Since March 2020, I have attended 10 virtual conferences, and likely even more by the time this article is published. I am certainly not alone in the virtual conference world, but 10-plus conferences are a lot by any standard. However, this new virtual conference world — which I despise — has given me a new perspective on how we engage with others when we can’t be face-to-face.
In our world of social media, we rapidly receive and distribute information. Twitter and Zoom chat have become popular ways to connect, engage, and share opinions. Before the pandemic, but even more so now, Twitter has become a popular avenue to share snippets of information from professional conferences. It allows the poster to highlight impactful quotes from the presenter, key abstracts, or any other information they find noteworthy. However, I have started to notice a disturbing trend in many meetings.
I attended a virtual conference where a genetic counselor was very active in the Zoom chat with relevant comments to the wider meeting audience. She was simultaneously tweeting, but her comments on Twitter were inaccurate and attacked the speaker in a very unprofessional manner. I wondered how was she able to listen to the speaker, I mean actively listen, post in the Zoom chat, and tweet? Maybe I’m old and have lost my ability to multi-task at that level, but it seems impossible to me that she was fully present and focused on the speaker’s presentation. After someone shared with me this person’s unprofessional Twitter attacks, I was embarrassed to say I was in the same profession. A profession where we “value professionalism, competence, integrity, objectivity, veracity, dignity, accountability and self-respect in ourselves [themselves] as well as in each other.”1
This is not an isolated incident, but it is the one that aggravated me so much that I got up at 3:15 am on a Saturday to write this article. I’m not opposed to freedom of speech, but I am opposed to dissemination of “fake news,” slandering an expert on the podium, or cowardly attacking an individual behind the cloak of Twitter. I fear that posters have become emboldened behind the Twitter shield during these virtual meetings because they don’t run the risk of running into their targets like they did when conferences were held in person. And, then I wondered if it was just me that thinks this way?
Self-improvement book author and computer scientist Cal Newport2 wrote in a 2016 New York Times op-ed3 that social media is actually harmful to academic careers because it distracts and diminishes productivity. While some may say social networking helps promote your brand and provides a way to disseminate information quickly, Newport, who has never had a social media account despite being a Millennial, claims that social media is “a passive approach to professional development” because it “diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or other social networking forums are best described as a collection of trivial recreational services that are currently having a good run. Kind of like banana clips in the 80s (yes, dating myself again) that were here and then gone. These networks are fun, but as Newport states, “you’re deluding yourself if you think that Twitter messages, posts and likes are a productive use of your time.”
I might be considered antiquated despite my occasional use of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, but I do know what is professional. Please always consider the people who are at the receiving end of your tweets and chats. These are real people with real feelings and emotions. Hurting them can have a huge impact not only on your Twitter profile, but also on your professional reputation. I will never view the genetic counselor that shared what she tweeted the same way. So, before you tweet or chat, please consider how your audience will interpret and react to those 280 characters.