What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Quite frequently nowadays, other professors ask me if they should be on Twitter.  “This is kind of sad,” I think to myself, “How did we get to the point where I’m giving computer advice?”  I’ve decided to generously make my opinions available.  Here they are right in front of your very eyeballs. 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Twitter is like a river.  It’s a river of information flowing by.  Some of the information is important.  Some of it isn’t.  Twitter can be a clear and pure mountain stream and it can also be a rank and fetid conduit of human sewage.  It can be all of these things at the same time.  Every day I go down to the river and toss a few rocks in.  They mostly disappear under the surface without ceremony.  Once in a great while I make a small splash.  Every day I get a little wet down at the river, which can be kind of refreshing.

“Join the Conversation!” commands Twitter, and we obligingly comply.  “Where does all this Conversation go?” you might ask me.  Well, it flows down the Mighty River of Sh*t into the Great Ocean of Oblivion.  The whole process takes about eight seconds (at most).  Supposedly you can go dredge the ocean years later and relocate any drop of water you care to, no matter how random it was.  This means that Victoria Beckham might one day contact me and ask to see my Baby Spice Dance, which I never had the chance to make public before I got on Twitter.  It also means that I may someday be taken to task for the disparaging generalizations I’ve made about #heterotrophs, who can be disappointingly sore losers in a metabolism-based #smackdown.  Like a lot of other things in life, Twitter can be as much or as little as you want it to be.  No, Twitter probably won’t help you organize your desk drawers or lower your cholesterol but it is particularly good for a few things.

Twitter is useful for five things:

1.  Meeting people.  You will inevitably meet people on Twitter because there’s always somebody down at the river — day or night, rain or snow, Christmas Eve or Thermonuclear Doomsday.  People meet their soulmates on Twitter.  They meet their deranged stalkers as well, and every imaginable scenario in between.  Twitter is great for combatting isolation.  Here in Hawaii we spend long hours in the lab while the mainland is sleeping or shoveling snow or being on CSPAN or whatever the hell it is you guys do over there.  Twitter allows us to share the small victories of lab-life with the handful of other people in the world who “get” what it’s like to piss yourself with delight over the growth of a new leaf.  This is invaluable to us and has improved our sorry lot immeasurably just within the last year.

2.  Saying something.  If Twitter is like a river, it’s also like graduate school in that you shouldn’t just get in and float around aimlessly for a few years.  What do you want to say?  What do you need to say?  Whatever it is, go say it, even if it is controversial.  Especially if it is controversial.  And you will inevitably step on someone’s toes, it’s unavoidable.  Credibility is an interesting thing both IRL and on Twitter.  A lot of Twitter-cred is simply a function of how much time you’re willing to spend on the riverbank.  You probably won’t have any luck arguing with someone who lives 24/7 at the river’s edge.  So set your own limits according to what else you’ve got going.  Remember that you can come and go from the river as you please, Good Glory it don’t need you to keep it flowing.  And do remember that tweeting about an issue is not the same as doing something about it.

3.  Expressing rage.  Some users really go in big for this option.  If you need evidence that Homo sapiens is a rageful species, Twitter is a convenient and supremely fecund source.  Some of the anger is straightforward to understand, since injustice inevitably inspires legitimate rage.  I suppose all rage is a legitimate response to something, just only rarely toward whomever it’s being tweeted.  Combine this with the fact that on Twitter one is not excessively accountable for one’s rage and you get The Perfect Interpersonal Storm.  Listen, you can scream insults in ALL CAPS for hours on Twitter, and you will not be held accountable in the same way that your neighbors will hold you accountable if you go out your front door and scream profanity at the top of your lungs all night long.  This has value because IRL accountability is often based on norms founded upon unjust power structures that are rendered deliciously ineffective by the internet.  Yes indeed, this has value, but it also carries a cost – and this cost is exacted not only from the person being screamed at, but also from the screamer’s overall effectiveness.  Incongruously enough, anger ultimately rings rather impotently through the halls of Twitter, while unexpected kindness can echo long.

4.  Setting an example.  One thing that makes Twitter so interesting is that there are almost no rules.  No one can control what hashtag you post to or what words you type, although I’ve seen people expend an impressive amount of energy trying to do just that.  I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter.  First take the time to explore your values.  What kind of person do you believe you are?  What kind of person do you want to be?  Decide the circumstances under which you would block a user who is attempting to communicate with you.  It may not seem likely at the start, but these will be criteria to which you’ll eventually appeal.  It’s constructive to consult the concept of reciprocity, and the long history of the internet can be useful here.  You can learn a lot about a user by examining a few days of recent feed.  Has the person demanding that you listen to them ever demonstrated a willingness to listen to anyone?  Has the person demanding that you change ever evidenced a change in themselves?  Deliniate your personal threshhold for reciprocity, set your limits, and then act accordingly.  Oh, and by the way, if you do this right then your students are watching you, as are a bunch of young people you don’t even know.  What example will you set for them in terms of how to handle internet conflict?  What will you teach them about how scientists should treat each other?

5.  Experimenting with your identity.  You can claim any identity you want on Twitter.  Start from the assumption, however, that most people want to know the real you.  Unless you make it relentlessly explicit that you are a parody account, people will assume that whatever you tweet is basically your real opinion.  What do you really think?  What do you really care about?  It is an interesting experience to tweet your opinions outloud.  You’ll also hear interesting opinions, sometimes held by unlikely identities.  There’s this rabbit that runs a lab and recently an urchin got on Twitter and by gosh I lay awake at night wondering what they’ll say next.  Many smart journalists have twitter feeds where they pull what is actually interesting out of the vast septic intertank as some kind of penance for something, I imagine.  Always remember that every tweet you read is out-of-context because there is no context that fits into 123.7 characters or whatever the hell the number is.  A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is “Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!”

So there’s five reasons for ya.  Since when have you had five good reasons to do anything?  Were there five good reasons to go to this week’s Faculty Meeting?  Exactly.  So go ahead and set up a Twitter account!  Hell, set up two or three or six.  Paint your nails and tweet a picture, you never know what might happen.  Come on down to the river and make your choice – because in the end, every time you tweet you are making a choice — whether you realize it or not.  Like every other arena of your life, you are choosing to what and whom you will give your time and emotional energy.   On Twitter, you will never be able to choose what people say to you.  But you are the one who chooses what you say back.

Do you like being told what to do by people who think they know everything?  If so you’re in the right place!  Here’s my advice on how to Get A Faculty Job, How to Save Time Your Faculty Job once you get it, and what to do After You Get Tenure.

Why I Turned Down a Q-and-A in Nature Magazine

Today is not the first day that I’ve woken up to realize that my name will not appear in Nature magazine.  I send them my scientific breakthroughs quite regularly.  One of them even broke through recently, and If you love me, you’ll go download it and cite it a few times.  My experience with Nature’s publishing process is that first, a severely overworked Editor desperately tries to find a reason to reject your stuff, and then if he can’t, he sends it out to a few more guys who close ranks and tell you it’s shit.  Then you write a long measured response explaining patiently that they’re all wrong, and finally the Editor has to come down on one side or another, usually not yours.  I don’t have any evidence that this process doesn’t work exactly the same way for every poor bastard that submits a scientific report to Nature, regardless of creed or calling.

So today I learned that the publishing process at Nature is actually very different from the above.  I am now convinced that there’s a rat that runs across the keyboards late at night, accidentally hitting “command-P” here and there and producing content.  I’ve concluded this because apparently no one is responsible for what’s in the correspondence section of Volume 505, which looks like this (click it):

NatureCorres

Above I see two things that I don’t want to read about, one of them being Genital Itching.  I also see the Nature masthead, and a Nature volume number and doi assigned to a letter arguing that journalistic adherence to scientific quality will logically and inevitably result in my invisibility.  Well, that’s my summary, but I encourage you to read it and formulate your own.  This whole thing is a big old steaming déjà vu of Womanspace from a few years ago, which I also wrote about.  Anyway, it hurts to read that crap and so I’m all pissed off.  On Twitter, journalists have splained and splained to me that Nature-Jobs, Nature-Comments, Nature-Letters, Nature-TooManyIDK are totally f*cking separate and each is populated by Editors that positively abhor the values of the others.  It seems that Nature is always really concerned that I fully appreciate this after they publish something offensive.  At other times they’re more comfortable with the lines being blurry.  Like when I’m paying my subscription bill, for example.

I try hard to avoid having principles because they inevitably lead me to hypocrisy, and aside from that, very little else is accomplished.  Today was particularly illustrative: I used to have this policy that I never, ever declined to talk to a reporter.  Because I hold my practice of self-promotion sacred, it was an easy policy to follow.  Well, today I violated my own policy.  I told a very professional, smart and sincerely motivated freelance journalist that I wasn’t going to do the Q&A we’d planned for Nature Jobs.  I felt like shit for declining.  I told her again and again that I don’t want to make her job harder.  Just like Nature doesn’t want to make my job harder.  But it does.  At least I can take comfort in the fact that if readers wonder why my name is not in their issue of Nature, they can just flip over to the section with a letter that explains why you shouldn’t expect to see names like mine in Nature.  This will be handy for everyone, and yet I still feel the need to formally revise my principles in light of today’s events.  Below is my new working model:

THINGS HOPE JAHREN IS NOT WILLING TO DO (a complete list):

I will not serve as the poster child du jour for Nature’s version of GirlsRule!  I don’t want to be Nature‘s counterpoint.  I am my own point.

I will not wear pantyhose ever, for any reason.

THINGS HOPE JAHREN IS WILLING TO DO (an incomplete list):

I will do the exact same Q&A interview — with the same or a different reporter — for any other publication under the sun.  This includes Science, PNAS, Guideposts, Playboy, Hustler and Dog Fancy.

I will fly to Sherman, Texas and do a Q&A interview with Lukas that Nature can print in place of mine.  This will salve my guilt for leaving the Editors in a lurch.  Also, something tells me that Lukas has yet more to say, and I have some questions of my own for him.  It just makes sense!  [Same-Day Update: I’m no longer willing to do this.  Lukas likes to tweet about guns.  See?  Hypocrisy already.  Damn.]

I will allow Nature to officially link to this blog post.  They could call it, “Here’s What Hope Jahren Thinks!”  After all, their wish to interview me proves that they want their readers to know what I have to say, so this will make it easy.  Watch for the link, everyone!

I will hold Nature responsible for choosing to print anything that it prints.

Oh, shucks, who am I kidding here?  Criticizing Nature is like throwing a rock at a tank.  C’mon, it’s Nature for Chrissakes.  Nobody there gives a shit about my hurt little feelings and they can find hoards of men far more interesting than me to interview.  It’s also not my place to tell Nature what to do about what just might be pernicious editorial problems somewhere within their chain-of-command.  And furthermore, I’m sorry for what I wrote about rats.  I feel bad for rats.  It’s not their fault that they spread disease and just generally gross everyone out.  And they clearly don’t understand the damage that they do.

Important point: The Itching-Genital information is not part of any Nature publication, it’s just a web ad.  If my genitals itch, it is not Nature’s responsibility.  Sort of like it’s not their responsibility if one of their editorial choices disempowers the shit out of me.

Got a comment? hahaLOL, send it to Nature! Or you can tweet me.

Still wondering what this is all about?  You can read the whole story of Lukas’s original dumbass letter on @rocza ‘s blog.
 
I also wrote a very measured and professional letter directly to Editor-in-Chief at Nature, mostly because I like to hear myself talk.  They published  a 300-word excerpt of it within their Correspondence section.

I Love Science Because

Ever wonder why I love Science?  Probably not!  But I do, and here’s why.
 

I Love Science Because 

I love Science because I love plants.  I love that they are so different than we are, and so fundamentally unknowable because of it.  I love how they flaunt their success and tower over us, living longer, growing bigger and never coming inside out of the rain.  I love to pull their leaves off and the end of an experiment, telling them, “Ok you little f*ckers, you controlled my life for three months and now I control yours”.  I love that IRB doesn’t give a shit if I do this.

I love Science because I love the look I get when I explain something complicated and it really gets through.  I love Science because I love the look I get when I set someone’s Crackpot Radar off.

I love Science because it is so frivolous and lets me study things that went extinct long ago and are never coming back.  My research is like my earrings that don’t keep me warm or dry, and they only glitter if you stand very close and like that sort of thing.  I love Science because it is so necessary and every screw in every doorknob was first a calculation of rotational force, was first an experiment testing the tensile strength of a metal alloy.

I love Science because we make it up as we go along.  Each season we create a new terminology from scraps of last year’s jargon like hipsters putting together an outfit at the Goodwill.  I love to talk oh-so-seriously about Biomineralization, Geobiology and Paleoanthroposols at a conference that is actually an expensive Gen-X coffee house poetry slam.  I love Science because when I talk off-the-cuff about my research I find useful only simple words like work, try, want, care and love love love.

I love Science because it lets me be a child, to play in the dirt and laugh.  I love Science because it lets me be a teenager, to rebel and defy the university and demand to borrow its car keys on the same day.  I love Science because it lets me be an adult, responsible for machines that cost more than my house.  I love Science because it will never make me retire, and so someday I will be a wrinkled old lady in a dusty outmoded lab, providing a safe place for yet another nineteen year old who feels like they don’t belong anywhere else.  I love Science because it is my life.

I love Science because it lets me interact with young people who are trying to grow and change, and this has preserved me body and soul to the point that I may move undetected amongst them.  I love Science because it lets me ignore old people who are convinced that the world used to be so much better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I love Science because my hopeless task is to transform myself into the impossible, to get a little less stupid each day until I finally know it all.  I love Science because I have co-workers closer than siblings, who wouldn’t throw themselves in front of a bus for me, but would certainly throw with me, which I much prefer.

I love Science because I am constantly mistaken for a student, a secretary, a waitress.  It makes me remember being with my father at the community college where he taught, and the many who mistook him for a janitor after hours.  I remember how he would get out his huge ring of keys and amicably open whatever door they needed.  And how he would look at me hard and tell me to remember this, because there is dignity in all work that needs doing.

I love Science because it is the only friend I have that will stay up punishingly late with me and still get up early with me in the morning.

I love Science because if you look at my cv between the lines you can see three solid years of December 24 and 25 alone in my office, far away from my family, comforting myself with a ragged putrid manuscript that eventually staggered to publication in a weary but greatly improved form.  I love Science because in a different section you can see ten years of blissful hiking in southwestern Ireland, the most beautiful place in the world.

I love Science because parts of it are so hard — because after you fail forty-three times in a row, only rarely do you succeed on the fourty-fourth, and only rarely do you get to do it right more than once before it’s time to start in on the next forty-three, which could very well turn out to be eighty-three.  I love Science because parts of it are so easy, as it values publication over all things and I can write three pages without even looking at the keyboard.

I love Science because when I discover something new it is somehow mine until I give it away, and I can point to it as my own personal piece of The Revelation.  You are welcome to laugh at it or ignore it, but its substance feels real to me when nothing else does.

At least I think that this is why I love Science.  But to be honest, I’m really not sure.

I suppose that the real truth is that I love Science because it is very like my artistic high-school boyfriend whom I loved for years with a debased and aching heart.  I love Science because once in a very great while, it almost – almost — seems as if it loves me back.

Why do you love Science?  Tweet me and tell me about it.
 

#HOPEJAHRENSURECANWRITE

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