A contagious disease afflicts contemporary scientists. At best, it plagues productivity. At worst, it harms the fabric of our community. A form of social mania was identified as early as the 1700’s when gentleman scientists left their lab coats collecting dust and occupied themselves instead with pub banter. A newly mutated strain – sparked by Facebook and Twitter – now imperils scientific progress.
Individuals plagued by the disease spend an inordinate amount of time consuming and producing scientifically irrelevant online content. The diagnosis can be made from afar: their prolific social media presence speaks volumes (perhaps in place of the academic volumes they might otherwise have authored). Memes, gifs, Pinterest boards, Facebook photos from a distant friend’s recent vacation, snappy Twitter one-liners, and Instagram-filtered fantasies, seduce infected researchers into a perpetual state of procrastination.
For those afflicted, research becomes an occasional distraction from the incessant checking and re-checking of social media. This compulsion is commonly accompanied by an urge to post and comment relentlessly, lest the scientist lose their competitive edge. Disdain for a principal investigator who has not responded to pressing work e-mails, but who is seen painstakingly crafting a perfect grumpy cat meme has ruined more than one academic relationship. When you sit down to a meal with a social maniac, do not expect to be asked how your day is going. You would be better off photographing your meal and posting it with a #catchycaption to let them know how you’re doing.
The disease is deceptive, convincing its victims that they are in fact busier than they were before. To balance this illusory hectic schedule, scientists refrain from engaging with serious material, avoiding academic books and articles. Carrying out experiments, performing data analysis, and writing manuscripts become part-time hobbies. Their emails become shorter, cluttered with more typographical errors and peppered with apologies about their chaotic days. Indeed, there is less time to work when one does not work at all.
As more and more researchers fall ill, the infection picks off the most vulnerable: new graduate students with flexibility in their work schedules often succumb to the allure of the coffee shop “work” station, where social mania is most contagious. With more victims, there is more online content to be shared, and the contamination spreads exponentially.
New scientific knowledge relies on slow, careful thought and on diligent experimentation. As more and more scientists contract social mania, revolutionary discoveries become less and less likely.
Fortunately, a vaccine may exist. Imagine an online social mania leaderboard showing the number of minutes (or hours) researchers spend on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. What would scientists enjoy more than quantifying procrastination? Inoculating healthy, reputation-bent scientists with a dose of online humiliation could spark a strong immune response, and would stigmatize social media overindulgence. These normative pressures could provide the antidote we so sorely need.
A Ph.D. student in social psychology at NYU, Diego Reinero studies how people ‘click’ with each other.