Social media and early career researchers: don’t be a dick

The following talk was delivered in a shortened form by Mar Brown to the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network lunchtime seminar series via Zoom on 27th February 2020

The first thing to consider when attempting to use social media as an early career researcher is: why? If you’re already a social media user, which you probably are, how will being an early career research on social media differ?

You already have a challenge. Most people are, just like you, on social media for a whole variety of reasons. Maybe it’s all about looking at boobs. Maybe it’s to read increasingly desperate inspirational slogans overlaid upon ever more sunsetty sunsets and ever more beachy beaches. Maybe it’s just to tell women they’re wrong on the internet… The point is, there are few people who joined up with whatever social media platform to consume content that is exactly what you’re working on right now. Research is the long process of finding things out and testing hypotheses. Most people don’t want research. What they want is either facts, answers or advice. What you will be providing, in nearly all situations is none of those things.

As an early career researcher you have access to a few things that members of the general public don’t have. You have access to a body of existing knowledge within your field. You know research and you know debate. It’s very easy to over-estimate how many people have both an academic library ticket and an Athens log-in. You have, by definition, privileged access to what is known. You also have access to something that is often sorely lacking in public debate: you have access to context. Most of us just get to read or hear about things once they have passed through the filter of journalism, talk radio, social media and the court of public opinion. You on the other hand, are privy to the flow of academic discourse in your subject.

You have a choice who to be on social media

How you represent knowledge and the current state of understanding in your field is down to you. You have a choice. You can be the person who spends their time angrily replying to others who get your field wrong. You can be the person swans into any conversation with superior facts and superior information. You can be the person who just solidly shares content about their own research and their own research only. Or you could be the person who is helpful. Or the person who tries to explain that things are ‘a bit more complicated than that’. Or the person who tries to put what they are privileged to know out into the public domain. Or who helps others to better understand issues and research that overlap with your own interests and research. Always remember, most of the general public cannot access your papers unless they are open access. Always remember that what is a boring key text for your field isn’t likely to be the local library.

It’s a lot better to be consistent, productive, helpful and trustworthy than it is to act the goat for clout. Some people from academic backgrounds think that their role on social media is to set people right and relish the bunfights and flamewars and tit for tat battles. Choosing your ‘battles’ wisely is key, and realising where you contribute more by helping others to add depth and breadth to their understanding rather than sharing a link to your latest research on its own.

Out in social media, on whatever platform you choose, your initial followers may well be those from with your discipline, friends, family and colleagues. But if you begin to take on a more public role, or to discuss or share content that pertains to current events or perennial debates you will find that the people you interact with with be more likely to be those who experience the thing that your research relates to or who have strong opinions about the subject at hand. In both cases, you’re no longer just speaking to fellow academics.

Cheap controversy builds interaction most quickly (if you are a scumbag)

It would be disingenuous to claim that all it takes to build an online profile is to be honest, consistent, responsible and truthful. Social media clout comes from many places, a lot of them very unpleasant. It’s easy to make a name for yourself saying you are an academic who wants a debate about trans people, or who suggests they are a race realist or who has a new book or online course to sell to unhappy and disaffected people who are angry and against progress. The objective I think is to not have the most followers, but to have the right ones. You can only achieve that by working hard at being useful, sensible, human and approachable. There are celeb academics. many of them get to be so because they are particularly good at expressing their knowledge in ways that work for people who might go on to seek them out for work in other media, or who hold a niche that is held by few. There are also celeb academics who are absolute scumbags who betray not only their discipline but the people to whom the results of their discipline apply. Cheap controversy builds interaction most quickly. Don’t be one of those people.

With anything in social media think: “In six months time, will I be able to explain why I acted as I did today?”

There is a constant conflict for many researchers between wanting to communicate research to the public and wishing to maintain a walled and cloistered garden where they are only speaking to other academics and specialists. If you wish to have a more public impact for your research and your knowledge, you’re only going to be able to have that by not building that wall. If you chose to take the public path, then you will face legitimate scrutiny, illegitimate scrutiny and, depending on the implications of your work, absolute hatred. We know the internet hates anyone who isn’t a white bloke. Under the pressure of unfiltered response it can be difficult to tell the difference between abuse, legitimate questioning, pointless whataboutery and attempts at support. Being caught in a backlash can come from a number of places. Sometimes it is absolutely justified. Academics can screw up like anyone else. Sometimes it is because the field you work in is controversial in itself. Sometimes it’s because of the findings of research which you are prepared to stand by which you know to be valuable. Sometimes it’s having the wrong coloured skin or or the wrong gender or sexuality. Sometimes the most damaging attacks upon you will dress up an illegitimate attack as a legitimate question.

There’s no easy path to public profile if you have a commitment to truth and integrity and to kindness. Those are the paths to a public profile. Do good research, be interesting, provide context, add depth to conversation in the pursuit of truth and better outcomes for everyone. You don’t have to be the centre of attention to make the world a better place. Reaching a broad audience takes talent in areas not traditional for a researcher, in areas outside of your field. Turning two years of research into a slide deck is one thing. Turning it into content that someone with little prior knowledge but lots of interest will want to watch instead of a much, much more dangerous video on the same subject is another skill entirely. Unlearn your academic writing tics and look at how people write for a broader public. Don’t fall for the siren call of the ted talk structure. Ted talks and debates are just boxing matches for people who weren’t good at fighting at school and talent shows for people too embarrassed to do karaoke. Master your topic so that you feel as comfortable within it as an old jumper.

By the time anyone approaches you to ‘help you with your social media profile’ you will already have enough of a profile not to need them. Clarity, kindness, purpose, consistency and most of all, taking responsibility for your work and the implications of your work will stand you in good stead. I’m sorry if I haven’t revealed any practical secrets to social media success. I don’t think there are any beyond following one single, golden rule, regardless of the platform you choose. All I can really say is ‘don’t be a dick.’

So, don’t be.

@markoneinfour

markbrown1977@googlemail.com

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Mark Brown

Mark Brown

1.8K Followers

Mark Brown edited One in Four, mental health mag 2007–14. Does mental health/tech stuff for cash (or not). Writes for money. Loves speaking. Get in touch