Dissemination, Social Media, and Ethics

twitterstormI inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.

I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.

Here’s their tweet and my reply:

 

The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.

Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.

I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:

Rajat Chauhan tweet

and this:

Alan J Taylor tweet

which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)

Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.

Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.

I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.

Social Media: Is It Just A Numbers Game?

jumbled numbersGoodness me, such a busy week, I almost forgot to blog. This time of year is often very pressured for independents and non-academics with 31 March being a crucial end-of-financial-year deadline by which many projects must be finished and invoices paid. So much so that I haven’t been around on social media anywhere near as much as usual.

Nevertheless, in the last couple of weeks, I have passed the 3,000 follower mark on Twitter, hit 200 followers on Instagram, and reached the magic 500+ on LinkedIn. Ding!

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and Instagram since 2014, so these figures aren’t particularly impressive. Publishers, for example, don’t start taking notice till you reach 10,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. Part of the reason is I’ve never tried to attract followers, other than by being around and talking to people, and following those I feel a connection with. Others take very different approaches. I know a fiction writer on Instagram, someone I’ve met IRL a couple of times, who reached 10,000 followers in less than a year and is now coaching other writers on how to attract followers like honeysuckle attracts bees. She wrote a blog post with a few pointers, such as: choose, and stick to, a colour palette, so that when someone looks at your Instagram profile and sees your last nine photos, they give a coherent message. There were other tips, like how to schedule posts for maximum impact, all of which seemed entirely feasible to implement.

So, I thought, I could do that.

I’d probably sell more books that way.

But.

I can’t do that.

I simply can’t bring myself to be so contrived. It’s not me at all. The thought of choosing a colour palette, and scheduling my posts for maximum impact, makes me feel queasy.

One of the things I love about social media is the randomness. Yesterday I mislaid my landline handset, wailed on Twitter, and a woman from Brisbane told me how to find it. On Instagram I seek out interesting academics and I talk to a Romanian woman studying for a PhD in Japan, a Dutch academic in America, an Australian academic in America, and so on. The glimpses of their lives are fascinating to me; I hope mine are to them.

I should take the ‘colour palette’ approach; it’s sensible marketing. I should create and nurture a brand for myself. To an extent, this blog has a colour palette. The designer friend who made it for me asked what my favourite colours were; I told her; she liked and used those colours. But I don’t pick photos in those colours for my blog posts (though I did for this post, because I came across one on freeimages.com and it amused me), and I certainly can’t Instagram everything in purple, turquoise, and hot pink. It would be exhausting even to try.

I was musing about all this to a friend who is quite the social media expert.

“I just like, y’know, hanging out with people online,” I said. “I don’t want to do this ‘brand’ thing. I want the weird, the random, the serendipitous. I like making friends.”

“That,” he said, “that IS your brand.”

I guess he’s right. It’s not much of a brand, though, in marketing terms. It’s just me, bimbling around online like I do offline, forgetting things sometimes, doing my best. I could change; I could do this whole thing differently. Maybe, sometime in the future, I will. But, for now… I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of trying to present myself as something I’m not, something polished and shiny. It would be too much like having a proper job. So I shall carry on dropping in and out of social media as I please, chatting when I have something to say, and otherwise lurking or taking time out. That makes me happy. And while my approach may not sell as many books as the ‘colour palette’ system, it has made me some great friends and taken me all around the world. So, in my terms, it works just fine.

Twitter Can Make Your Dreams Come True

I’m at the end of a working week in Melbourne, sitting in my hotel room; all I have to do is write this blog post and pack. It’s been a great week. One keynote, three workshops and six meetings. Miles and miles of pavement-pounding, including four bookshops (only one book bought due to luggage weight restrictions; several others noted) and the best pistachio gelato I ever ate. Free trams! Melbourne has free trams in the city centre! I didn’t figure out how to use them till day four of six, but my feet have been grateful to me since. And lots of lovely drinks and snacks and dinners. Melbourne likes its grub, and so do I.

The best part about this week, though, is the people I have met. People I’ve only known on Twitter up to now. Not all of them from Melbourne, either: Naomi Barnes (@DrNomyn) from Brisbane and Deborah Netolicky (@debsnet) from Perth were both in town for the Australian Association for Research in Education conference, and it was great to hang out with them. They have both, since, written considered and scholarly blog posts: Deb wrote about the conference, and commented that one thing she loves about Twitter is that it helps her feel as though she knows people, even if they’ve never met in person. Naomi reflected on whether Twitter really creates or enables communities.

I came to Melbourne this week entirely as a result of Twitter. The photo at the top of this blog post was harvested from Twitter. I’ve been doing work generated through Twitter, and people have been tweeting that work out into the Twittersphere. Twitter supports my work in a lot of different ways. This week I have met and talked with eight people who I only knew online up to now. With each of them we went straight into real conversation: when you already know someone online, you can dispense with all the ‘how was your journey?’ and ‘did you find us OK?’ type small talk. This means that when you only have a couple of hours with someone, that time is much more useful. So I get where Deb is coming from with her comment.

Naomi makes a distinction between communities and, as sub-sets of communities, tribes. This is pretty much how I experience Twitter. There is a community of researchers that flocks around hashtags such as #ecrchat (early career researchers chat), #phdchat (PhD chat) and #acwri (academic writing). And there are smaller tribes. I have felt for some time that there’s a little Australian tribe that I belong to, made up of ten or a dozen people. Twitter tribes aren’t necessarily co-located, and indeed my Australian Twitter tribe is scattered around Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. But the biggest concentration is in Melbourne, and the others either have spent time in Melbourne or visit the city fairly regularly. So this feels like the geographical heart of the tribe. Also, not everyone in my Australian Twitter tribe knows everyone else. I was able to introduce Naomi and Deb to another tribe member. And there’s one tribe member who, despite being at one of the universities where I taught this week, doesn’t know any of the others. And to be fair, I first got to know her through her work, rather than through Twitter; our Twitter contact came later. But that doesn’t matter; she’s still part of my tribe.

Meeting these people in person has, without exception, been an absolute delight. They have introduced me to wonderful bars and restaurants. We have talked non-stop, planned projects, generated ideas, and laughed immoderately. I have wanted to meet them for years but thought it could never happen. It has, quite literally, been a dream come true.