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The four greatest myths about using social media as a researcher

Most people who do not use social media in their research do so for good reasons. But I think many of the reasons people give for not engaging with these technologies are in fact myths.

Typically around 90% of the researchers I train from all career stages use social media in some way on a regular basis. However, the proportion of researchers actively using social media in their research is typically much lower; between 20-30% of the groups I train. There are a number of good reasons for not engaging with these technologies, and it is important to be aware of these issues before you consider whether or not you should be engaging with social media in your work.

If you read this blog and come to the conclusion that the risks are too high, and that you will not use social media in your research, then that's great. All I want is for researchers to take a serious look at the risks and benefits, and make an informed decision about whether or not to use these tools. What I’d like to avoid is people deciding not to engage out of fear or because they believe some of the greatest myths about social media for researchers.

The four greatest myths about using social media as a researcher

1. “Productive researchers don’t have time to waste on social media”

Do you read or watch the news most days? If so, then you probably have a news-shaped space in your daily routine. The problem with the mass media that most of us consume however, is that it is not very targeted. You have to wade through pages of newsprint and listen to or watch the whole broadcast to catch the few items that really interest you. I’m not saying that you should stop engaging with print and broadcast media, but what if you were to cut down the amount of time you spent on that, and filled that time back up again with highly specific news that’s particularly relevant to you? Wouldn’t this time be better spent? What if, during that news-shaped space in your schedule you’d heard about the latest discoveries in your field, found out about a grant you could apply for and kept abreast of policy developments or commentary relating to issues you are researching? Would that be time wasted or would that actually make you more productive? I have found out about funding opportunities and found collaborators for grants (that I’ve subsequently won) through social media, and that definitely wasn’t a waste of time.

What about all that frivolous stuff you hear about on social media all the time? I don’t want to watch any more cat videos. Fair enough. Me neither. The great thing about most social media platforms is that you can unfollow or mute the people who are boring you with endless pictures of their pets. I work on my signal:noise ratio all the time, unfollowing or muting people whose material isn’t relevant enough to be worth my time. The result is a tailored news stream of highly relevant material whenever I’ve got time to look at it.

Apparently people are no good at waiting any more – the evidence is that in any place where people wait, everyone nowadays seems to be on their smart phone. I don’t think I’m particularly bad at waiting, but I hate wasting time, and having access to social media on my smart phone means I can learn and be productive, even with small windows of time that would otherwise have been wasted. What about just being mindful, I hear you say? Well I’m up for that, but I’d prefer to schedule some quality time for prayer or meditation and engage with social media in a mindful way (see the strategic approach that follows).

I have almost 20,000 followers across my social media accounts, and grow by around 100 followers per day. You would think I must spend hours on social media every day, but the reality is surprising. I typically spend about 20 minutes per day on social media, and about 10 minutes on traditional news media. I manage three Twitter accounts and my LinkedIn and Facebook account on a daily basis and engage with other platforms on a more sporadic basis, like Pinterest, Vine, Periscope and Google+. My point is that you don’t have to spend all day on social media to become influential in this sphere.

2. “Social media will intrude on my personal life”

Privacy concerns are very real, but entirely manageable. First, you don’t have to put photos of your breakfast on social media – that choice is entirely yours (but please don't - trust me, no one is interested). You don’t even have to post things – you can simply use social media to consume material. Second, you can set most social media platforms to only allow those you want to see your content. Even though I don’t have many friends on Facebook, and many are family members, I never post personal stuff, and I’ve got it set so that if others post personal stuff about me, I get to review it first before it appears on my timeline and the timelines of my friends. Third, you can choose to only use social media from your computer and if you do have it on your smart phone, you can choose to turn off the notifications so they don’t intrude on your personal life.

3. “No-one would be interested in anything I’ve got to say anyway”

You don’t have to say anything. Most people start their use of social media as ‘lurkers’ – they watch what other people are saying, and use social media purely as a form of news. Many people stay in that mode of engagement, which is still really useful. Most people then graduate to liking, sharing or re-tweeting the things they find most useful. If you stop at this point, that’s also great. Now you’re not only benefiting from what other people are saying; you’re adding value to others like you who are following your updates. Many researchers engage with social media in these two modes for years before they post any of their own material. So the point is, you don’t have to have anything interesting to say to benefit from engaging professionally with social media.

Finally, it is worth saying that when I give people the challenging of summarising their research area or a recent finding in 140 characters or less, there is very rarely anyone who can’t do it, and the things you learn about people’s work from what they’ve written can be fascinating. Being forced to be concise and simple in our language can be difficult for many academics, but it is surprising how engaging you can be when you try.

4. “Social media will get me into trouble”

One academic once told me that he had banned himself from social media because he couldn’t trust himself not to say something he’d regret after a couple of glasses of wine on a Friday night. For most of us though, the chances of something going badly wrong are fairly remote if you exercise a bit of sensible caution. We all hear about high profile people losing their jobs over misjudged tweets, but part of the reason that they lose their jobs and we hear about it. Is because of their profile. You just have to look at the horrendous things that trolls say without consequence to realise that there is a lot of latitude in what people can get away with. But as researchers, we don’t want to be just getting away with it – we have our professional reputation to protect. So, my advice is to be super-careful online and remember that everything you say is on the public record. You can say far more on a public stage than you can on social media, because of the way comments online can be taken out of context so easily.

For example, I once got into a debate with someone on Twitter and said something mildly disrespectful about a Guardian journalist who had been criticising my research. Of course, the journalist was listening in, and wasn’t happy about what I said. Although I thought the comment was justifiable, I knew that the tone was wrong, and I instantly apologised, publically in a tweet. The others who were listening in were disappointed that I’d called time on the debate just as it was getting interesting, and it turned out that the organiser of the Hay Festival was one of them, and we were both invited to publically debate the issue on stage. Luckily for me, it never happened (I’m sure I’d have been eaten for breakfast). But the strange thing is that I would have felt comfortable saying what I said on Twitter and much more face-to-face in a live debate. On another occasion, I arrived late to speak at an event in Windsor Castle (after getting it mixed up with the Tower of London – oops) and missed the bit where they said it was Chatham House Rules, and got caught tweeting a photo that showed who was attending the meeting. But I had a good excuse and it was just a slap over the wrist really. So yes, social media can get you into trouble, but for most of us, with a bit of care, getting into serious trouble is extremely unlikely.

I believe that the opposite is far closer to the truth nowadays: not having a positive digital footprint is more likely to get you into trouble. Perhaps it is an overstatement to say that abstaining from digital media will “get you into trouble”, but in many situations nowadays, it doesn’t do you any favours. Of course, a negative digital footprint is far worse than no footprint at all. Google yourself and see if material from your student days still comes up, and get rid of it. But for most academics, the bigger problem is their lack of digital footprint, beyond the page on their institution’s website, that is usually woefully out of date.

When I’m hiring a new post-doc or evaluating candidates for academic posts, I always Google them, and I know many others who do the same. If I can’t find a digital footprint, then I start to ask questions. Is this person really doing internationally leading research if I can’t find it easily on the Internet? Do they have something to hide?

When I was asked to apply for a Chair position recently, I tried to protest that I was in the middle of my longest ever losing streak for research funding and that I could never live up to the reputation of the retiree who had vacated the Chair (who happened to be my all-time academic hero). I was told that my record spoke for itself, according to my website, and that I should think about it. The majority of plenary talks I’m invited to give come via my website, and I’ve built an international training business through social media, without ever once paying for advertising. Time invested building and curating your digital footprint really can pay dividends for your career.

More important than all this, having a strong digital brand as an academic engenders credibility and trust among many of the people who you might like to use your research, making it easier for you to connect with them. That's why I've blogged about how you can harness the power of social media to drive research impact. If you use social media strategically, as I suggest in that blog, then it doesn't have to take up huge amounts of time. It doesn’t have to intrude on your personal life or get you into trouble. And you may discover to your surprise that you’ve actually got some quite interesting things to say, that other people find both interesting and useful.

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