Making Peace with Self Promotion

I prepare for writing projects as if they are adventures, so when I sat down to write a book chapter this spring, I was excited. The topic was self-promotion in social media, for the forthcoming The Complete Guide to Science Blogging, made possible by an NASW Ideas Grant. My coffee was hot, my playlist was inspired, and my background research had me buzzing… but before I started writing, I first saved the tweet I would post when I submitted:

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 11.08.47 AM

Those of you who knew Steve Schneider may find the cadence to be a familiar one. He wrote, “In my view, staying out of the fray is not taking the “high ground”; it is just passing the buck.” These are deliberately provocative soundbites designed to question countervailing norms: they are fighting words. I like this approach, but – as we teach in our workshops – advocacy for yourself or your science – online or off – is a deeply personal decision with lasting consequences.

In the chapter, I write that there seems to be “a deep-seated belief that while the work of content creation is noble, the work of drawing attention to that content is distasteful if not in fact degrading. It’s an emotional reaction, exacerbated by the suspicion that the usual advice for increasing traffic—repetition, jumping into comment threads to mention your post, direct requests to retweet—can indeed annoy the very people you hope to impress, particularly if you are female. In the past five years, I’ve taught social media to hundreds of researchers in dozens of workshops, and have never had a discussion about self-promotion that didn’t feel at least a little uncomfortable.” Consider it to be a professional skill – you need to learn how to do it well, despite feeling awkward at the outset. The three most common arguments I hear are:

1) But I don’t want to annoy people 

  • Soundbite version: Thank you for being a decent human being!
  • But seriously: Thank you. Fortunately, bad behavior is not inextricable from self-promotion. I enjoyed reading this paper: titled “Self Praise in Microblogging,” it distinguishes between bragging (associated with inflated ego and deceit) and positive disclosure (associated with healthy self-confidence). Hint: it’s not using the word “I” instead of “we” that’s the problem. Bragging is aggressive, competitive, and often exaggerated. Positive disclosure shares true information, is modest in scope, and is often moderated by praise of others. The former annoys people, and there are studies of exactly how and why. It’s a false dichotomy to set up silence as the only alternative to obnoxiousness.

2) But I want my work to speak for itself

  • Soundbite: Sorry. You know better.
  • But seriously: If you are not familiar with the concept of the attention economy, I recommend reading up on it. In short, it argues that conditions of information superabundance have shifted the historical dynamic and made undivided attention a precious commodity. Furthermore, we do not make these decisions independently, but are strongly influenced by our networks. I am reminded of what Noshir Contractor presented at the 2013 Sackler Colloquium: it’s definitely not just what you know, nor even who you know (social networks), but also who they think you know (cognitive social networks) and what who you know knows (knowledge networks). Wishful thinking about meritocracy ignores the abundant science about how information and attention flow in human societies.

3) But I don’t want to overpromise

  • Soundbite: Ok… so don’t do that then?
  • But seriously: I struggled with the name of this one, because unlike the other two, this concern is more amorphous. It goes something like, “Well, I wrote a post/made something/have a project but it’s not the best thing ever and I don’t want to jack up expectations.” Fair enough. Not every idea is ripe yet, and sometimes we share for feedback as much as anything else. I have two diverging thoughts here, and I don’t know which one is best suited to your needs:
  • Be critical…: Exercise your best judgment and calibrate your efforts accordingly. Don’t cheapen your superlatives with overuse. In graphic form, Jay Rosen nails the #1 rule of being influential on social media: “[if] you say it’s good, it’s actually good”
  • …but be fair: There is a wonderful discussion of the impostor syndrome happening online. This entire enterprise is contingent on your own conviction that you have something important to say: don’t let doubt and disbelief sabotage you.

As I say in ending the chapter, “Done well, self-promotion is acting in service of your ideas, not just clamoring for affirmation. Finding your voice, focusing on great content, and positioning it effectively can create positive spirals to benefit your work and your career. You have great ideas. Get over yourself, get out there, and help us discover them.” You’re not asking for favors, you’re doing us a favor when you share relevant people and material, and that absolutely includes you and your work.

It occurs to me that this is particularly true for COMPASS: we always want to know what you are working on and excited about. So please, shake the awkward feeling and share with us using the comment section to tell us about yourself or post a project you’d like to share. (Bonus – I’ll be tweeting about these, so you have the potential for more visibility if you give me your best tweet-length teaser or summary!)

Papers I reference (for easy access):

Moss-Racusin, C. a., & Rudman, L. a. (2010). Disruptions in women’s self-promotion: the backlash avoidance model. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(2), 186–202. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2010.01561.x

Dayter, D. (2014). Self-praise in microblogging. Journal of Pragmatics, 61, 91–102. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.11.021

Hoorens, V., Pandelaere, M., Oldersma, F., & Sedikides, C. (2012). The hubris hypothesis: you can self-enhance, but you’d better not show it. Journal of Personality, 80(5), 1237–74. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00759.x

Other good sources on self-promotion in the sciences:

 

About Liz Neeley

Liz is the Assistant Director of Science Outreach. Though she hasn’t held a PipetteMan in 6 years, she still occasionally dreams of running PCR gels. These days she’s more likely to sustain repetitive stress injuries from livetweeting science conferences or joining marathon conference calls. Lately she’s been baking lots of artisanal bread, finding it to be effective as both a crosstraining and carb-loading exercise.

Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. My recent call to publicize one’s research:
    “Blog and Tweet to Market Your Research!” http://blog.pubchase.com/blog-and-tweet-to-market-your-research/

    • Liz Neeley says:

      Thanks Lenny! Good points in the post – I am alway surprised by those who think that writing about a project means you’ve run out of questions. I tend to write relatively slowly because I enjoy discovering and patching the holes in my understanding as I go.

  2. Karen Shell says:

    Growing up, I was told many times not to brag. (I was also told to not be bossy, but, obviously, not everything stuck.) However, I was never told not to brag about my students, so I do that all the time. (It helps that they are amazing!) I feel less guilty taking pride in their work than I do in mine. I know that I shouldn’t feel guilty, but, strangely, that doesn’t help.

    On another note, I was getting a little distracted around the second argument section, so I first read the name of the conference as the 2013 Slacker Conference, which seems like something I should get around to attending one of these days.

  3. I liked this piece: Let’s talk about me ― making your science the focus
    http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2014/05/29/lets-talk-about-me-―-making-your-science-the-focus/

  4. this was very helpful – thank you!

  5. I have a section on self promotion in my post on scientists using Twitter. http://www.cdnsciencepub.com/blog/scientists-using-twitter-dispelling-the-myths.aspx

  6. Liz,
    You hit the nail on the head re what we’re aiming to communicate (and inspire) with an ESA 2014 workshop I’m co-organizing. Called “Beyond the written word” we’re focusing on multimedia communication as a way to inspire and empower participants to communicate about science. Here’s a link to an EcoTone post we did about the workshop recently: http://www.esa.org/esablog/meetings/from-oceans-to-mountains-its-all-about-ecology-communication/.

    Beyond that workshop, though, this communication/self-promotion dilemma is one I encounter regularly. I deliberately positioned myself on the bridge between science and communication, because I am passionate about doing what Compass does – helping scientists communicate about science, and about themselves as real live humans doing science. I just did a blog post about three basic reasons why I think telling stories about scientists (not just science) is key to communicating effectively about science: http://commnatural.com/2014/06/18/scientistbehindthescience/.

    With a wildlife ecologist husband, my social and professional spheres are loaded with scientists of all sorts. And I can think of very few that have made the leap to regularly communicating publicly about their science (beyond the typical academic outlets). It’s my personal/professional mission to catalyze a shift towards more public communication. The work I’m drawn to is the work Compass is doing – providing tools, hands-on experience, and coaching to empower scientists to engage with people outside academia.

    It’s all an on-going (and sometimes slow-going) process, for sure. But that’s no reason to leave the important work of explaining why science is relevant every day to someone else. :)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Making peace with self-promotion online. (ht Ed Yong) Good, nuanced discussion of an issue near and dear to any blogger’s heart. I especially like the point that some level of self-promotion is good not just for you, but for science as a whole (much as traits like ambition, self-confidence, and a willingness to evaluate the work of others can be good for science as a whole as well as you personally). Of course, everyone has to decide for themselves what sorts of “self promotion” they are or aren’t comfortable with. For instance, Brian, Meg, and I don’t talk about our own scientific work on this blog, unless it’s at the service of making some broader point. But on the other hand, I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks the fact that we blog at all makes us self-promoters (in a bad way). I think the key is that you recognize and live with the predictable consequences of your choices on this issue. For instance, if you decide that you want your work to “speak for itself” and choose to publish it in an obscure venue, don’t complain if nobody reads it. My only quibble with the linked post is that it repeats the myth that “information superabundance” and “the attention economy” are creations of the internet. They’re not; they go back centuries (probably as far as sometime not too long after the invention of the printing press). For instance, here’s John Stuart Mill writing in 1836. He sounds like he’s complaining about blogs, but he’s actually complaining about newspapers: […]

  2. […] with hopes, fears, and curiosity, are precisely what makes science so interesting. See this and this for more on this subject from scientists who talk about their own […]

  3. […] in lab coats or helicopters doing incomprehensibly complicated things. See these sites (1, 2, and 3) for more on this subject from scientists who talk about their own […]

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