Ethics part 3: The mindful use of social media as a researcher

On self care — and how scientists can set up sustainable routines for social media

Social media platforms are designed to distract you. They sell ads to businesses that are targeted on your demographic and interests. And these ads from businesses are designed to get you to click on them, or at least dwell on them, as you scroll past. The ads themselves are based on your own social media profile bio information, age, location, previous interactions, interests, and scrolling activity.

We can’t all be as relaxed as the wanderer in this DALL.E interpretation of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. But we can take care of ourselves anyway

Social media platforms, however, are not completely aligned with their own advertisers’ interests. They, unlike the advertisers, also want you to stay on the platforms, and they want you to keep on returning if you leave them to do something else.

That they want you to happily return to their platform is actually what is keeping them honest. Too much addiction, too much manipulation, and too much virality is a bad thing for social media platforms. What they want is happily returning users.

The sum of attention on the platforms is finite.

They also want you to produce content (articles, pictures, videos, graphics) for their platform, as this grabs the attention of your followers, allowing in turn more ads to be shown to more people.

Your terms

As a scientist your interests are neither completely aligned with the advertisers nor the social media platforms. You want to use all of the three functions of social media: Communication, networking and ideation. And on your own terms.

You want to communicate, but only when you feel the need for it. You want to network with other scholars, but not be distracted. You want to be inspired, but also maintain your focus and control over your own information environment.

So there is a tug of war going on. The platforms want you to produce attention-grabbing content yourself and return to the platform regularly. They are, in this way, ‘exploiting’ you for your content and your attention.

You, on the other hand, tug in the other direction. With good healthy social media routines, you are ‘exploiting’ the platforms’ communication, networking and ideation affordances for your own ends.

My social media workshops are all about these routines. You need to learn techniques to avoid the soft addiction that the platforms can lead to. But you also need to learn how to use the platforms in a way that ‘exploits’ their communication, networking, and ideation potential.

Avoiding the newsfeeds

Take the LinkedIn home newsfeed for example.

If you follow the routine that LinkedIn wants you to, you regularly open up your LinkedIn app, on both phone and desktop, and scroll down the newsfeed. As you interact with the content that it algorithmically delivers to you on your own home newsfeed, by either stopping your scroll, clicking on content, commenting, or liking posts, the feed will take these signals to design your newsfeed the next time you enter the app.

One of the ways scientists can take more control over their newsfeeds is to set up a series of search strings on the search field in LinkedIn, with keywords. This will deliver a new ‘newsfeed’ that is more focused on your own research area.

There is no point in being top-of-mind with thousands, if you are actually working with none.

On X, for example, there are other routines that have the same effect, effectively sidetracking the platform’s algorithmically designed newsfeeds. Using Tweetdeck, which is now the paid version called X Pro, you can set up search terms that sift through the X content, so that you only see types of content that you deliberately want to see (on my workshops I show participants a workaround so they can do this for free).

For each benefit — there is a reservation

I have summarized what I call the mindful approach to social media for scientists in the figure below.

A mindful approach to social media in research. Each stair represents a function of social media in science. In order to practice self-care, you will have to deliberately delimit yourself on each of these stairs.

The mindful approach to social media involves being aware of the benefits to you personally from using social media. You need to communicate your work, network with other scholars, and do the best science that is possible.

But for each of these benefits and functions; communication, networking and ideation; there is a reservation.

You want to communicate.

But you are fully aware that you are entering an attention game on the platforms. The sum of attention on the platforms is finite. When you post about your science, you are competing with other scientists for other people’s attention. Sometimes you are competing for other scientists and stakeholders’ attention, and this can be a zero-sum game.

You want to network.

The platforms will keep you hooked by giving you ever larger follower numbers. These numbers become a goal in themselves. But like in so many other things in life. In the world of science more is not necessarily better. The goal of your networking efforts is not to have a large network. The goal of your networking efforts is to find the right people to work with. There is no point in being top-of-mind with thousands, if you are actually working with none.

Your own deep concentration, can be undermined by linking your own cognitive processes to a wider ‘collective cognition’

Finally, you want to improve your research.

But if you constantly tap in to the community of scientists on the social media platforms and only react to what is happening in your field through this, you are not leaving enough space for your own thought.

The ideation that comes from your own deep concentration, or work with close colleagues, can be undermined by constantly linking your own cognitive processes to a wider ‘collective cognition’ on X.

Setting off time for deep work

A sustainable mindful routine for a scientist will involve deliberately jumping in and out of the social media space at set times, and setting off time for deep work with no social media obligations or notifications.

Maybe your work on social media is in this way delimited to early in the morning for 30 minutes. You might, thereby, miss out on a scholarly debate that is taking place in real time on X or Bluesky.

But you will be a better person for it.

By delimiting your time to set times in your schedule, you will miss out on some things: There is a lot to be said about the real time moment, and the X window, and the drone scientist and military historian James Rogers formulated it well when I talked to him here.

But we are here for the long haul.

Feedback appreciated!

My introduction to this series is here: Social media ethics for scientists – setting a new standard.

I then looked at the basic functions of social media for scientists, where I unfold my tripartite model. Scientists use social media for three main reasons: It helps them communicate, network with others, and get inspired or ideate.

This, my third post in the series, is about the self-care approach to scientists’ social media use on each of these three dimensions. How can scientists exploit social media without getting exploited by the platforms?

My final post (coming up!) will take on ethical obligations. What are the ethical grounds for social media use as a scientist? How can we use social media as a power for the good, and without harming others?

I hope you will read and reflect with me! And I appreciate any comments or thoughts!

Does your department, faculty or university need to boost the international impact and career of your researchers? Here is more about my courses in social media for researchers. See other Mike Young Academy services here.

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