There are many ways to communicate science, but few as expedient and direct as social media. But while Twitter and Instagram have given scientists unprecedented, unfiltered reach to new audiences, there has been a desire to understand how scientists who use those platforms are perceived by those audiences. A recent paper published in PLOS ONE details results from the Scientists of Instagram project which highlights how real-life scientists share their work and lives via Instagram and how they are perceived by survey respondents.
The paper, led by Dr. Paige Jarreau, shows that survey respondents (1,620 in total) found scientists posting selfies (or self-portraits, if you didn’t know) were perceived as warmer and more trustworthy, yet no less competent, than scientists posting photos of only their work. The indication here is clear. People respond to the human element. The story behind the science.
Stereotypes and Reality
A pervasive impression of scientists is that we are nerdy, aloof, and generally socially inept. This stereotype is so ingrained it even forms the central focus of TV shows like the Big Bang Theory where male scientists are obsessive, fumbling geeks, while female scientists are either incredibly nerdy, or hypersexualized. This tired trope has become a lens through which the general public has come to view scientists. Counter to this, scientists may also be perceived as competent, but cold. You can pick your own movie scientist for this one, there are . . . a few. However, platforms such as Twitter and Instagram (the focus of this study) allow scientists to individuate* themselves and connect to their audience. While a picture of some beakers on a lab bench perpetuates the detached narrative of science we have come to embrace, a person working at that bench carries with it that human connection. People begin to see the folks who do scientist, folks who look just like all the other folks. They just sometimes wear lab coats, or fish turtles from ponds, or stare at computer screens and pound on their desk because their code isn’t working. You know, you and me 😊.
Further, this work also highlights the impact of broad representation in science. Tespondents who viewed images of female scientists perceived science as less exclusively male. Female scientist selfies resulted in more positive evaluations of competence and instead of perceptions that scientists are vain or self-absorbed. Science is not exclusively stale, pale males and social media lets scientists show who they are and create their own narratives.
“Social media platforms could represent a turning of the tide for perceptions of scientists if leveraged by diverse individuals to interact with broad audiences in ways that communicate warmth and build mutual trust.” – Jarreau et al. 2019
Instagram and Beyond
There are many lessons here for science communication broadly as these ideas are translatable directly to classrooms and presentations. Seeing people DO science builds our investment in science. Science is more than a body of work, it is the people who do that work. This paper clearly highlights that fact—people relate to people. That is what moves them. I think scientists ought to take this information and run with it. Go beyond social media and incorporate more pictures and images of folks doing science into lessons, presentations, and depictions of science. I don’t need to see your gas chromatograph, I want to see you working with it and telling me what’s going on.
What can you do?
As Jarreau and her authors point out, there are many things scientists can do to improve how they communicate via social media.
1) Create personal content – Include detailed captions to the selfies and images that are posted. What is that thing you are standing in front of? What does it do? How are you using it? What are the implications?
2) Share real life – The authors particularly highlight the importance of representation of minority groups and how simply the presence of folks from minority groups alters the perceptions of science and scientists. Children who don’t fit the traditional mold of what they are told a scientist “is” can change that perception when they see folks who look like them. Representation matters. Period.
3) Engage – Answer questions from folks who post responses to what you post. Build that conversation and relate.
Maybe in the end social media is not the thing for you, and that’s okay. But there is growing evidence beyond this paper that shows that social media is a powerful piece of a scientist’s toolkit to communicate, collaborate, and positively impact the perceptions of their work and that of their field.
*This is such a good word and total props to Jarreau et al. for using it and bringing it to my attention in their paper.