When I brainstormed and launched a scientist selfie challenge this week (Samantha Yammine came up with the hashtag #ScientistsWhoSelfie!) to promote an interdisciplinary research project exploring perceptions of scientists on Instagram, I didn't expect to wake up Friday morning to hundreds of scientists sharing their work via selfies on Instagram and Twitter.
Scientists all over the world joined us this week to humanize themselves via selfies. As of tonight, scientist and others have contributed over 1,868 pictures/posts to the #ScientistsWhoSelfie campaign (92% of those in Twitter, 8% on Instagram).
At the origin of this hashtag is a research project that a team of researchers from LSU (including myself), University of Delaware, University of Toronto, and University of California, Berkeley are currently crowd-funding at Experiment. The idea is not so much related to selfies as to portraits or self-portraits of scientists and how these may change viewers' perceptions of scientists when shared with captions telling scientists' stories on Instagram. Our team is planning a series of lab-based and survey experiments to test whether Instagram posts created in the lab or field, and featuring the faces of science, can change public perceptions of how warm and competent scientists are. (Scientists are classically perceived as very competent but only moderately warm. On the other hand, women are generally perceived as more warm than they are competent, or in some cases are perceived low on both scales when evaluated based on their physical attractiveness.)
To explore how pictures of scientists on Instagram can shape public perceptions or guide whether stereotypes are associated with particular individuals, we will also be manipulating the gender of faces in experiment images of scientists on Instagram and accounting for characteristics such as their perceived age, ethnicity and physical attractiveness. As others have pointed out, we may also need to account for elements such as field of science portrayed in these images, clothing the scientists are wearing, whether the images obviously appear to be self-portraits or not, etc. You can read more about our research methods here.
But let's get back to the selfie challenge. The selfie has a particularly strong hold on social media users today. We either love them, hate them, or have a love/hate relationship with them. Many people scoff at taking selfies, and yet, especially for scientists who explore at the boundaries of their field, in labs often late at night or in remote areas conducting fieldwork, sometime the infamous "selfie" is the only way to capture a photo of yourself in a particular environment or doing something you'd like others to see. That, and the fact that our camera smartphones are always with us, that they have front-facing cameras, and that we don't like to hand our expensive phones to strangers, leads to strong selfie culture.
So it's not surprising that the #ScientistsWhoSelfie hashtag took off this week. Scientists are eager for opportunities to show lay audiences that they/we are "just like everyone else." And for good reason. Media portrayals of scientists are often misguided caricatures - mad scientists, quirky or unsociable people, white men with white lab coats and white hair. (Even though they are slowly getting better.) Most U.S. adults have never met a scientist and can't name a living scientist or one they know personally. Scientists who are active online often jump on opportunities to change typical portrayals and perceptions of people who do science.
Twitter Moment: Scientists Who Selfie
And who doesn't like a selfie?! Faces engage us, and there is evidence that, even if selfies sometimes attract negative attention or cause viewers to ascribe narcissistic attributes to posters, they still get more likes and engagement on Instagram.
The #ScientistsWhoSelfie hashtag is often being used along with the #womeninSTEM hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, according to a Crimson Hexagon analysis I ran today. Most of the people using the hashtag appear to be female (70%). That's awesome for representation of #womeninSTEM in social media, but potentially problematic given that female scientists may be judged more harshly based on their appearance and perceived to be more warm but less competent based on science selfies they post online. (We need data on that.) If female scientists post more selfies doing science on social media than men, how does that impact people's perceptions of scientists or who is more "competent" as a scientist, given that women are often stereotyped as warm but lower in competence than men? We may need more men to be posting their science selfies, too.
I'm very excited to be conducting a study of if and how scientists' Instagram posts impact people's of perceptions of scientists, particular with regards to scientist gender, age and ethnicity. I have an amazing team in Dr. Lance Porter, Daniel Toker, Samantha Yammine, Imogene Cancellare and Dr. Becky Carmichael, and we hope you will join us in posting science selfies on Twitter and Instagram, and pledging what you can to make it possible for us to conduct this research and make our results publicly available in real time!
Follow us on Instagram @scientistselfies.