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Prestigious science journals don’t only publish great, peer-reviewed research. They also publish opinion pieces, and despite their quality standards, sometimes those opinions are what is known in sociology terms as “complete garbage.” The most well-known science journal, so well-known they just called it “Science,” has recently done just that.
Meghan Wright is a doctoral candidate at University of Toronto, and she is very upset about a serious problem in academics today: female scientists posting about science on Instagram. It’s difficult to parse exactly why she’s upset about this because the op-ed is terribly written, but from what I can gather her primary complaints are that she feels using Instagram is extra, unpaid work that women have to do and also that the only women who do it are pretty, interesting, and fashionable.
Her first point could have been a good one: women are often expected to do extra, unpaid, thankless jobs, in many fields. But unfortunately, she doesn’t include any actual data to support her premise or her conclusion. How many women versus men are doing this? What about on other social media networks like Facebook or Twitter? How many do it because they love science outreach, as opposed to doing it to reach “equality” as Wright suggests?
Instead of this, Wright uses a single data point: Samantha “Science Sam” Yaminne, a woman with a popular Instagram following who talks about science. She doesn’t bother to link to Sam’s Instagram, but I have done so in the transcript because I’m not an enormous jerk.
Sure enough, Science Sam’s successful Instagram account looks like . . . well, it looks like a successful Instagram account. The photos are crisp and pretty, the selfies are aspirational, and the descriptions use lots of hashtags and emoticons.
Wright whines that female scientists on Instagram represent a narrow view of femininity in the sciences, because she doesn’t appear to understand that that’s what Instagram does as a whole. All successful Instagram accounts look similar for a reason — you need a certain look to your photos in order to attract followers there.
I almost empathize with Wright. I have an Instagram and it has a paltry 2,000 followers (compare that to Science Sam’s 18,000 followers). I sometimes see fellow nerd friends with huge followings on Instagram and yeah, I get a little jealous! But then I stop to think and I realize the reason: I don’t do the things that are necessary to have a successful Instagram. I feel stupid using hashtags. I post many photos that aren’t aesthetically pleasing, just because they make me laugh or remember a good, personal time. And I don’t specialize in a particular category, whether that be science or food or drink or travel or dogs — I just post whatever I happen to be doing or thinking about.
And yes, this video is a blatant attempt to get more people to follow me on Instagram so that one day someone will pay me to post a photo of me drinking Wild Turkey or whatever. But I know deep in my heart that that won’t happen because I’m not good at Instagram.
So yeah, I follow scientists on Instagram, and I also follow them on Twitter and Facebook. And if Wright is worried about the narrow view of femininity presented on Instagram, I suggest she look at the women doing science outreach on other platforms. Asia Murphy posts under the hashtag #whoseatingbambi to show nature tail camera shots of woodland predators (she’s on Instagram too, for the record, and there’s not a selfie to be seen, if selfies are offensive to your delicate sensibilities).
Dr. Katie Mack discusses astrophysics in easy-to-understand terms, though she did recently retweet a photo of her with Stephen Hawking, so maybe that makes her ineligible for science communication. Dr. Raychelle Burks is a chemist who often makes chemistry accessible by discussing its relation to pop culture, and oh, she also gave a talk at AAAS about how social media is integral to her career.
A lot of what these women are doing is unpaid and thankless work. But as neuroscience phd Christine Liu points out on Twitter, the answer to that isn’t to write a hit piece on one of them. The answer is to thank them.
Meghan Wright and the editors at Science should be ashamed that they published an attack piece shaming a fellow female scientist simply because she made a successful Instagram presence to communicate science to the general public. To answer Wright’s question about whether she should post more about science than about baking on Instagram, allow me to speak for everyone when I say “no one cares.” Post photos of empty toilet paper rolls if you want. But for people who enjoy using a particular platform to increase public interest in science, keep your terrible opinions out of the pages of reputable science publications.