What Lady Gaga didn't have for lunch

“Honestly, I think you’ll like it!” said my then boyfriend (now husband), when trying to persuade me to join Twitter back in 2011. The baffled, confused expression on my face was followed by “why on Earth would I want to waste my time following celebrities? Who cares what Lady Gaga eats, drinks and wears? It’s not for me.”
Famous last words.
Like many academics, I was blind to the potential of social media. Yes, you can choose to use it to follow celebrities, TV programmes, amusing memes and your friends & family (nothing wrong with that, I do it too!). But, as an academic, you also stand to gain so much from it if you are willing to invest a little time.
When I eventually took the plunge and joined Twitter I was coming into the second year of my PhD and quickly realising the importance of growing my academic network. Of course, I fostered relationships at conferences, but my research budget was tight and international travel limited. My strongest links were, naturally, developing with scientists, in my broad field, in the country I was working in. In the competitive world of academia, I was all too aware that if I wanted to progress my career I needed to expand my horizons.
Twitter was a game changer.
Unbeknownst to me there was this invaluable, (quickly growing) online community of fellow scientists. All of a sudden, I was able to connect with researchers across the globe, regardless of geographical location and career stage. Not only that, they were having interesting and valuable conversations, which I was now privy to. I learnt about ground-breaking research and discovered a world of supportive PhD students who shared useful tips on how to survive the early days in the research world.
I went from simply listening to conversations, to taking part in them and eventually sharing content which, to my surprise, people found interesting and useful. It took time, but I slowly carved out my small corner of the twittersphere. One where my opinion was sought and where I was known – I was successfully growing that all important network!
But I didn’t approach social media exclusively with a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude. Throughout my PhD, being a researcher, paid to do my work by public funds, I had a strong sense that it was important to give something back. Science forms the basis of so much of our daily lives, yet it goes unnoticed by so many. Social media became the platform where I (and many others) could reach out about my work, about the importance of science in general and about why it is important to communicate it.
Since that fateful conversation back in 2011, not only have I changed my tune about Twitter, I’ve built relationships that now form the basis of a number of working collaborations (past and present). My network of contacts far exceeds anything I might have been able to cultivate otherwise. I draw on these contacts often and sometimes I can even return the favour! On a very personal level, it is heartwarming that I now call some of my followers, friends.
Importantly, the time I invested in nurturing my social media presence and building my network has, and continues to, open many doors.  My work as a science communicator, particularly using social media platforms, slowly got noticed. Since, I have been invited to speak on panels about using social media as an academic, to join a blog network and I’ve been asked to deliver workshops to PhD students on how to use social media in a research context. Above all, had I not pursued science communication using social media and blogging, even when my supervisors weren’t supportive, I wouldn’t have landed my current job.
Things are changing, slowly, but there is (still) hostility towards those in academia who chose to devote, even a small fraction of their time, to outreach via social media (and other forms of outreach too).  Social media is not for all academics. I understand and respect that. Even if you only dabble in it, it requires you to dedicate time to it; time, which you might decide is better spent on other activities. That is ok.
Still, regardless of whether you choose to embrace it or not, social media is a powerful tool that researchers can use to reach out to others less familiar with their subject, as well as make their work open and accessible. It isn’t, or doesn’t have to be (like I once thought and many still do), about what Lady Gaga had for lunch. Just because it’s not your bag, doesn’t mean it is not worthy and valuable.

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