Smith: Do profs need social media insurance?

I’m on parental leave and spending way too much time scanning online news sites while bouncing my 4-month-old son on an exercise ball. My head is all shook up. Every day brings another barrage of social media shaming, undoubtedly some of which is well warranted.

Who will fall next?

Which person or profession will be called out, hauled out, and digitally excoriated today?

I wish I could look away, turn off and detach, but an iPhone is easier to hold and read on a bouncy ball than one of the Harvard Classics. I don’t know if it’s lack of sleep, too much time fretting over a car seat, or maybe the baby carrier is tied too tightly around my waist, but I’m starting to feel anxious. I’m anxious about returning to the classroom and climbing back down into the teaching trenches given the current social media landscape.

I co-taught a nerve-rackingly large genetics course, so large I still have nightmares about embarrassing myself in front of a thousand watchful eyes. Consequently, to this day, I obsessively check that my fly isn’t down or that I don’t have a large piece of melted chocolate in my beard. What I know now is that the level of anxiety I felt at the time of teaching this course was unjustified – in reality, I should have been much, much more worried.

Indeed, most university students have one or more social media accounts, often containing hundreds of friends or followers. This, in turn, greatly increases the number of possible ‘watchful eyes’ in any given classroom and means I underestimated the potential for embarrassment in my genetics course by two to three orders of magnitude.

These concerns might sound overblown and paranoid, but I can assure you that since I was young, my public speaking style has had a healthy dose of awkwardness. Factor in my dyslexia and penchant for poorly timed science jokes and you have a perfect recipe for a classroom tweet to go viral:

“#genetics prof tells worst DNA joke EVER!”

“OMG: biologist confuses Watson for Crick.”

“#weirdo tries to use frosh week as a metaphor for mating habits of ciliates.”

But as we all know from the 24-hour news cycle, going viral on social media is no laughing matter.

Not long ago, I was reading an article in The New Yorker about nationalism, part of which focused on the white supremacy website The Daily Stormer. Intrigued and troubled by the article, I decided to see the website for myself, which led me to the Daily Stormer chatroom – it’s as atrocious as you can imagine – and eventually its Twitter feed. There I am, on the exercise ball, baby in one arm, iPhone held at the end of the other, scrolling through these awful tweets, which only reinforce the points in The New Yorker article, when my thumb inadvertently hits the like button of one the Daily Stormer posts.

In a matter of seconds, I see my career and its demise flash before my eyes: “Biology professor endorses racists views.” “Western University faculty member fired for Neo-Nazi tweet.” My bouncing tempo is thrown, baby Kip starts screaming, and I manically Google, “How to unlike a tweet.”

This is not the only online misstep that I’ve taken over the past few years, and as time goes on I’m having more and more misgivings about using social media. These days, I’m sad to admit, I fiercely avoid weighing in on any online debates, especially those related to social or political issues. This is unfortunate because, like most academics, I have strong opinions about many different issues, not just those related to my field. But I feel that the costs of voicing these ideas – and potentially offending a person or becoming an enemy of a movement – outweigh the benefits.

In fact, I now only use social media to promote my recent academic publications, and I’m even starting to reconsider doing that.

Early last year, I wrote an essay for a biology journal encouraging scientists to communicate their research with the general public. Shortly after it was published, I tweeted a link to the article, which quickly got retweeted more than 200 times, more social media shares than I’ve ever had before.

I strutted into the kitchen and said to my wife, “You are now looking at a Twitter celebrity – one of my papers is garnering a lot of attention online.”

She gave me a suspicious look and then asked, “Good or bad attention?”

“Well, good, of course,” I said as I hurried back to my laptop to double check.

It turned out the Twitterverse had unanimously rallied against me for publishing an article promoting communication in a subscription-only journal – or, as one tweet said, “Unintentionally ridiculous: calling for #scientists to engage with the public in an article behind a paywall. Bad move.” (In my defence, it was the only journal I could find that would publish the piece.)

My wife had a good chuckle as my online notoriety grew over the following days.

I guess if you put yourself out there, you’d better have a thick skin. But it seems like the critics are louder and more vicious than they used to be and that anyone in the public eye, from athletes to politicians to professors, would be well served by taking out some social media insurance: a safeguard for that accidental tweet while juggling a newborn, online coverage for when your genetics joke is taken out of context, a get-out-of-Facebook-free card if your paper becomes a punching bag.

The way the world is going, maybe each and every one of us will have to spend our token time in the social media penalty box, and maybe a little insurance would make us more open to sharing our thoughts. But I can tell you wholeheartedly that I’m terrified to leave this bouncy ball and re-enter the online arena.

(It is noteworthy that as I write these words the most-viewed story on CBC News is about a professor put on leave after an alleged incident brought to light in a social media storm. But I have absolutely nothing to say about that.)

Biology professor David Smith can be found online at arrogantgenome.com.