social media platforms and the professional image

I’m still pondering how I use social media. One of the main questions on my mind is which platform to use, but I’m pretty sure that the real question is “how do I want to use social media?”, and that the platform and my mode of use will become clear once I figure that out. I’m going to think with my fingers for a bit, and any feedback is welcome.

First of all, I am not by nature an early adopter. I still use pine to read my email for work (though I use Gmail for my personal email), and vi, a program nearly as old as I am, for text editing (see this cheat sheet to take a look at some of the commands that are now wired into my reflexes). I usually stick with the Same Old Stuff for a long time, because although I learn things pretty quickly, it feels like a lot of effort to me. I’m usually not going to learn a new tool or technology just for the heck of it; I want to understand what kind of return I’m going to get on my investment. I prefer to wait and go on the recommendation of my knowledgeable friends who have tried the thing in question and can say why they like it. If their stated rationales sound like ones I would give, I’ll go ahead and try it. (One example of where a switch to the new paid off spectacularly was when I decided to learn python “for real” last year. I’d barely touched it before, but it’s now my language of choice for object-oriented development, at least if I don’t need the blazing speed of C++.)

However, I am by nature a writer, so blogging comes pretty naturally to me (when I do it). And blogs are, after a fashion, also social media; you can read them and write them, but you can also subscribe to them by RSS feed, comment on them, etc. So in the process of writing this post, I am already using the Internet to reach my readers in a potentially collaborative way. Still, blogs have more of a writers-push, readers-pull dynamic, which might not come out the same way in an online forum (where all the posts are on similar footing), micro-blogs like Twitter or Tumblr for short updates, or contraptions like Facebook which are for some reason the first thing that come to my mind when someone says “social media”.


I started using Facebook when I got to Yale in 2007. I liked the idea when I first started out, since it let me reconnect with a bunch of people I still thought about from time to time. It can kind of be a crap shoot when one does this; usually you fall out of touch with people you used to know either for specific reasons, or because the effort of maintaining the relationship is more than one wants to put out. (I know plenty of people who don’t count tweets, short status updates, and clicking on cows as sufficient investments in “maintaining” a relationship, and I more or less agree, but that’s another story.)

Still, on occasion you run across someone you knew in a previous life with whom you now have things in common you never realized, and end up forging a completely new friendship which has little or nothing to do with why you used to be friends when you first met. And in some corny inspirational way I think that’s kind of neat. As time has gone by I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with Facebook, for numerous reasons. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that “friendship” is not always a reciprocal relation, nor a symmetric one; you’d like to be able to control whom you follow with more finesse, and let people follow your updates about their interests without them necessarily showing you what they had for breakfast, all their relationship drama, etc., which of course all become duly monetized. (Just dumped your SO? “Find Singles Online Now!”) There are now mechanisms in place like custom friends groups, restricting viewing access to posts, individual preferences for how much and what kind of content you want to see, preferences for exactly how you want them to monetize your relationship drama, and so on, but having browsed some of these I’m frustrated by how ad-hoc, how hacky they seem. I don’t want to have to tell Facebook individually for each of a few hundred people specifically which kinds of items I want to view from them, or not; I want, at most, a single set of global such preferences, which I’ve looked for but can’t seem to find in all those menus. It also feels to me like they keep changing Facebook’s user interface every time I got used to what they’d launched just the previous week, which drives me straight up the fracking wall.

About the only positive thing I can say about Facebook at this point is that they still have market share; I seem to be able to find more people on there than any other network to date. I should add that from the beginning, I have mostly restricted my Facebook use to be strictly personal. I don’t use it for work. I’m FB friends with a few of my fellow postdocs and a number of RSAA graduate students, but I’m not FB friends with any of my current or past employers. At one of his dinner parties, Brian once asked in (mock?)-jilted tones why I wasn’t friends with him on Facebook; this is why. The artlessly sincere gives way to the carefully constructed in many spheres of life, but rarely so dramatically as in the professional-personal divide.

Still, it’s not like Brian and I don’t know each other personally, and it’s not like professional and personal judgments in general don’t cross over what might for the rigidly formal seem an impermeable divide. The trick is to make the informality work for you rather than against you. On that note, and perhaps to that end, I see increasing numbers of professional groups of people, from postdoc associations to observatories to activist groups (e.g., “Save the James Webb Space Telescope”), putting their presences on Facebook. Presumably this is once again because Facebook has the largest market share — the biggest slice of the general public (for activism and outreach efforts) probably appears there, as well as most of the academics. Increasing numbers of surveys from professional societies also want to know whether I use FB professionally, and if not, why not? While in the early days many people may have used FB primarily for entertainment or for syndicated narcissism, these days it seems to be more of a plug-and-play platform for web presence, where what you publish is more directly constructed.


It would seem then that the obvious answer would be to have a parallel social media site for professional activities. This is LinkedIn. I have a profile on there which I buff up maybe once a year at most. I pay it virtually no attention. On occasion I get digest emails from some of the groups I happen to have joined: alumni associations from my high school, undergraduate, and graduate institutions, reposted articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and similar.

The main reason I don’t use LinkedIn is because my current best understanding is that it’s geared towards networking, but it’s not where astronomers network as far as I’m aware. Astronomy is a small community, where everyone knows everyone else, and if you’re looking for a job and they don’t already know you, you’re in worse trouble than you thought. You don’t, as far as I know, reach out through the comment threads and forums looking for a faculty job; you get on the plane and fly to the conference/workshop/institution and you give a good job talk. Or your boss flies there and talks about how great you are. You don’t publish blog posts to get professional recognition, you publish journal articles. (And yet, I’m still typing here. I don’t care, though, because this is my copious free time on a cold, rainy winter’s night with the gas fireplace cheerily going. Even scientists need to relax sometimes; this is how I do it.)

It makes a lot more sense to me that LinkedIn would be more directly useful for people who have direct professional dealings with lots of people outside the confines of the ivory tower — directors of HR and marketing, salespeople, VPs of product development, or entrepreneurs. And these are just the kinds of jobs I see being advertised there. I’m not even entirely sure whether LinkedIn would become useful for me if searching for jobs outside an academic context; that once-a-year profile buff-up is my lip service to the notion that it might be. Overall, though, LinkedIn seems depressingly dull and sterile. One’s professional image shouldn’t look like a frame from a Dilbert cartoon. There’s definitely something about it I don’t get.


I got onto Google+ more or less from the moment it launched, as I had an enthusiastic friend working for the company. My initial reaction to it was more or less exactly like Randall Munroe’s. I’m not sure where it fits in with everything else yet. G+ addresses my specific complaints about FB above. The interface is sleek and intuitive, like Gmail and Reader, which I use regularly and exclusively. Following someone is a one-way relation (though you’re invited to add them back), and all updates are divided into “circle” sets which may be overlapping. Again, it seems you can do this in FB with custom friends groups, but FB doesn’t make it easy, intuitive, or fun; the lowest-energy-state thing you do with FB is put all your posts on the default setting, which is to Friends or Public. I have a circle of Astronomers on G+, and I just made a circle of Tree Huggers, where I can publish my latest climate change activism links without getting on the nerves of those friends who maybe appreciate trees but think they’re too scratchy to snuggle with.

Even though one might complain that G+ may never catch up to FB in market share, for whatever reason, I have a sneaking suspicion that if it really is a superior product then it’ll find its niche. And it’ll be made great in particular by the content it hosts, so the more people who are posting cool things on G+ regularly, the better it will be for Google. And in particular, if I’ve decided G+ is my chosen tool then I might as well just start using it and letting people know that’s where I want to be.

Twitter, Tumblr, et al.

There are lots of tools I haven’t used, of course. I imagine the appeal of Twitter when it first launched was that you could micro-blog by text message from non-smart phones. These days the advantages aren’t so obvious to me, apart from the ubiquity. Tumblr, well, I don’t even know what I would use that for; most people use it for posting photos, but I rarely just post photos on their own without an accompanying mostly-text-based narrative. I could post astronomy photos, but APOD already does that really well.

But seriously, what’s the point?

Now is probably a great time to ask: what exactly do I need? In my current situation, I don’t have a zillion followers to whom I want to push short updates about my latest appearance, although I do occasionally simply want to share links with a select group of specific people with little added backstory. I always hate sharing links through email, so putting them on a site for which the business end is some kind of feed makes sense. If I really hate Facebook that much then I don’t understand why I still keep going back to it. The main thing I want to do is to have a platform to publish thoughtful commentary which often won’t fit in a tweet or even a short memo, and a blog seems the best place to do that. So I’ll keep writing here and probably shape my near-term web presence around these posts, publishing to FB or G+ to publicize what I write and the occasional odd link.

As someone who needs a go-to place for a professional site, LinkedIn still leaves me cold. I could, I suppose, create a separate FB page of which people can become fans, if they want to know when SkyMapper is finally going to be searching for supernovae, or what the stops on my next East Coast lecture tour will be. But if it’s a matter of me presenting myself and my science to the public, I think the best way of doing that is just by syndicating what I write here to FB, G+ or similar. And in professional circles, I find it unlikely that professional astronomers will invite me to talk at their institution because they saw on FB that I would be in the area; they’ll invite me because Brian set it up, most likely, or because I invited myself by talking to someone from that institution at a conference. And none of this obviates the need for a serious professional home page at my institution from which I can link my CV, important preprints, etc.

As a “consumer” of information, there remains the ongoing problem of overload. I still suffer from this. The only sensible thing I can think to do is to narrow my field of view until it encompasses an amount of stuff I can cope with. The Internet has been thrown so wide now that it catches all kinds of stuff, and you could just go on looking at silly pictures of cats — until you decide that looking at silly pictures of cats aren’t going to get your next grant proposal accepted, or help you launch your amazing new book, or help you feel closer to those you love. Without appealing to such an extreme example in my own case, I still wonder how to get through all the literature I’m going to get through, or how to understand current events without relying increasingly on “meta-news”, for example, opinion pieces.

The solution I’ve used up until now, though I’ve always felt vaguely guilty about it and have usually fought it in various ways, is to wait until someone came up to me at the coffee machine and asked, “did you hear about … ???”, to which the answer is invariably “no, but I’m glad you could tell me about it.” The likelihood of hearing about a news item through some channel which pushes straight to you is probably proportional to its importance, but I’m a bit worried about assuming that will always be the case and gathering news only passively. I wonder how much time and effort people spend on “tuning” their filters until they have mostly the sites that tell them about things they consider “relevant”? I wonder what fraction of news items actually get read even for people whose online media filters are in relatively good shape, by their own estimation? Probably time to get to bed. Perhaps I’ll know the answers by morning.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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