Two days ago, Cal Newport, an associate professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University, published an op-ed in the New York Times titled "Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It." I think it could have been more aptly titled, "Quit Facebook, Write a Blog Instead. Your Career May Depend on It."
In his op-ed, Cal argues that our social media accounts aren't as valuable to our career pursuits as we've been led to believe, and that they may even be harmful. Cal writes, "[t]hese networks are fun, but you’re deluding yourself if you think that Twitter messages, posts and likes are a productive use of your time. If you’re serious about making an impact in the world, power down your smartphone, close your browser tabs, roll up your sleeves and get to work."
If you've ever read my blog or if you follow me on Twitter, you might guess that I disagree - rather strongly. Yesterday I made my opinions about this "Quit Social Media" op-ed clear in a series of Tweets.
I pointed out that while Cal makes a case for social media decreasing our ability to concentrate (an argument he goes into in-depth in his book Deep Work), peer-reviewed research reveals a more complicated picture. Yes, there is a good amount of evidence that humans are terrible multi-taskers, but research has also shown that individual factors including "metacognitive abilities, motivation, and positive affect" can moderate how distracted we are by social media. In other words, how prone we are to frequent task-switching (e.g. checking Facebook while we study) depends on the individual, and for some individuals intermittent "technology breaks" can actually be beneficial for concentration. So social media use doesn't have a blanket wide-spread negative effect on concentration ability - it depends on the person.
I also pointed out that Cal's op-ed ignores any positive impacts that social media use may have on the career-driven individual. There are numerous quantifiable benefits of being active on social media as a scientist. (Yes, I'm automatically apply Cal's op-ed opinions to science and science communication, because that's what I do.) Some of these benefits include increased citation rates for research articles that are tweeted about and increased public engagement with science in a media world where a majority of U.S. adults now get their science news and information from the internet and increasingly social media. My own research on science blog readers suggests that science blogs may serve to level or "narrow" gaps in science literacy based on different levels of formal science education among media users.
I also pointed out in my tweets yesterday that if scientists use social media for professional and personal communication, this can also help humanize scientists for U.S. adults who get their science information via social media, which in turn carries benefits for science. This is important because the American public often perceives scientists as very competent, but not always very warm or relatable. Eschewing the public sphere as it exists via social media could reinforce this stereotype of scientists. What's more, there is evidence that "scientists who engage with society perform better academically" - and that could extend to engagement with society via social media.
The benefits of using social media as a scientist, or scientist in training, are clear. But how do we reconcile this with advice to "quit social media" for the benefit of our (science) careers? Sure, a lot of social media content is "noise," and just like with anything you need to be strategic about how you use social media for your own benefit as well as broader public good. But I think Cal takes the concept that "[a]ny 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article" too far in assuming this means most social media activity is "low-value activity." Most 16-year-olds aren't writing the contextualized blog posts I hope you'll find my blog posts to be.
Yesterday before I even started tweeting my thoughts on Cal's op-ed, I e-mailed him to ask if he would be willing to be interviewed for this blog post. I wanted to know his thoughts on social media use for science communication and by scientists before I "smacked down" his op-ed without any input from him.
I was intrigued when Cal got back with me almost immediately. I spoke with Cal earlier today (Nov. 21) on the phone. He painted a decidedly more nuanced picture for me in our conversation than he did in his op-ed piece.
“Some of my curmudgeonliness is because I worry there aren’t enough curmudgeons out there on this topic," Cal said in our phone interview. "With social media in general, for some reason you don’t hear a lot of voices on both sides. We don’t hear enough voices saying, ‘by the way, you don’t have to use this.’ That’s always hit me as being a little bit off. […] It’s good to have voices on both sides, so I’ve reluctantly taken on the role of being the curmudgeon.”
Cal Newport said the reality in terms of his opinions on using social media are more grey than he painted in his NYT article. In terms of science communication, he admitted that the issue of using or not using social media is much more complicated.
“When I see people using social media, like companies or politicians for example, very successfully to reach people, it makes sense, because that’s where everyone is," Cal said. "In other words, I can’t blame a company for caring about their social media brand because everyone uses social media. I’m not surprised to see [social media] as a relatively successful marketing tool – it should be. It’s almost obligatory now. And I don’t begrudge people who are in the media industry who are maintaining an audience [on social media] as part of what they do for a living. That’s where everyone is – it would be weird not to use it.”
Yes it would!
“Probably science communication falls somewhere in between the individual who is worried about their personal brand, and a company that wants their product to have more coverage," Cal said. "It’s probably a grey area, and an interesting area.”
I asked Cal what his opinion was in terms of scientists using social media in an era where the majority of U.S. adults are getting their science news and info online and through social media, and where many newspapers have dropped their science sections.
“I think you are hitting on something that is complicated and new about science, which is this question of, how much of the scientist’s role is to produce new things, and how much of the scientist’s role is also having to be the one-person company that is acquiring funding, doing media, getting coverage?" Cal said. "There are certainly hints that it’s shifting toward the latter role, and away from a role of purely thinking and producing results. I’m sympathetic to the idea that nowadays in science, you probably need to be at least aware of the role you have to play in funding acquisition and coverage of your results. To study this and discuss this is important.”
I also asked Cal whether his article was geared toward a particular audience, for example whether his advice to "quit social media" would be different for students versus scientists.
“Yeah, I think it would be a more complicated discussion with scientists," Cal said. "My op-ed in particular is aimed at young people new in their jobs, and the vague notion that just their personal brand that they are fostering through social media is going to play an important role in their careers and that therefore they should be spending a lot of time on social media sites. For a scientist, it’s more complicated.”
In his own field, Cal said, he would not advise his students to spend time spreading their work through social media. However, he acknowledged that there are other scientific fields where the role of the researcher in terms of communicating his/her work online is changing. “You definitely see scientists having to do more of that sort of advocacy now,” Cal said.
Cal’s main argument is that there should be a higher threshold for evaluating whether you use social media. He said that there are two mindsets toward social media. The first is what he calls the “any benefit” mindset where the use of social media is warranted by any conceived benefits that might result from its use. The second mindset focuses on one’s core career goals, keeping one’s time and attention focused on these goals and questioning whether the use of social media aligns with them.
“There are plenty of scenarios where someone runs through this analysis and, due to the nature of their work, determines that their social media use is a huge net positive for their core goals," Cal said. "But for a lot of people, if they ran this same analysis, they would determine that there’s not a core positive benefit. If you have these higher thresholds, it’s not that social media would go away, but it wouldn’t have this level of ubiquity where everyone has to use it [for professional development.]”
Cal also contrasted creation of blog content, for example, from use of what he calls “attention economy” services such as Facebook and Twitter. Most science communication researchers including myself would place blogs squarely into the “social media” domain, but Cal confirmed that he was referring specifically to the microblogging platforms and social media networks like Twitter and Facebook in his NYT op-ed, even though he used the broad term “social media.” I think language and terms matter here, though.
“I would separate out for example a colleague of mine having a science blog as being a different thing than the social media I’m talking about," Cal said. "There is no way he could become addicted to checking his science blog, it’s not engineered to give him at any moment in time an unending stream of intermittently reinforced feedback.”
This is an interesting concept that I'm not sure I agree with. How can we say spending time creating science blog content is valuable but that creating science microblogging content isn't? But it definitely provides a more nuanced perspective than what Cal provided in his original op-ed. What he seems to have a problem with are young career seekers getting sucked into the social media feedback loops that might come from constantly checking one’s likes and retweets on Twitter or Instagram. He left room, at least in our discussion, for valuable creation of science-related content.
“I like the Internet,” Cal said. “I like to use the Internet to find interesting things, to connect with people and to share information, so I think it’s a great resource. It’s in particular the things that have emerged from the attention economy to colonize your brain that are not harmless. The worry of harm I have, especially for scientists or people who learn complicated things and think hard for a living, is that these [social media network] services are engineered to make that harder. This should be taken into account.” Cal said we need to remember that these are entertainment services, not inherently a public good. I agree with this point overall, but I think many scientists CAN turn their own social media accounts, whether blogs or Twitter feeds or Instagram accounts, into a public good by sharing high-quality science-related content and expertise.
Many of Cal’s arguments come from his book Deep Work, where he argues that the ability to deeply concentrate is a skill that is becoming more valuable at the same time that it’s becoming rare. However, there is research that indicates that individual factors play into one’s ability to concentrate, or rather propensity toward multi-tasking or frequent task switching, as I referenced earlier.
“Certainly there are a lot of people who can use these [social media] services with no problem, and be successful," Cal admitted. "They are fine – they use it sometimes but not too much. But I think that’s understood. There are plenty of scientists who are able to balance [their social media use] just fine. But, it still worries me. It’s not something I want to mess around with.”
Cal said that as a graduate student, he had more success when he started focusing more on producing higher-quality research work as opposed to worrying about how he communicated that work. While he admitted that the role of the scientist as science communicator is shifting more toward a broader communication role, he still subscribes personally to a more traditional concept of how a researcher should spend his or her time. "In my field, the peer-reviewed system seems to work fine,” Cal said.
He said that as a theoretical computer scientist, he isn’t overly concerned with direct online communication of his work to a broader audience. "Certainly good stuff gets picked up by science journalists and university communication departments, and that’s good. But of course the most important people to see it in terms of long-term impact are other researchers who are going to build on it and build toward larger, more important results."
Cal did admit that for fields of science that have a close connection between the research and public understanding and policy, the issue of the scientist being present on social media is more complicated. "Let’s say for example your work is relevant to climate science. I think there are a lot of big questions there about obligations and roles you have in helping propagate and explain your ideas, because it has a direct impact on public policy right now, and public perceptions," Cal said. "I’m very sympathetic to that. But when it comes to science [communication], I’m speaking from my niche, where we have way more of a gap between what we do and public policy and public interests than other fields do.”
In summary, Cal said, his op-ed was more about the role one’s social media plays in one’s career development, especially for early career individuals, and how social media isn’t the only place to find job opportunities. Cal said he would advise his own students not to worry about social media but rather to focus on their academic studies and research, because he believes producing high-quality work will have a greater impact on their career goals than focusing on communicating that work in its early phases.
There’s a caveat though, which Cal admitted at the end of our phone interview. At MIT, where Cal earned his Ph.D. in computer science, his experience was one where a communications staff of “essentially world-class science reporters” played a huge role in disseminating researchers’ work, including his own, often without any solicitation on the part of the reserachers. “I know that’s not going to be the experience of most scientists in most places. You aren’t going to have that advantage in a lot of places.” Right, so many of us have to work much harder to promote our work, raise awareness of the need to fund it, and potentially change public perceptions of it.
“For science communication, as I scientist I agree with you,” Cal told me in our phone interview. “It’s a complicated, very serious issue. Increasingly the lines between your role in communicating and producing the work are getting blurred, and there is public interest at stake.”
So, in the end, SOMEONE has to reach out to broader audiences to communicate scientific research and promote public engagement with science. And that someone should definitely be doing this at least partly through social media, since that is where people, and especially young people, ARE. Whether that someone is us as scientists, graduate students, or science undergraduate students will depend on the resources we have around us in terms of university communications staff, but also our personal goals and interests and the norms of our own scientific communities. But one thing is for sure, as scientists we can't ALL abandon social media and thus public engagement via this very important media sphere. And how will early career scientists or students learn to use social media strategically if they/we abandon it altogether?
So, science students, scientists, science communicators and others, don't let Cal's op-ed make you abandon social media altogether. Rather, let it make you think more strategically about your science and science communication goals, and how you can use social media to achieve them without wasting your time.