Is Social Media Worth It?

I wrote about social media and blogging a while back, and revisited when some of these things came into existence. As we stand on the final embers of Google+, and look at scandal after scandal on Facebook we are reminded how ephemeral these services are. Last year Ben Cotton wrote a nice post on why we can’t replace Facebook with personal websites as a number of people were saying we should. The obvious question next becomes whether this whole social media thing is worth it.


I am no social media star, but I do better than some and have been in this space since the early days. I remember several services that have already gone under, and was a big fan of Google+ in its day. As of today I have 3,169 followers on Google+, 718 followers on Twitter, 757 connections on LinkedIn, and 265 friends on Facebook.

LinkedIn and Facebook operate on a very different model to Google+ and Twitter—they require you to agree to connect/become friends with a symmetry of following/being followed. This led to me treating them both quite differently in both who I attempted to connect with/friend, and my vetting of requests that came in. I think this holds true for many, and Facebook has added the ability to follow more recently to reduce this barrier.

Different Strokes

Google+ clicked for me as a platform, and I was able to find a niche I liked working in. It had a mixture of open science, open source, and technology enthusiasts. Their circles enabled me to classify some of my writing (open science had the largest following), and the people I followed. I had about 15 circles, but would often just check in on the full feed of all people I followed.

Twitter I joined fairly early on too, but didn’t touch it for many years. It never really clicked, and I found the threads/pasted text a pain to interact with. I started working with it more as I wanted to ensure a diverse presence, and it became clear that different people just preferred different platforms. So over the years I grew my presence, but have yet to make it to four figures as a following.

LinkedIn I kept to people I had really met in the early days, and curated the people I accepted connections from quite strictly. I tried to keep it to my professional network, and limit leakage from other spheres of life. In later years as the platform evolved it became clear this didn’t matter as much, I still vet requests but mainly ensuring they are in areas I work in/have interests in, I have really met, or they know some of my connections.

Facebook I have perhaps most jealously guarded, at least at first. It was the people I considered friends, people I had shared meals with, or gone out for drinks with. Friends, family, and a place where some of the more personal aspects of life were shared. It is the only place where some of my family and friends from my childhood are digitally connected. I have been close to deleting it several times, but those connections have given me pause. I never try to grow my Facebook friends, but have relaxed my work/personal separation in recent years.


I am going to come clean and admit that for me trust has never come easily, and it is quickly broken. So these anonymous platforms have never really come close to earning it, and I try to keep in mind anything I share may be entirely public some day. That isn’t to say I haven’t said stupid things on them, or things I would rather remained in the circles in which they are shared.

It amazes me how much some trust these platforms. I do so out of necessity but try to only give them what I would be OK with being shared publicly even if it is being shared among a smaller group. Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn are all public by default and that is how I post. Facebook is friends only, and that is how I tend to post things there, but am well aware things can and often are shared more widely. Pretty much every platform has had privacy issues and/or breaches.


So what is the value, and should you use these platforms, should you place all your content there? All of these services wield enormous technical resources so that you can share pictures of your baby, cat, dog, dinner, holiday location, etc. You make such a small effort in signing up for an account, and benefit from web applications and/or apps on your phone that have entire teams ensuring every aspect of interacting is as easy as possible. Why invest so much?

You are of course the primary product, these platforms are engineered to create engaged users. Advertisers will pay for access to your attention, nestled in between messages from friends, family, colleagues, and celebrities. You also enjoy access to your circles of friends, family, colleagues, and maybe…just maybe that celebrity will reply to you. The platforms also offer the promise of Internet fame for that select few too.

Echo Chambers

You can craft the perfect echo chambers, pruning away any voices of dissent or disagreement. You can also come crashing into other people’s echo chambers to tell them how dumb they are, or fight the person on the Internet who is WRONG! I worry about whether I am guilty of doing this, I like to see other viewpoints but also find little value in screaming matches whether they are real or virtual. I have seen enough of both for a lifetime!

The formation of these echo chambers have significantly changed public dialog. Social media has created an awful practice of constantly sharing/resharing memes with pictures and some message. They can be quite advanced forms of social manipulation, and usually reinforce your position. The practice of attempting to guilt resharing, or imply a lack of true friendship, caring, etc are also used to good effect to amplify these messages.

It is quite likely that these and other approaches have been used to effect national elections, referendums, and other things with real impact—it is more than cute cat GIFs. Indiscriminate sharing can polarize and drive relationships apart. I have found myself wondering in some cases if you can ignore some of the hate people share to remain friends.

Getting Personal

For me social media is an opportunity to get to know some of the people in my world. I want to see some of their passions, some of their interests as well as learn about the latest developments in their work. I tend to do the same, and have deliberated at times over just how much I share. My wife is the polar opposite, where she lurks and will share little to nothing. She tolerates my sharing, but will voice objections if she feels I shared too much. You get a very filtered version of me, but the same is true in real life—that filter is moderated by how much I trust you.

I tend to go back and forth on accounts that are overly political, but still want some of that. I tend to stay away from religion, and on the whole do the same. I have mentioned that I am an atheist, and think that people should be public about these things but my lack of belief is a small part of my life. I try to tolerate the flip side, but don’t need people preaching at me online either and after over a decade in Roman Catholic school I learned little was accomplished debating these matters. The Internet just makes that worse as far as I can tell as there is no personal cost to insults, rants, etc.

You should probably avoid social media after a few drinks, but I will admit to having done some of my best work… Those filters can suffer though, and I seriously culled my Facebook friends with Republican, religious, anti-immigrant feelings after a few gin and tonics one evening. It was cathartic, and I really needed it at the time. In case you want to be outraged I am an atheist, immigrant, over-educated PhD in physics, grew up poor, lived in sin for many years, have friends from all walks of life, and I think social safety nets are essential and we should all have adequate access to food, housing, healthcare, and rehabilitation. I am basically a monster in the eyes of some!

Organizations and Corporations

The flip side is the organization and corporate profiles that tend to be very on message. They risk being on the spammier side, and I have seen personal accounts that just repost their organization/corporate profile too. Blogs are similar where organizations and corporations maintain them, they provide a great place for people that just want to hear about that thing. Some can be far too broad, and it takes skill to curate the right mixture of content.

When it comes to blog posts I tend to keep them a little more formal, whereas on my personal blog you will often see more of me come through. My time writing for was something of a hybrid where it was articles very much about topics I was passionate about in the open sphere, but written by me in my own time. We have some organization profiles for Avogadro, Open Chemistry and similar where they post some original content, and share content from contributors.

As an organization you have to try not to be too creepy, and realize when it is best to simply remain quiet. I have always found the way brands use Facebook to be among the creepiest, and I hate the share/comment for a chance to … campaigns. Just pay for the advertising dude! There are some awesome organization/corporate profiles too, they tend to make up a much smaller part of my feed but some of them are there.

Real Life

There is no substitute for meeting people in real life. I am very lucky to be able to travel quite a bit for my work, and it has always amazed me how much in-person meetings can change things. People who would never interact with a post will enthusiastically talk with you in person, offer feedback, and describe what they liked. It amazes me how many people regularly read what you write and never indicate that they are. Even in the modern day where you can just click a like button people often don’t for whatever reason, but it can lead to some great discussions when you see them at a meeting, workshop, conference, or chance meeting.

I think remote communities and remote work can both work well. I was exposed to both early in my career, you need to learn the tools, and be available. I also learned how much even very occasional real life meetings can enhance remote work/collaboration. A few days in Paris hacking on Avogadro in the gardens or Versailles, or a workshop, or all hands meeting. The online interactions tend to benefit for months or even years to come. When I can I make real effort to grab dinner or a drink with some of my virtual collaborators, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Worth It?

I think blogging, social media, and wider interaction are all worthwhile. I share others concerns over sharing, and try to find a balance that works. I would hate for my writing to hurt my work, my family, but I accept the risk is there. You only get one shot at life, and terrible things will likely happen to you at one point or another. Great things can also happen, and I have benefited enormously from my online interactions many of which are public.

Without putting myself out there I suspect my career would have been much more boring. Developing a platform can help you improve your writing, broaden your horizons, and restore some of your faith in humanity. I can pretty much guarantee that Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, and likely other companies are doing things with my data I don’t like. They probably know more than I would like them to know about me, I think they should be subject to more regulation and oversight.

That said I knowingly entered into these relationships. I try to maintain a somewhat independent presence. When Google+ shuts down I will lose my 3,000+ followers, and my most successful online present. I derived plenty of value from those interactions at the time though, and am glad I made the effort to diversify my online presence. If some of these other sites shut down it will be sad, but others will fill the void they leave. I spent hours culling who I followed on Twitter earlier to improve my feed in the future, removing spammier, less relevant, or dormant accounts. Try to make sure these sites serve you, and if they don’t take a break or quit them.

What are your thoughts on social media?

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