This post was first uploaded during my visit to the UC Davis graduate seminar “Translating Research Beyond Academia: Communicating Science and Outreach for Broader Impacts”. I subsequently edited it as a follow-up to the session. My original notes from the session are here: Translating Research Beyond Academia: Be Your Own Quartermaster.
At both the Translating Research seminar and at a undergraduate mentoring event last night, one question kept coming up from researchers and students interested in science writing and social media:
“What are the pitfalls?”
Certainly, I’ve had a fairly smooth ride on social networks — I found one job via Twitter, and my blog/online portfolio helped me secure another. So I found this question hard to answer at first, and my first response was on how you want to take care to cultivate your professional persona and presence online, before venturing into opinion and analysis. Certainly, you want your personality and passion for science to come through, but start small, and take baby steps. You’re opening up your life to the world, after all. Act as if you’re at a professional conference.
Waking up today, I realized that we had a perfect example take place right in class.
I was showing my old post, In Defense of #sciencegirlthing, as an example of venturing into opinion writing. I gave a quick summary of the controversy, and played the video.
Guess what happened?
Instant reaction from about three-quarters of the room. Dropped jaws. Shaking heads. A few stayed silent. And then more incredulous gasps when folks realized my post didn’t condemn the video.
Pretty much what also happened online.
So, opening up your professional life and opinions online is a two-way street. You’re increasing your visibility and engaging in global conversations, but you better be ready for feedback of all types. You can be criticized or stalked just as likely as you can be lauded and promoted. You may be starting or joining a conversation, but you have no choice over who decides to talk back. It may be a famous author complimenting your blogpost, or it could someone you’ve never met ready to burn you at the stake.
Plus, the internet record is permanent. Anyone can do a simple search with your name to find what you’ve written, opinions you’ve expressed, photos you’ve posted, and so on. You better be ready to stand behind what you do and say. And if you have any interest in elected office or diplomatic/intelligence work (speaking of Bond…), you may want be be even more careful.
But that’s life anyway, right? Stand by what you say and do. These are mantras we already contemplate, and these are personal relationships that we already nurture and gain. All the internet does is facilitate these connections and actions — and connect you to like-minds around the world. I think the trade-off and risks are worth it.
Okay, that’s enough heady stuff. Fellow science communicators: what are some other risks/slippery slopes that you’ve encountered as you’ve grown your online presence? Would love to see your comments below.
– Ben Young Landis