What’s the big deal about sharing science on Instagram?
A recent Science magazine editorial criticized scientists’ use of Instagram to share their research and conduct outreach, seemingly on the grounds that (especially women) scientists shouldn’t be engaging in online outreach without the formal support and acknowledgement of their academic institutions.
“I have come to understand #scicomm on Instagram as a digital demonstration of the efforts that many female scientists exert daily to correct for gender disparities. […] A lot of good comes from the work of female scientists on Instagram. But it disturbs me that these efforts are celebrated as ways to correct for the long held and deeply structured forms of discrimination and exclusion that female scientists face. I wonder whether our efforts should instead be directed toward advocating for policy changes at institutional and governmental levels.” – Science editorial
I agree that science and academic institutions should be formally rewarding online and other science outreach. And they certainly should not be “pushing” these efforts unfairly or unequally on minority scientists.
But criticizing or otherwise questioning the time or efforts that individual scientists spend sharing science and expressing themselves on Instagram is evidence of a misunderstanding of why scientists do this, and how it can matter.
If we can pull any lessons from the motivations of science bloggers, scientists who use social media do so overwhelmingly to practice their own communication skills, to explain and communicate science to lay audiences, to foster public interest and to connect with others. While a sense of obligation to share science, enact change in academia or advocate for a cause are reasons some scientist bloggers give for communicating online, these fall much further down the list of motivations, while popularizing science and self-expression motivations dominate.
Especially in the typical absence of formal academic reward systems for online outreach (nobody is getting tenure yet for their science blogging or Instagramming), I think it’s incredibly important to understand science bloggers’ and Instagrammers’ motivations. Why? Because how can we criticize science Instagrammers for somehow “failing” to change gender disparities with their posts and communication efforts, if this goal isn’t even among their more important reasons for using IG??
But while we are on the subject… scientists’ Instagram posts, especially ones in which they share photos of themselves in science settings (yes, selfies), might indeed be able to positively change gender science stereotypes, or stereotypes that associate STEM activities and abilities with being male and vice versa. This is based both on preliminary data that the Scientists Who Selfie research team is collecting and analyzing as I write this post, but also on evidence that the increasing representation of women scientists in magazines, on TV, and in social media may be changing stereotypes. In the case of Instagram posts, this change can happen regardless of scientists’ motivations for creating IG content. In other words, positive changes in public perceptions and gender stereotypes might be an added benefit of many and diverse scientists sharing their experiences and photos online.
But let’s get back to those personal motivations.
After the Science editorial came out, my friend and research colleague Samantha Yammine and others encouraged scientists on Instagram to share their motivations, using a hashtag (#ScientistsWhoSelfie) that we co-developed for a research study on perceptions of scientists on IG. The hashtag, which has already been far more popular that I ever thought it would be when I first started the campaign for our Experiment.com project, took off like wildfire again this month. Hundreds of scientists, male and female alike, used the hashtag as well as #StrongerTogether to share why and how they use IG as scientists.
Why do scientists use Instagram? Let’s hear from this month’s #scientistswhoselfie posts.
“Everyone is entitled to use their social media accounts as they wish. I decided to use mine to scicomm and business networking. Nothing makes me happier than sharing my knowledge and experience with others.” - @phd_to_success
“Social media is hard to fit in to a busy schedule. No you don’t have to do it, but it’s a useful tool. It makes your science more approachable and human, leading to great #scicomm.” - @tmcelrath
“I am always telling my friends and fam the amazing new science research that is going on or a fun fact about science and I thought WHY not share to a larger audience my passion? In doing this something I never thought could happen, happened! I fell even more in love with science.” - @silli_scientist
“I am a second year neuroscience PhD student at Weill Cornell Medicine. I am trying to build a platform where I can communicate my science in a relatable and funny way to millennials using analogies, including lots of Starbucks and Tinder jokes.” - @brain_kween
“Science needs to be accessible and approachable. So here, approach me.” - @madeline.mayday
“I love sharing interesting topics in the science field with people. I enjoy breaking down a complex concept to a level where EVERYONE can enjoy it and take something away from it. I initially started my Instagram page for the following reasons. 1) I enjoyed spending time on social media and sharing pictures with my friends. 2) I have a passion for science and teaching others. 3) There is so much negativity out there on social media and I thought this was the perfect platform to share science and empower other men and women.” - @science.bae
“Why did I decide to create a scientific Instagram and become a #scientistswhoselfie? Because honestly I enjoy talking about science and wanted a platform where I could do that outside of my personal account. But also because I think that talking about being a scientist and science in general is important. Through this account I hope to shine some light on what working as a scientist is like. Maybe it will teach you a little something about the importance of estuaries, the organisms that live there, and their habitats. Or at the least show you some cool photos of life under the sea.” - @estuarine.erin
“I started this Insta as a way to promote my blog (go check out my latest post ⬆️, link in bio). I started my blog so that I could write, pretty essential if you're a wannabe medical writer. However, I've gained so much more than a bit of publicity from this. I've found new friends through @thestemsquad, and an amazing group of people who are always available to give me advice. Whether I'm stuck with a particularly difficult bit of statistics, or in a bit of a #phdslump, I know they've got my back 👊🏼.” - @surviving_science
“I #scicomm to show #ThisIsWhataScientistLooksLike. From stories of science and live experiments on stage to my work in the lab every day - I just love science!” - @paulacroxson
“I started this account to show that science is for all. With so many fake news, anti-science movements and conspiracy theories, I wanted to debunk what scientists really do, how they do it and what are the applications of our work. We do it because we love #science and we want YOU to share our passion and to participate on it.” - @thelabnotebook
“I want to bring science to communities where science isn’t readily available to help them appreciate the science in their everyday lives and help them to realize that everyone can be a part of the science community.” - @paleoparadox
“The ocean is awesome & I want to inspire the next generation to care about it & share it with the world! Plus who doesn’t want a #selfie with an #ROV?!?” - @jules02543
“For me, science communication on Instagram is one of the most effective and engaging social media platforms there is. Even for those just starting out, it gives every scientist a place to shine and inspire others. I've been able to visually share my love and passion for the Earth Sciences and in doing so, rediscovered my interest in fields far outside of my research from others in the awesome @thescicommunity.” - @volcano_grad
“Recently, I have been using Instagram to reach out to the public and other scientists. I have pictures of food, outdoors, and of course my dog Danny. I do think that scientists should take advantage of social media to communicate science. It should also be a platform to support each other, especially as female scientists.” - @dais.rosas
“I run this #cpelvcu insta. #WhyIScicomm? Because I know I work in a cool system, the work we do matters for ecology and conservation, and photos can be shared with and understood by EVERYONE regardless of whether they’ve never read a scientific journal or they work for the NSF.” - @cpelvcu
“The whole reason I started this account was to connect with women in science and hopefully carve out a space in the community for me to share my experiences.” - @scientificfeminist
“I love science. I think science should be for everyone to do, see, share in and enjoy! I've always been interested and inspired by setting everyone's posts here on Instagram, and I love taking my own pictures, making my own posts and joining in in my own little way.” - @friendly_bacteria
“I love what I do and I love to see what all the other science loving people do and post and talk about. And I see some kind of educating potential in it. But mostly, for me it's going through the stuff, learning while writing texts, breaking it down and preparing info, searching for the right terms, improving my English and thinking about my science. This is what makes me happy and I hope I can show you why. I try to share my passion and curiosity and I see passion and curiosity in all the other posts.” - @iamphaged
“I share my science because I’m passionate about wildlife and because I really enjoy the kind community here on Instagram. I also share science because it makes me happy and it’s part of who I am as a person.” - @biologistimogene
“Surely communicating findings is as important as the research itself? Plenty of people outside the science community want to hear about all the cool shit we discover, making science inaccessible and exclusive to academics would be a step backwards. We’re only just starting to shed that initial reputation, let’s keep working towards getting eeeeveryone excited about (and involved in) science. Social media and scicomms are an integral part of that.” - @sci.senora
“I take selfies in the lab pretty exclusively to send to my parents (by request) because they have no frame of reference to understand my work/school life. When they hear “scientist” they think Doc Brown or Bill Nye, like I know many other people do.” - @kylieeemac
You might be starting to get a picture of why scientists Instagram, or why they communicate science online more broadly. While many of us do think about how our activities might enhance the representation of scientists, or women scientists, or Hispanic scientists, etc., this likely isn’t the driving force that keeps us coming back to IG every day to share our lives in the lab or field. What drives us are motivations to engage the public, make research more accessible, build a community around ourselves, practice our communication skills, send photos to our friends and family, show how scientific knowledge is actually created, and express our passions creatively. If we change public perceptions or stereotypes about who is or can be a scientist, by being ourselves online, that’s bonus.
Some scientists may start online communities and hashtags deliberately to bring minority scientists together and amplify their messages, but this tends to come after an initial effort purely focused on knowledge sharing and self-expression.
"I love how connected we can get to people even if they are thousands of kilometers away."
Martina Hestericová, @science_exercises.eu
It’s ridiculous to conjecture that most women scientists are putting on lipstick and posing in the lab with the deliberate goal of challenging gender science stereotypes, and then using precious minutes they’d rather be spending on research posting updates to Instagram with the primary goal of addressing gender disparities in academia. That’s ignoring all the evidence we have about scientists’ primary motivations to use social media.
“[Researchers’] blogging is motivated by the possibility to share knowledge, that the blog aids creativity, and that it provides a feeling of being connected in their work as researchers.” – Sara Kjellberg, 2010
I believe that if we are going to judge or measure the impact of scientists’ Instagram use at all, we should do so in accordance with their motivations to communicate science via this channel. For example, many say they are using Instagram to show people what scientists actually do every day, to share knowledge and to share the excitement of research. So let’s measure whether science Instagram posts are actually reaching lay audiences, helping them learn about science, and promoting positive perceptions or trust in science and scientists as communicators.
Let’s NOT criticize the efforts of individual female scientists on IG for failing to fix issues of discrimination and exclusion in science. Most #scientistswhoselfie aren't claiming to be trying to address these issues directly via their Instagram posts. And that’s good, because the onus for fixing these issues should definitely not fall on the shoulders of the people who are the target of such discrimination and exclusion. These issues should be addressed at multiple levels, including the institutional level. But if individual scientists doing what they love and advancing their own spheres of influence, impact and support on Instagram are even to the tiniest extent create greater public exposure to minority scientists and changing stereotypes via social media (which I believe they are, based on data), I think some freaking celebration is deserved.