, “It’s just another one of those social networks, yadda yadda so what.” But I signed up anyway*.
At the time I signed up, I halfheartedly connected some of my papers, and since then I’ve ignored it. Jump to last week, when one of their emails was creative enough to find its way through my spam filter:
I was like, huh? I chose to click over to my profile on ResearchGate.
Here’s an idea for a new way to fund science: We can just create websites about our projects, and then ask taxpayers to vote for competing research proposals, based on which ones they see on social media.
I didn’t say it was a good idea. This is, essentially, what crowdfunding is.
I’m periodically asked about the role of social media and blogs in my career and campus interactions. Here’s some information.
Last week I went to the Goldschmidt conference, which is a convergence of geochemists. I’m not a geochemist. I’m not even an ecosystem ecologist (though I’ve pretended to be one a few times). I was there to speak about how insects respond to the legacy of geologic history in a rainforest, and to share a bit about how animals may affect long-term nutrient cycles. In short, to remind them that animals might, just maybe, actually matter.
I learned a heck of a lot. Here are a bunch of stray observations and ideas that occurred to me throughout the meeting.
When the space shuttle Challenger launched on the morning of 28 January 1986, Roger Boisjoly couldn’t muster the fortitude to watch the launch of the shuttle, as its engines ignited on the launch pad. Moments later, the crew was lifted through the sky to their deaths. Boisjoly and some of his colleagues had spent the preceding night petitioning and pleading, in vain, to avert this tragedy.
Boisjoly was an engineer working for Utah-based NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, who worked on the design of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. (Morton Thiokol received a $800 million in contracts for their work on the shuttle program, equivalent to a value of almost $1.5 billion today.) Boisjoly and his colleagues were terrified about the prospect of a disaster on this particular launch, because of the weather forecast for Cape Canaveral. The cold temperature triggered events resulting in the loss of the entire vehicle in the timespan of a couple heartbeats.
This disaster may be blamed on those who failed to heed the specific and detailed warnings offered by Boisjoly over the year preceding the avoidable tragedy. However, this might not be what you will read in the Rogers Commission report issued in the wake of the disaster.
The Challenger disaster occurred because of a failure of leaders who did not think that public knowledge would, or could, have any bearing on the life-or-death decisions happening in NASA headquarters.
A lot has changed since 1986. The veil that separates the public from governmental and industrial organizations has been partially lifted, through the distributed access to information through social media. When the public has access to technical information about government operations, then the mechanisms of accountability may change.
In the media environment of 2013, is it possible that Boisjoly could have prevented a disaster like the loss of the Challenger? Could Twitter have saved the lives of the Challenger astronauts?
Imagine these tweets, if they came out 24 hours before a predictably fatal shuttle launch:
Why was Boisjoly so fearful that shuttle was going to blow up? One component of the design of the solid rocket boosters was an O-ring that would become predictably unsafe when launching in cold temperatures. The forecast on that fatal morning was for conditions colder than any previous launch — below freezing — and below the temperature threshold that Boisjoly knew was required for safe performance of the elastic component of the O-ring seal. (If you’re older than 40, then I would bet that you must remember hearing a lot about the O-ring.)
Three weeks after the disaster, in an interview with NPR, Boisjoly reflected:
I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.
One year later, in a subsequent interview, he explained how close he could have been to stopping the launch, if he could have been more convincing:
We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.
Is it possible that the people — the taxpaying public — could have been the ones with that power? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an interesting question. If Boisjoly was an active twitter user, with followers who were fellow engineers able to evaluate and validate his claims, wouldn’t they have amplified his concerns on twitter and other social media? Wouldn’t it be possible that, in just an eight hour period, that a warning presaging the explosion of the Challenger would be retweeted so many times that the mass media and perhaps even NASA would have to take notice?
Wouldn’t aggregator sites like The Huffington Post and Drudge pick up a tweet like Boisjoly’s warning, if it got retweeted several thousand times?
Wouldn’t the decision-makers at NASA have to include very public warnings about a disaster in their calculation about whether to greenlight or delay a launch? Don’t you think they’d get even more anxious about the repercussions of overlooking the engineers’ concerns?
Wouldn’t the risk of an disaster, after warnings by an engineer who worked on the project, alter the cost/benefit calculus in the minds of the people who would have been able to delay the shuttle launch? Even if they didn’t believe the claims of Boisjoly and his colleagues, then maybe they would choose to delay the launch anyway, if engineers using social media were claiming it would explode? Just maybe?
Social media has altered the power relationships among large agencies, the media, and the public. Individuals with substantial issues may have their voices heard, worldwide, over a very short period of time. It is possible that information sharing on social media could have prevented the loss of the Challenger?
Even though Boisjoly was, obviously and without any doubt, in the right, he was shuffled out of the industry because he dared to challenge authority in order to save lives. He should have been lauded as a hero, but I only heard of his heroics when I read his obituary last year in the LA Times.
If Boisjoly was successful in his bid to delay the launch using a rogue social media campaign, he still would have been blackballed by the industry as a whistleblower. If such a plea would have been successful, then none of us would ever have known for certain if his actions prevented a tragedy. All of us, including the lost crew of the Challenger, would be able to live with that uncertainty.
Richard Feynman was a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the loss of the Challenger. He issued personal observations as an appendix to the official report, and it’s not surprising that they deal with technical details with accurate conversational aplomb, while also cutting to the heart of the matter:
NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.