Philip Moriarty wrote a post about engaging online called rules of engagement: seven lessions from communicating above and below the line. Philip’s experiences are quite negative, and he has mostly stopped engaging on social media. I had said that I would try to write something about my own experiences, so this is an attempt to do so.
One problem with trying to write some kind of retrospective about my experiences engaging on social media is that I know that I’m not the same person now as I was when I started; I’ve learned a lot, and how I respond to things is also very different. I’ve slightly forgotten how I would have responded to things in the past, so may not even correctly represent my own experiences. I’ll do my best, though.
I should probably remind people that I started doing this pseudonymously. I don’t have a really good reason for having done so. I think it’s partly my own nature, and partly I was aware that it could be a contentious topic, so thought that it might be better than engaging openly. If I had known then what I know now, I might have started differently, but I didn’t, so I didn’t. It only lasted about 18 months before I was outed and I think I was quite pleased when that happened.
Something else I remember is that I was very naive when I started (I may still be naive, but not quite as naive as I once was). I really did think that trying to remain civil, and trying to explain things clearly and carefully, would make a difference. It very quickly became clear that this was not the case. In some sense I learned, first hand, the failure of the deficit model. On the other hand, my interest was more in explaining/discussing science, than convincing people to do something. So, it’s still not clear to me what I – as a scientist – can do that is different to what I started doing. I still think that the best I can do is to simply explain the science as clearly and carefully as I can, even if that doesn’t necessarily achieve anything specific.
This is probably the bit I find hardest to write. I have found some of what I’ve experienced, extremely difficult. There have been stages where I have worried about the impact this was having on my general health and well-being. I have, however, partly learned to deal with this and partly I now know my limits. I am less bothered by the vitriol, and I simply post less and comment less. I also know when to simply take a break and recharge. The down side, though, is that I think I am far less passionate about this than I once was.
I also think that I’ve learned to recognise when something is worthwhile, and when it is not. Similarly, I think I know how to write things that will either provoke a response, or – sometimes – not. If I don’t feel like having to deal with predictable responses, I think I know how to write things in a way that minimises the likelihood of getting those responses. What worries me a little, though, is that I’m essentially applying some form of self-censorship. In some sense this can be good, because it might indicate that one has learned how to phrase things in ways that are regarded as reasonable. On the other hand, it probably also means a reluctance to address potentially contentious topics. I don’t have a sense of whether or not I’ve achieved the right balance, and this is something I do ponder from time to time.
Some positives. I’ve learned a lot. This can be challenging, and I do quite enjoy challenges. It’s also an important topic and I would like to think that I’ve made some kind of contribution, even if it’s not a very large one. I’ve encountered some people who I respect and like and from whom I’ve learned a lot. Sadly, I’ve also encountered some who I want little, if anything, more to do with. There are some who seem incapable of engaging in a reasonable manner, and it is – in my view – worth identifying these people as soon as you can and avoiding them if at all possible. These people are not all anonymous trolls, which did surprise me initially, but doesn’t anymore.
Okay, this is getting rather long, so I will try to wrap up. Do I have any general observations and advice for those who might be considering engaging on social media? It’s challenging, but can be very interesting and rewarding. However, it’s important to learn your limits and not to do too much; there are aspects that can be very frustrating and unpleasant. Given that I think I’ve reached a point where I now know my own limits and what I think I can do, I’m also trying to be supportive of others who are engaging online. I think it would be good if more were engaging on social media and I think it’s important for those who are more established to try and help those who are starting out. I’m also just trying to be nicer, even with those who I mostly disagree with; if the next thing I want to say isn’t very pleasant, then I simply try not to respond. This is partly because I do think it would be good if the dialogue were better and the only person you can actually influence is yourself, but is also partly because I’ve learned how much I dislike engaging in vitriolic discussions.
Anyway, those are some reflections about my own engagement on social media. This is, of course, simply one person’s experiences, so may not be the same for others, and others may have very different ideas and views. I also certainly don’t not claim that my own engagement is some exemplar of how it such be done, but maybe some will find these reflections useful.