In the absence of seeing friends and colleagues in person, I’ve been turning a lot more to social media. Under lockdown, this is one of the few ways to stay in contact. I have used WhatsApp and Facebook to connect with friends, and Twitter and LinkedIn for loosely work-related discussions. It’s good to be able to interact with people while staying physically distant, but online social media can be difficult. There are three areas that I find most tricky: the time-sink, the acrimony, and the jealousy.
The time-sink. I am easily distracted, so falling down the rabbit hole of social media when I should be working is no surprise. Whenever I open the Internet, I nearly always stay for longer than I’d planned. This isn’t unique to social media: I can easily waste time on a Wikipedia hunt, a BBC News binge or a random search on eBay to replace the Star Wars Boba Fett figurine I lost in 1986. My original justification for spending time on social media was that tweeted articles get more citations, helping them to rise above the tsunami of publications out there — although the correlation justifying this is weak. However, my experience of social media has been “Come for the academic citations. Stay for the pitched political battles.”
The acrimony. Speaking of which, maybe I am too sensitive, but social media at the moment has become truly unhinged. At the start of the pandemic, Twitter was a good source of information, especially as the epidemiologists and genetics experts shared insights. Sadly, it now resembles a whirlpool of politics, conspiracy theories and madness: ‘tweet’ is a misleadingly cute word for the aggressive tone of many of the messages on the platform. In the absence of real-world interactions, people seem to have become more and more polarized. A recent study suggested that the fortnight around the end of May and the beginning of June 2020 was the saddest ever on Twitter.
There are a few nice moments on social media, particularly photos of life in lockdown, but they do not outweigh the angry shouting. This discord has spilled into platforms other than Twitter; even WhatsApp has moments when gentle banter turns into a heated debate, without the resolution that would follow an argument with friends in the pub.
The jealousy. But my biggest issue with social media under lockdown is that I draw comparisons with other people and their careers. My worst, self-destructive tendency is framing my own academic career in terms of other people’s achievements. This is not helped by social media, where encountering someone else celebrating a paper or a grant can sometimes make me feel envious of their success.
I know that this is not healthy, and it has not got better during lockdown. It seems that every academic on Twitter is now working on the coronavirus. This has led me to spend a lot of time tormenting myself about not shifting my whole laboratory over to coronavirus research when I first heard of it in January. SARS‑CoV-2 is a respiratory virus, so it would have aligned closely with my research interests and experience. This line of what-iffery is really unhelpful: my group is quite small, all my team members already have specific projects, and I had neither the money nor the capacity to start working on something completely new. But seeing the large amounts of research funding being diverted to an area that overlaps with my own interests brings out the green-eyed monster in me.
Social media has a tendency to simplify our complex personas into a single narrative: my social-media persona is not my true self. I think the commonest impression that you get of other academics on social media is one of relentless success. This is not even the impression that people set out to make: sharing papers is a way to celebrate the team that has worked so hard to complete the study. But the rolling stream of papers can create an atmosphere of one-upmanship, even if unintentionally. Again, the lack of conversations in person, rather than online, does nothing to dispel the bunker mentality.
So with the lockdown in England now at stage 3 on a 5-stage scale (5 is the strictest), maybe it is time to scale back my social-media addiction. It does seem as if the fog is lifting slightly. My lab has generated the first new data in 12 weeks, I have seen my parents and finally been able to get an online grocery-delivery slot.
With these changes, and the ramping back up of my day job, we have decided to make these diary entries monthly rather than weekly. I hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them.