Why I tweet

This spring I developed a workshop titled “Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Oh My! Safe and Ethical Social Media Use in Eating Disorder Clinical Practice and Research” with Dr. Jenny Thomas, Jenni Schaefer, Dr. Lauren Muhlheim, and Dr. Terry Fassihi. The workshop, which we presented at MEDA (http://www.medainc.org/) and ICED (http://www.aedweb.org/ICED_Homepage.htm), was designed to help eating disorder clinicians and researchers confidently explore social media. Often, when I told other researchers that I was actively involved on Twitter, they’d give quizzical or frankly disgusted looks. They’d ask “Why bother?” or “Isn’t Twitter just like an angry man yelling at his television set?” I found quickly that I had to explain why social media matters and reflect on why I’m engaged. Here are my reasons:

I have a passion for science communication. When I finished my PhD in Psychology, I had a bit of an existential crisis. I thought, “I went to graduate school, worked this hard to get papers published just for only for 5 researchers in the ‘Academy’ who think exactly like me to read them?” It didn’t seem to make sense. It also didn’t seem fair to the public who largely fund the research that we do. They pay for us to do research via grants and contracts, but we only write dense academic articles that are hidden by a paywall or picked up by the popular media who can accidentally misreport our findings (click here for a funny link about the science news life cycle by PHD comic: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1174). It doesn’t seem fair to the people who are footing the bill. I think I have a duty to communicate what I find and to do so in a way that’s comprehensible.

Fortunately, we live in a time when that’s possible, and I get to enact some measure of control over my message directly via tweets or blog posts. The benefits of using social media to communicate are huge because I’m the one out front, playing offense rather than defense and guiding how our research is portrayed. I think it increases the larger public’s commitment in science because they can see what they’re paying for.

Here are two concrete examples:

First, Science of Eds (http://www.scienceofeds.org/) did a blog post on an article that I published with others on factors associated with recovery from anorexia nervosa. It was great to be able to communicate directly with sufferers in the comments and answer their questions about the study. Tetyana also summarized the study in a fantastic way and made it accessible to those who struggle with anorexia.

Second, a tweet I sent to the hashtag #NIHSequesterimpact led to an interview with a MSNBC economics reporter for an article on how the sequester is hurting scientific research for their website. Because of the tweet and the follow-up interview, I was able to contribute to shining a light on how devastating the sequester is to research and to young investigators. The resulting article is here: http://www.nbcnews.com/business/sequestration-hurts-key-medical-research-6C10088207

I hear “I don’t have time” frequently from researchers. There’s a misperception that I’m hanging out on Twitter for hours a day. I think instead that social media engagement is vulnerability inducing. It can be hard to see what the point is when you’re not sure what to tweet and have just 10 random followers. It feels very public, exposed and yet also very lonely at first on social media, and tolerating that discomfort can be hard.  It’s worth the rewards that come later, but I can absolutely understand why it is daunting at first.

I’m so happy that the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders is leading the way through our blog, our Facebook page and our assorted Twitter feeds. Please follow me (@sczerwas), Cindy Bulik (@cbulik), Jessica Baker (@jessicabakerphd), Sara Hofmeier (@SaraHofmeier), Cristin Runfola (@crunfola), and Lauren Janson (@laurenjants) to learn more about our lab’s projects, hear about our individual interests, and see what we are retweeting from other researchers in our field. Looking forward to connecting on Twitter!

By: Dr. Stephanie Zerwas