“I don’t want my face on the internet!”, “My science should speak for itself, it shouldn’t matter who I am as a person!”, “I just don’t like what I look like in pictures!”, “People won’t perceive me as professional when I include selfies in my science communication work!”: There are many reasons for not posting selfies on the internet, and I sympathise with many of them. However, I have chosen (and continue to choose) to post the occasional selfie. Why is that?
My main goal I am trying to achieve with my scicomm Instagram @fascinocean_kiel is to show that exciting science (specifically ocean physics) can be discovered EVERYWHERE if you are open to seeing it. This means that I post pictures of water that I take on walks along any kind of river, lake, ocean, but also in puddles, sinks, or tea cups, pretty much daily.
But in order to make my Insta relatable to other people, I find it important to put these pictures in the context of my life. Yes, I live on the Baltic Sea coast and therefore have the opportunity to see “the ocean” (well, kinda) on an almost daily basis, which is reflected in my Insta. But I commute to work in Hamburg (where I see Elbe river and the Port of Hamburg, which you also see quite a lot), and I travel a lot throughout Germany and beyond. Some days I’m on the train — on those days you’ll often see pictures of water taken from the train window. Or if I am giving workshops in locations with fancy taps, you will see those. My point is: You can discover oceanography everywhere. If you choose to look for it.
But then who does get this excited about this kind of stuff? Well, I do. And this is where #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike comes in. I’m not wearing a lab coat, and I am not even observing this science as part of my job. I’m not even employed as a scientist any more, nor do I want to be. But I didn’t loose my identity as a scientist when I decided to stop pursuing an academic career. That was a huge fear I had when I was in the process of wanting out of academia — that I would be a failed scientist if I left, even if I left because I would rather be somewhere else. So for me, showing that I am still a scientist even if that’s not my day job anymore is my way of offering myself as the role model that I wish I had during that time, showing that leaving academia doesn’t make you any less of a scientist.
Of course, #ThisIsWhatAScientistLooksLike also includes other aspects, for example making women or other minorities in science more visible. Or showing that there is no one “correct” way of being a scientist. For example the clothes you wear or how much effort you put into looking put together are in no way correlated to how serious you are about your science. Contributing to spreading that message is a nice side effect for me.
But does posting selfies do anything to how people perceive scientists?
There is a 2019 study by Jarreau et al. that looked at this. They compared different kinds of Instagram posts, some showing selfies of scientists, some showing only lab equipment or other pictures of the work only. And they found that posting selfies does actually have an impact on how scientists are perceived.
Scientists posting selfies (as opposed to those only posting “work stuff”) were perceived as significantly warmer. Appearing warm is definitely desirable in this context, as warmth is a component of trustworthiness. Obviously, as a scientist we want to be, but also be perceived as, trustworthy. This perception is created in this study when selfies were used.
Another finding is that posting selfies does not result in scientists being perceived as less competent, both for male and female scientists. So here goes the fear mentioned above that posting selfies will make you appear less serious about your work! Or does it? Note that of course this study does not guarantee that nobody ever will think less of you because you are posting selfies. Of course there might be people you are working with, or more generally, that see your selfies online and think any number of weird things. In general, this does not appear to be the case. But you know your bosses, your community, your life best, so ultimately if this is a concern you have, you need to weigh the potential benefits of posting selfies against that risk. In my case, I have decided that I can totally live with what some people might think about me posting selfies because I know that the people who matter to me don’t think less of me because of it. Additionally, I have gotten a lot of feedback that people actually enjoy seeing selfies on my Insta occasionally, because it does make it more relatable.
As a women, I also find it important that I post selfies, because the study showed that this can contribute to making science be perceived less as “exclusively male”. The common stereotype of what a scientist looks like is still to this day an old white male (in a lab coat and with messy hair). Of course there are plenty of those around, but there are so many brilliant and inspiring women out there, too, that I’d like to see that stereotype change.
In total, results of the study are that showing selfies can potentially help change attitudes towards scientists towards the better. The study doesn’t explore the mechanisms through which this happens (so it might depend on, for example, facial expressions, features of the background, or tons of other things), so it is by no means guaranteed to work for every selfie being posted on the internet (and also how many selfies do people need to see for this effect to kick in, or what does the ratio to “science stuff only” pictures need to be? And how long does the effect last?). In any case, to me, this study is indication enough that me posting selfies might have all the intended consequences, and that’s reason enough for me to choose to post selfies. And I encourage you to check out the study and consider posting selfies, too!
P.S.: This picture is clearly not a selfie, it was taken by my brilliant colleague Sebi Berens (www.sebiberensphoto.com / @sebiberensphoto). Thank you, Sebi!
Jarreau PB, Cancellare IA, Carmichael BJ, Porter L, Toker D, Yammine SZ (2019) Using selfies to challenge public stereotypes of scientists. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216625. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216625