These are exciting times. With just 140 characters and one click, you could potentially reach millions of people. You don’t need to be famous, you just need great content. May be a hashtag. A message of love. An ordinary moment of joy. Enthusiastic cheering for your team. Spontaneous expression of disappointment.
You just need to join the conversation.
What kind of conversations should I join, you may ask? After all, social media is full of political discourse. Often with polarized and heated debates. And mixed with close friends and professional colleagues alike. With social media seeping into all aspects of our life, the separation between our personal and professional lives is eroding on a daily basis. It is even more so for academics, who need to constantly keep themselves abreast of the greatest and latest research, for which Twitter is proving to be a great medium via peer-to-peer learning and engagement. As more and more scientists join the conversation, many arrive at this question sooner or later: what kind of persona should I maintain? Should I carefully curate my tweets with professional content? Should I use it only to promote my work? Always put my best foot forward? Or is it safe to be transparent and be more personal? Or maintain a mix?
Sharing controversial opinions publicly can cost a great deal. Threats of unemployment, even when tenured, are not uncommon. Debates on this topic come and go, although increasingly frequently now. I’ve had to struggle for some time myself to understand what Twitter actually is, what I want from it and what others want from it. Struggle is real for “trainees” like me who are yet to find a niche, and secure jobs. We need to look like the “most employable phd”. After all, most people find you online first and first impressions do matter unfortunately!
Openly expressing your ideas (which can sometimes be stupid) or live broadcasting political opinions not in line with your current or future employer (or collaborator), can be dangerous. Especially, as no one yet knows what the impact of the unrestricted social media presence to their “brand” or image is. So I thought about the pros and cons, read some stuff online, talked to few people, and paid attention to the so called “thought leaders” and “influencers”. I’ve realized I work best when I am able to express my ideas and opinions freely, without fear or hesitation. I’ve learnt some of my best ideas came in the most ordinary of circumstances and during spontaneous conversations.
I think I found my balance. It’s to not have any. It is to be myself. It is simply to be human.
However, being human takes courage. Admitting weakness publicly takes courage. Being open for criticism takes courage. Being transparent takes courage. Being yourself, when the entire world around you wants you to be something else, takes courage. But I believe being yourself is the only sustainable way to becoming the best of yourself.
I don’t mean to imply you should try to be obsessively and radically transparent, nor constantly broadcast all neural interactions in your brain. But just that you don’t need to worry about maintaining a particular persona. As a recent poll below suggests, make wise choices.
I think a wise choice could be to just be yourself.
What does that mean, you may ask? By that I mean you don’t need to try be something else you think you need to be. You don’t need to appear like the well-defined stereotypes people talk about. People, esp. academics, tend to be quite multi-faceted. Many of them share some common traits, but these few common traits don’t completely define the individuals. Especially not in this age of interdisciplinary research. Not even close. Hence, feeling like you need to appear somebody else, or something else, is fighting your natural instinct.
“Great, so can I spit out everything that comes to my mind?” You could certainly do it, but, as in real life, this is less likely to be effective. Unless you’re participating in a major event unfolding live, like the 2016 American elections and you’re tying to comment on how things have taken some interesting turns. A good rule of thumb when trying to decide on the frequency and type of tweeting would be to ask yourself: “Would I do this in real life? Would I say these to my friends and colleagues next to me?”
“But, social media is a very different platform, no?”. Yes, it does have a wider reach. Larger scale. They give you flexibility, that you don’t typically have in the real world. Just as you can gain support of many people, you could easily be attracting strong disagreement. Hence, “what about offending my peers?”, you may ask. Or your current or potential future employer? As the public comments will most likely be public for a very long time to come, isn’t it smarter to remain silent publicly and be open to only trusted friends in private? After all, when you are not yet quite confident about where you stand among your peers, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”? Why not being pragmatic and manage your appearances until you establish yourself, until you’re big enough that “perception management” is not necessary?
To those arguments, I would like to counter them with these questions: how do you engage best? When are you most comfortable in the course of a dialogue? Leading it? Being a passive participant? What is your natural mode of engagement? Are you at your best when your mind is free and flying? Or are you okay even when you don’t have to express yourself? Are you often concerned about what others think? Would you be fine with lack of responses to your public questions and requests? Is your self-confidence strong enough to be okay with the possibility of letting other people think you are stupid or a loudmouth? Do you really want to work or engage with those who do not encourage or respect you to be yourself? Is public criticism of your work hurtful to you? Or do you want to leverage it to sharpen your ideas? I hope these questions help you improve your clarity in shaping your own online persona.
I have no doubt that brand/perception/persona management is a tested/successful strategy in certain domains, and at certain levels and types of employment. I may be engaging in some of it myself without realizing it. But it’s not for me. I choose to not engage in it. I’d at least try.
That said, I am not going to pretend there are no negative effects from this “venture”. There are clear benefits of being connected, making friends and learning from others. There are clear troubles too: being misconstrued easily, strangers judging you too quickly, potentially harming your employability even before the interview, and other stranger things we are yet to discover in the strange land of social media. I’m choosing to take the risk of losing some for the benefit of contributing to a more open and engaging world. I believe that public engagement by citizens and scientists alike would only make the world a better place.
To those who are yet to find their balance, I say, be human, be yourself, express your opinions freely and engage with others without hesitation. Don’t be afraid, “you’ve nothing to fear but fear itself”.
Personally, I promise to be human, keep Twitter a safe space for you and all humans, free of judgement or consequences. Will you?