On identity: some people are scientists – deal with it!

Prompted by a workshop on social media that I am helping to run tomorrow, in yesterday’s post, I wanted to think about the role of social media in academia. But I went off on a bit of a tangent, remembering my early experiences with the web in the mid-90s. In those days, there was some resistance and scepticism about a technology that we now take for granted and use every day. Will people feel the same way about social media soon? Are worries about social media more justified? If there is a place for social media in academia, what is it? Can they bring benefits comparable to those we gained from email and the web, and if so, what are they?

I promised myself I’d answer all these questions in my next post, but as I began to write I found I had too much to say about the benefits, so I have decided to break it into installments. The first installment deals with an important use of social media in academia that arises from the way the internet has changed things. In the pre-internet world, ordinary people got to know one another by face to face meetings, by talking, by writing letters. Now more often our first encounter with a new person is on the net, either viewing a professional web page or a social media profile or perhaps through a medium like twitter. It seems important to me that I exert some control over these first impressions.

An important facet of this blog and my twitter account @tom_hartley, is that they allow me to be who I am. I am able to express a wider range of opinions and interests than I can through my scientific output, and to a wider and more diverse readership. (Also, I don’t have to worry about what a peer reviewer might say, which is enormously liberating.) In my view, this is important for me to maintain and project a sense of identity that extends beyond my particular area of research and teaching, even beyond my job into (gasp!) everyday life. Social media help me to establish a permanent presence on the internet where I can be somewhat independent of my job, and yet still engage with my work and the things that interest me at work and outside it:

OK, so exposing myself as a rockstar manqué, and shamelessly plugging this on my blog is a personal choice, and other people might feel more comfortable keeping it strictly professional. Either way I think an independent presence is becoming increasingly important for younger researchers who are likely to be employed on a succession of short-term contracts. By carefully maintaining their own area of the web, and their own profile on social media, they can project a good impression without being excessively dependent on their current employers.

This upside to social media comes hand-in-hand with one of their prominent downsides: it’s equally possible to make a bad impression. Step away from the keyboard when tired, drunk or angry. Consider maintaining pseudonymous accounts for the stuff you don’t want your employer or prospective employer to see. Pay close attention to your Facebook privacy settings. Don’t get drawn into hyperbole and personal attacks on others, however provoked. There is always someone who is being gratuitously wrong on the internet, so you can’t win. Hanlon’s Razor has been recommended to me: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

As well as giving me more control over the way others see me, and I suppose there is a bit of vanity in this, I think it’s of more general importance that scientists see themselves and are seen as ordinary people with ordinary interests outside the lab. There should not be a disconnect between science and the rest of our culture, because science ought to influence and be influenced by the rest of society. I’ve always been interested in science and I like to see myself first and foremost as a scientist rather than for example, a psychologist or cognitive neuroscientist or a hippocampal or spatial cognition or memory researcher. The more specialist labels seem a bit more comfortable, perhaps because they come with the sense of security that in my little area I can make a reasonable fist of pretending that I know what I’m talking about. But knowing stuff isn’t what attracts me to science and I think the idea that science is just about existing knowledge is very misleading. For me it’s the stuff I don’t yet know that really excites me, and maybe I can convey that a little more clearly if I am prepared to step out of my comfort zone. So, although I felt a little uncomfortable identifying myself as a scientist at first, I started to feel that not identifying as a scientist was creating a barrier. When I took part in the excellent “I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here”. Finally I could say what I’d always felt. I’m a scientist. Some people are scientists – deal with it!