On Monday I gave a talk on how internet tools can be used to make the job of being an academic a little easier.  I had given a very short version of the talk to faculty in the department over a year ago, but this time I was given an hour in a forum for  early career researchers, PhD students and postdocs.  The subject of twitter, covered early on in the talk, aroused a lot of interest, probably because I got very animated about its benefits for those in the early stages of their careers.

To provide a little context for my enthusiasm, it probably helps to know a few things about me, about my situation, and about my recent experiences.

  1. I am an introvert.  Despite my best (and occasionally successful) efforts to project a different image, I do not find talking to people I don’t know very enjoyable.
  2. I am an early career cognitive neuroscientist keen to build my own research programme and develop links with other researchers.
  3. Last month I attended the Society for Neuroscience conference, at which I attended the best conference social I have ever attended.

Given the received wisdom that people in my position ought to be networking, I often drag myself kicking and screaming to conference socials. The result tends to be a lot of standing around on my own drinking beer, which gives me something to do, but which I could do much more comfortably with one or two people I know well.  The major problem at these events is not my nature, or my status as an early career researcher, but the fact that the people I have imagined myself talking to usually don’t know who I am.  Conversation is therefore awkward, one-sided and introductory.  Once the niceties have dried up, and the level of accumulated conversational silence edges into awkward territory I invariably finish my drink and bugger off to get another one, ending the misery for all involved.  This is probably a universal experience for those starting out in academia, though thankfully it is happening less and less to me as I build something of network of real friends who attend the same conferences as me.  But as a PhD student and postdoc, the experience was excruciating.

I had a totally different experience when I attended the SfN Banter tweetup*.  The event, organised by @doc_becca and @neuropolarbear, was a social for neuroscientists who use twitter and changed my view of conference socials.  They do not have to be endured, even by those doing PhDs and postdocs. They can be enjoyed.

I was excited about going and that excitement didn’t leave me feeling shortchanged by the time I left.  I spoke (actually spoke!) to everyone I wanted to speak to.  Moreover, I had good conversations with people to whom I was speaking for the first time. The reason is fairly obvious – twitter allowed us to build on a body of shared (or at least assumed) knowledge. I follow people, they follow me,  I reply to or retweet their tweets, they do the same – and this is all before we’ve introduced ourselves. When I finally meet someone with whom I have such a history of communication, introducing myself is the least awkward thing I can do. The barriers to conversation are removed**.

Sure, this pattern followed for most interactions at the tweetup because we were all there to do exactly that.  Would the experience be the same at the ‘fMRI social’? No.  But, I don’t think that matters.  If I could have had one of those conference social experience during my time as a PhD student, it would have given me an idea of what I might have to look forward to from conferences if I stuck at it.  Light at the end of the tunnel, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a variable-ratio schedule-determined stimulation of the limbic system following an umpteenth lever press.

It will take a while (there’s no point joining in September 2013 and expecting great things at the SfN tweetup in San Diego), and it’s probably not the primary reason to join twitter (see  Dorothy Bishop’s blog and Tom Hartley’s blog for far more comprehensive discussions  of how and why you should join), but it’s another reason, and it’s one that could make you feel good about your role in academia.  It’s worth a shot.

 

* tw(itter) (m)eetup, see?

** What you do afterwards is up to you.  I still had some awkward interactions, but I think that’s probably down to me (see context point 1).

Having deleted my facebook account nearly two years ago, as I activated a Google+ account this week I was wary of repeating previous mistakes.  Back in 2009 I had decided that I wasn’t getting as much out of facebook as I was putting into it. Specifically, I was ashamed at the amount of my time it consumed, I was worried, not so much about my privacy, as the disregard of my right to it (even if I chose not to take it up), and I was anxious about expressing myself too freely lest I cause offence to my friends.  Google+ has lessened my anxiety with its subdivision of friends into circles, though, of course, its potential to cause me shame and worry over my time and privacy are just as real as they ever were with facebook.

With all this in mind, my early experiences of Google+ have been very positive. As I was hoping to, I have re-connected with some lovely friends who had remained on facebook and never ventured onto twitter. Perhaps most encouragingly though, it looks like Google+ might be able to reach beyond the social, and enrich my professional life too. The following exchange, which I started to try and learn more about the use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in psychological research, is the sort of thing that’s making me very excited about this possibility.

Full Google Plus conversation

The discussion went in to far more detail than I could have hoped, and for those who are interested, a text-searchable pdf of the exchange complete with clickable links is available here.  (Incidentally, the reason I have had to go to so much trouble to provide a link to the thread with jpgs and pdfs, as opposed to the sort of easy html permalinking offered by twitter, is down to Google’s as-yet imperfect post-hoc sharing system. Once I decided that the thread deserved a wider audience, the options available to me were a) to re-share my original post, without the comments, to anyone on the web, or b) to provide a permalink to the whole thread that was only accessible to those with whom I had originally shared my first post. An option to change the sharing permissions for the entire thread, with the permission of all contributors of course, would be highly appreciated!)

As to why the question about Mechanical Turk generated so much useful information, there are three reasons I can think of.  The first is a simple affordance of the length of posts and comments.  Unlike twitter, detail can be provided when detail is required.  Whilst I have read the thoughts of writers praising the cognitive workout required to condense their tweets to be both eloquent and informative, it is limited medium that doesn’t lend itself to information-rich content or detailed evaluation.  Google+provides a clean, long-format forum in which ideas can be effectively transferred.

The second reason lies in the flexibility of the medium to provide relevant information to those who care.  Circles can be used to selectively share updates with certain groups.  This means that scientific updates can be restricted to my ‘Science’ circle, posts on running can be restricted to my ‘Runners’ circle,  and users may be feeling the effects of a more targeted dose of updates and information.  Comments aren’t driven by a desire to appear funny to a large number of people who probably share your boredom at the fact that, as it’s Sunday, Akira has once again completed a 6.3 mile run in a smidgen over 50 minutes – you’d probably only reach 5 people who would actually be rather preoccupied with trying to work out why Akira hasn’t managed to improve on his 6-mile time despite having done the same run every week for about 6 months.  Depending on your willingness to invest time in the categorisation of contacts, you can be taken as seriously as you want.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, Google+ is current rife with early-adopters. These are technologically ‘switched-on’ folk, who are willing to take a punt on a new medium, testing its capabilities and its uses as they go. To illustrate, Tom Hartley, Tal Yarkoni and Yana Weinstein all maintain current blogs/websites of their own and all contributors to the above thread are active twitter users (and well worth following).  Asking a question about how to conduct science using a nascent technology via a nascent communication technology stood every chance of being successful given the overlap in the Venn diagram of technology users.  Add to that the diminished risk of being called out as a ‘geek’, we’re all geeks here even before uber-geeks are further isolated within the ‘Geek’ circle, and we have the optimum conditions in which to find out about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

This isn’t to say that Google+ won’t be successful for non-technological academic discussion, or for technological discussion even after the the laggards arrive.  But I think that success depends on the parameters for its use in academia being established now.  If academics recognise that Google+ can be used to exchange work-related ideas early on in its life-cycle, then it has a much better chance of taking off and even being further developed with this use in mind. It already seems to me a far more attractive site for academics than academia.edu which has comprehensively failed to do anything other than act as a repository for electronic papers and CVs.

So, I’m quietly optimistic… until the next big thing comes along and I jump ship, desperately trying to keep up with all the other early-adopters.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suJgV9HhJp8]