Academic social network etiquette

If you look at my Facebook page, I'm arguably one of the least qualified persons to speak up about this: a modest 136 friends (mostly linguists), no personal info apart from some bare necessities, hardly any posts (the occasional conference or talk announcement), and even fewer likes (the only thing I've liked so far is birthday wishes, mainly because I didn't know what else to do with them and because it seemed rude to do nothing). The discrepancy between the amount of Facebook information I consume and the amount I produce has even earned me the rather dubious title of 'Facebook lurker' in some circles.

Be that as it may, however, I was inspired by a brief rant by Casey Liss in one of the early episodes of Analog(ue) (I think it was episode 3 or 4), in which he rallied against subtweeting your loved ones and/or taking spousal fights to Twitter. This made me realize that there are a number of bad practices that academics engage in on social networks that rattle my chain.

The first concerns tweeting about (interactions with) students. Numerours are posts of the type You'll never guess what a student just mailed me: he wants a deadline extension on a term paper because he's going on a skiing holiday. Here's his e-mail: ... Yes, these posts are typically anonymized (or even translated) and no, they are mostly not public, but in my opinion it's simply not done. Dealing with students is a core part of our job, and you're supposed to do so with professionalism, regardless of the content of the interactions. Besides, Facebook's privacy settings are sufficiently opaque to constantly leave that residu of doubt about who exactly can see what you're posting, and if there's one thing academics tend to forget about their students, it's that they have access to the internet too. Equally annoying, mind you, are overly positive messages about students, of the type Great class today; what a wonderful group of students! I realize that there might be a genuine sentiment of enthusiasm and love for one's job behind such a post, but at the same time, it feels like sucking up (let's not forget: students have access to the internet too) and as such, it is equally inappropriate as publicly criticizing students.

The second (or third, depending on how you count) thing that gets under my skin are posts or tweets about papers that one is reviewing. Typically, these are derogatory comments, meant to illustrate how stupid or uninteresting this paper is, and what a waste of one's valuable time and considerable intellect it is that one has to review this heap of parrot droppings. To such a post (and its writer) I say: tough titty for you, fish face. Writing reviews is part of your job, it is a way of doing service to the academic community, so shut up and get to work.

Thirdly and finally, let's all collectively agree to stop using Facebook and Twitter to whine about a (brilliant, of course) paper of ours that wasn't accepted for publication because some (ignorant, obviously) reviewer was too dim-witted to see the sheer live-changingness of our ideas. There's this fantastic—and probably apocryphal, but who cares—story about the legendary Morris Halle, who, whenever a student came into his office to complain about a paper or abstract that wasn't accepted, pulled open a very long drawer filled to the brim with papers and said "These are all papers and abstracts of mine that weren't accepted", instantly silencing the student in question. Maybe Morris should put that same sentiment in a Facebook post or a tweet?

So there you go, my three pet peeves about the intersection of academia and social media. Now, the—arguably very few—avid readers of this blog might object that what I did in my earlier post entitled A reviewer's review violates the second—or a mix of the second and the third—etiquette rule outlined above. In that post I complained about what a reviewer had written about a paper of mine, claiming that he was mainly trying to promote his own work. Assuming I don't want to hide behind technicalities, I have to plead at least partially guilty to these charges. The reason I felt justified to break my own rules is because the post wanted to bring a positive message—the three ground rules about reviewing—and that I tried (and managed, I'd say) to keep the complaining and whining to a minimum. Whether or not that warranted me engaging in online behavior I don't approve of, I'll leave for others to evaluate.

  1. My second, pseudonymous Facebook account presents an even more barren landscape. Bonus points for those of you who can track it down.

  2. Although this post is about social networks in general, most examples that come to mind are from Facebook. On Twitter I rarely see these things—maybe I don't follow enough academics there.

    1. The post was about a review, not a to-be-reviewed paper.
    2. The post was not on a social network site, but on my own blog, which—truth be told—has a smaller audience than my Facebook page or Twitter account.
    3. I did my best to anonymize everything. In fact, I didn't even make clear which paper of mine it was that had received this review.
    4. I didn't call into question the quality of the review—on the contrary, I admit that adhering to the reviewer's advice has made my own paper better.