Q&A with Micah Allen
From the CIA to Ashton Kutcher to CNN, Twitter is the social medium du jour for rapidly communicating ideas. And the scientific community is no exception – a growing community of scientists and science communicators are using Twitter to share ideas and news. Just last month, Science Magazine came out with the “top 50 science stars of Twitter” (which sparked controversy, particularly with regard to gender diversity, and ultimately a revised list).
If you are a cognitive neuroscientist and do not use Twitter, it’s a good time to start. Micah Allen of the University College London, an avid tweeter (@neuroconscience), talked with CNS about how Twitter has helped his career – using it for everything from daily problem-solving with his research and keeping current on methodological innovations and controversies, to feeling less isolated from the broader scientific community.
Be sure to read through to the end of the interview for some excellent tips on getting started with Twitter.
CNS: How and why did you get started on Twitter?
Allen: I joined Twitter shortly before starting my Ph.D., in the summer of 2009. At the time, I was moving from a mixed background in cognitive science, experimental psychology, and philosophy. As such, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task of doing a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, and I thought getting connected to the community might help me start to overcome this imposter syndrome. This was about the same time I started indexing journals using RSS and writing up simple peer reviews on my blog, so it seemed natural to share these activities on Twitter. In general, I find the RSS + Twitter + blogging combo to be an excellent ‘science 2.0’ cocktail.
CNS: Have you found Twitter helpful for your research? How?
Allen: Immensely helpful! When I started, I was the odd fish in a social cognitive neuroscience group doing longitudinal fMRI studies on mindfulness. I had a little bit of experience with neuroimaging from my master’s degree, but I was basically starting fresh in terms of practical know-how. I struggled a lot with isolation, particularly with regards to the best methods to use to design and analyze my experiment. Twitter was incredibly helpful, both helping me to feel connected to the overall community and also making sure I never struggled with a problem for too long. Further, it connected me to the latest methodological controversies, which I think has really helped me to be a clear headed and rigorous brain scientist.
CNS: Related, can you think of a time when you learned about something on Twitter that later helped you?
Allen: I remember clearly the first time I really realized Twitter was an excellent tool for scientists. I was struggling with some aspect of a structural MRI segmentation – i.e. separating white matter from grey matter. I tweeted about my problem and literally within 5 minutes had excellent responses from scientists in Boston, California, and London. Suddenly I wasn’t a lonely Ph.D. student struggling in an isolated Danish lab; I was a member of a global community of researchers. You really can’t beat having that kind of resource at your fingertips, particularly during the PhD. This was just one of many times over the years – I have lost count of how many man hours Twitter has saved me by giving me almost instantaneous feedback.
In a similar instance, I was struggling with a difficult figure for a paper. I tweeted an image of the in-progress figure and within moments had more than 15 different suggestions for how to improve it. And they were great! You just can’t beat that kind of research community.
CNS: How do you balance tweeting and other social media with your teaching and lab work?
Allen: This is a really common question, and I’m always a bit surprised by how much time my colleagues assume I spend on social media. I actually use a very strict “pomodoro” technique to manage my time. For those not familiar with it, pomodoro is a simple 25 minute work, 5 minute rest work schedule that is enforced by a browser plug-in that locks me out of any non-essential websites during the work phase.
Just like with email, it is very important to balance your time using resources like Twitter versus doing more “deep thought” tasks like experimental design, coding, analysis, and so on. I’m a big believer in “productive procrastination”, or something like strategic mind-wandering. I’m always amazed at my colleagues who seem to work in hour long stretches without any breaks. Sometimes you need to let your mind wander over stimulating material that isn’t directly related to whatever problem you are working on, if you really want to get fresh insights and not waste time. This is one of the functions Twitter and RSS serve for me; they give me some useful and entertaining information to graze over that I can then use to stimulate new ideas and solve problems. So self-control is important, but creative intellectual work requires some freedom too and tools like pomodoro and Twitter help to optimize that balance.
I totally understand the apprehension – Twitter is a weird, fast moving place that can feel bizarre and hostile before you get used to it. …That being said, in a field like cognitive neuroscience, I sometimes find it difficult to understand when scientists, particularly early career, basically say they won’t go anywhere near Twitter. Our field moves so quickly and is so fundamentally interdisciplinary; I can’t imagine not staying up to date with what is going on.
CNS: Why should scientists, and in particular cognitive neuroscientists, use Twitter? What is the most convincing reason you can think of?
Allen: This is another really common and important question. I usually meet three types of researchers with respect to Twitter – people who want no part of it, those who are curious, and those who are already there. For those who are basically staying away from the whole thing and say “well that is just not for me and I can’t see how it could be useful,” I think you have to respect that choice. Probably not every single researcher needs to be on Twitter, although I do think the more scientists that use the platform the better.
I totally understand the apprehension – Twitter is a weird, fast moving place that can feel bizarre and hostile before you get used to it. I remember when I introduced one of my mentors to Twitter, he kept trying to send private messages to people. He didn’t get that Twitter is really a place for broadcasting, almost the total inverse of email. For these people, I think it basically comes down to whether or not you feel like you’re staying up to date with the latest research and how much control you want over the dissemination of your own research. I try to remind the tentative that Twitter can be very useful even if you literally never tweet but just lurk a few of the most relevant accounts for your interests. I believe every lab should at least have one collective Twitter account. [For examples fo such lab accounts, see @ravizalab and @brainvolts.]
That being said, in a field like cognitive neuroscience, I sometimes find it difficult to understand when scientists, particularly early career, basically say they won’t go anywhere near Twitter. Our field moves so quickly and is so fundamentally interdisciplinary; I can’t imagine not staying up to date with what is going on. Methodological and theoretical controversies unravel in real time and I find this information totally essential to conducting good research. I usually describe Twitter as a real-time chatroom with your 20 most relevant colleagues, plus everyone else. By electing to stay out of that, you close off your ability to be the first line of public exposure to your research, and also lose out on the chance to have a direct voice in ongoing public perception of research in your area. Of course if you feel like you’ve already got these bases well covered by traditional means than more power to you, but I find it to be an invaluable part of my science toolkit.
CNS: Do you have a Twitter role model – someone you admire who uses the platform really well?
Allen: Without a doubt my first choice has to be Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee). When I got started on Twitter, I was basically just writing little obscure post-publication peer reviews. I felt able to do so as I enjoyed anonymity through obscurity. When I saw Professor Bishop openly sharing her data and methods, and also wading right into the thick of various controversies such as Internet use and autism, I felt very inspired by this and tried to emulate it in my own tweeting and blogging. She’s always polite, professional, and open, and I think it really shows what is possible in the new paradigm of science communication. You can engage with people rigorously while still being personable and open. Science doesn’t have to be a sniper contest; it can be an ongoing dialogue. I was also very influenced by some of the anonymous accounts like the Neurocritic (@neurocritic) and the Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic), as well as Mo Costandi (@mocost), who do great work digesting the daily influx of new findings.
CNS: Do you Tweet during scientific meetings (such as #CNS2015)? If so, what benefit do you find from that?
Allen: I do often live-tweet, although I’m not sure if it is really useful for anyone other than myself. I’m not the type of person to take notes during talks, and I really enjoy the cognitive effort of trying to identify essential and novel bits of information in a talk and then compress those insights into 140 characters. One thing I have always loved about Twitter is the zen-like practice of condensing your thoughts as much as possible, turning little ideas into shareable representations. They say it takes a lot more effort to write something with fewer words. In my own writing I have always strove to emulate Hemingway-esque simplicity, and for me Twitter transforms that process into an ongoing cognitive exercise. That being said, reading live tweets is basically always a miss for me, which I guess says something.
CNS: What are the most important tips you have for a cognitive neuroscientist to get started on Twitter?
Allen: 1. Start slow and don’t expect everything to kick-off right away. Lurking is a great way to get a feel for the community and to find your peeps. Find a few people you respect and check out who they follow to get started.
2. Don’t focus on quantity. Trust me; quantity of followers is overrated particularly for most academics. What you want is to find the 50-200 people max who really reflect your interests. You might think that since these are people you regularly see at conferences anyway, what’s the point? You will be surprised how useful it is to connect with these people through a rapid, casual, and open medium. Plus they usually share their papers on Twitter before anywhere else.
3. Similarly, be careful following too many people early on. Once you balloon past 50-100 followed accounts, your stream can get really disorienting fast. It’s important to feel like you are actually part of a scientific conversation and not just pissing into the proverbial stream. Once you start to hit this number consider dumping all these people into a list, and keep that list bookmarked for easy access. Then you can follow as many people as you like, which is a nice way to build a more broad contact base, but also keep your signal-to-noise ratio manageable.
4. Be careful tweeting under the influence, particularly if you have strong opinions. Remember that Twitter is a 100% public sphere that is archived and indexed. It is very easy to tweet something that spirals out of your control. That being said, in my opinion people who openly share their strong opinions tend to do better on Twitter. This is one of those things you just have to make a judgment call on; if you wouldn’t say it to a speaker at a conference, you (probably) shouldn’t tweet it.
5. Keep it cool. Like with email, tempers sometimes fly on Twitter. 140 characters means it is very easy to interpret a joke or vague comment as an attack. Make liberal use of the delete button if you feel anxious about something you tweeted. Give yourself a mandatory 10 minute cool down before responding to something that angers you. And remember to use the block button; you will inevitably get followed and provoked by some colorful people. Block them and move on; Twitter is all about maximizing your signal-to-noise ratio.
In the end, it really is all about building community. Find your tweeps, connect with them, and enjoy the feeling of riding at the very forefront of scientific progress. But try not to get too caught up in it and remember that if nothing else, it should be fun.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
For more tips on getting started on Twitter, check out this new CNS Twitter resource.