What 140 characters can’t do.

August 14, 2012

Prior to graduate school, I was using Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and the like for personal reasons – starting music blogs, sharing cool photos and articles, keeping connected with friends, doling out clever puns/snippets of my stream of consciousness. It didn’t occur to me to use these social media platforms for research/academic purposes until my 1st year of graduate school. Within a few short months I found myself conversing with biologists over Twitter and very soon I was tweeting links to interesting research articles, posting interesting papers/commentary on blogs, and even meeting new microbiologists. I saw my number of followers start from a measly 10 people to over 300, dramatically increasing my academic/professional network. It became instinctive to tweet about laboratory triumphs and new discoveries – very quickly, my little lab bench felt a little less lonely.

Suffice it to say, social media has changed the culture of research science. Young scientists are more comfortable discussing ideas and seasoned veterans can easily furnish a response. Twitter is one of the very reasons I continued in research science and yet, last July, I deleted my Twitter account. Before I delve into a discussion about why I deleted it, I’d like to celebrate what these 140 characters have done for me:

  • Network with other microbiologists: Members of the Jonathan Eisen lab (@phylogenomics, @ryneches, @Dr_bik) as well as – to name a few – professors and graduate students from UC Berkeley, University of Puget Sound, University of Oregon, University of Chicago, University of British Columbia, Columbia, Harvard, and MIT.
  • Filtered interesting journal articles: In my database of articles, over 50 articles were I snagged from my Twitter feed. I looked back on several of them and honestly, I would never have come across them if it weren’t for my fellow Twitterers.
  • Found new experimental protocols: While most protocols can be Google’d, many contain proprietary information and are oftentimes impossible to come by through the internet.
  • Facilitated discussions of erroneous information: I oftentimes shared “#sciencefail” moments or things that are simply confusing and need clarification. Within minutes, some smarty pants will reply with either a useful response or a snarky remark (both were equally appreciated). I relied on Twitter for quick solutions and my followers were most helpful.
  • Provided a source of encouragement: When you are on your 10th hour of performing a tedious experiment, it’s nice to distill the frustrated screams down to a few words. And when you can find someone to scream with/at you, your situation suddenly becomes humorous. Instant morale booster.

So, what monster possessed me to delete my Twitter account last month? Honestly, it was a whimsical and mindless decision and I’d be lying if I told you it was planned and purposeful. As a matter of fact, I had a sinking suspicion that I would reactive my account, but it never happened. And after a few short weeks, my dependency on Twitter disappeared and I found myself with a list of things that Twitter couldn’t do and in some cases, prevented me from doing:

  • Maintain intellectual privacy: Shortly after finishing my M.S. program, I joined an incubator lab at UCSF and I currently work for a “stealth” start up company. No one in my company has issues with sharing, but I didn’t want to become an IP liability.
  • Intimacy: I’m not trying to test my relationships with other scientists, but the truth is you can’t replace a one-on-one chat with a colleague with 140 characters. I found myself using Twitter as the definitive resource for all my answers and it also became an intellectual crutch. Now I take road trips to Davis and Berkeley, chatting with graduate students I otherwise would never encounter in person. No one says Twitter is trying to replace the good ol’ meetup (in fact, people in our community have Biology “tweetups”), but I’d like to continue with the tradition of personalized invitations and conversations.
  • Time sink: I loved my Twitter feed and I spent hours scrolling through tweets. “The feed” soon replaced the New York Times, New Yorker, Discover blogs, New Scientist, Wired and all those news sources that I used to religiously keep up with.
  • Clarity: Twitter taught me the beauty of brevity, but sometimes, it’s important to have a long, drawn-out conversation about a topic. It opens up new ideas, clarifies misunderstandings, and facilitates a Q&A that is otherwise difficult to conduct over Twitter.
  • Replace Facebook: While I had well-over 300 followers on Twitter, I have 1,000+ on Facebook. Furthermore, it became hard to separate my personal and professional relationships over Twitter. I had considered starting a new personal account, but there wasn’t a way of snatching select followers and I was too impatient/lazy to encourage followers to follow me on another handle. While there may be unsavory photos of me on Facebook, I maintain my professional dialogue with scientists over LinkedIn. Now, if only someone could help me figure out these goddamn privacy settings on Facebook…



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