Why and How to Build Connections Online

The evolution of social media has provided multiple routes for making new professional acquaintances and friends, writes Victoria McGovern.

November 4, 2019
 
 
Istock/vladimir obradovic

Becoming part of the broader national and international community in your field is an essential part of your growth as a scholar. But establishing yourself in a community -- whether it’s a scholarly one or a new neighborhood you’ve just moved into -- is not usually quick or easy for any adult. For introverted people who like to have a lot of alone time; shy people who feel nervous, anxious or uncomfortable around other people; and new language learners who are apprehensive about misspeaking, building personal and scholarly networks can seem like an overwhelming project.

It used to be. But the evolution of social media has provided multiple routes for making new professional acquaintances and friends. Today, everyone everywhere has the potential to make their way into the active streams of their field’s ongoing conversation.

Social media comes at several speeds, and academics online are communicating at all paces, from Slack’s “when I get to it during the day” tempo to the “blink and you’ll miss it” rush of Twitter. LinkedIn moves slowly but puts the things you say one click away from your online CV. If you’re not careful with your permissions settings, Facebook can broadcast to your high school friends, you grandmother and the guide from that bike tour you did in 2013 a spontaneous 4,000-word essay conveying your tightly reasoned thoughts on a subtle point in your field -- leading those closest to you (and the tour guide) to gently suggest you should get out more. Twitter’s propensity for rapid escalation of outrage makes it seem like a dangerous place to express yourself. Instagram seems built for the scholarship of beautiful things, but what if your interests don’t photograph well, or at all?

Which platform is the best environment for you to embrace when looking for ways to enhance your professional life? It depends on what you want from the people you’d like to connect with and meet.

All social media platforms are in use as marketing tools, and it is tempting to think in a marketing framework about what you want from social media. A Google search will link you to an overwhelming volume of information about growing your Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat or YouTube following. It’s an ego boost to see your number of followers grow, but being able to demonstrate that you have captured a large audience is in itself really a goal about marketing. Despite the well-marketed notion that you are a brand yourself in need of promoting, brand building as its own end should not be your central goal when you first connect with people in your field.

Your true goal is probably not so much about developing your own large personal audience as it about starting relationships with the individual colleagues you want to pay attention to your work. Other practical goals include developing connections with people who use the same scholarly tools as you, accelerating your encounters with ideas intersecting with or parallel to the ones that drive you, or giving you a better idea of who is getting hired in your field.

If you’re a life scientist, one way to quickly make connections is to join a Slack workgroup for researchers at your career stage: Grad Student, Future PI (for postdocs), New PI and Mid-Career PI Slack all are welcoming to new members. As members move on to new career stages, they move on to the next channel, allowing each workspace to remain focused on its original topic rather than shifting focus as members’ careers develop. Joining your college’s alumni LinkedIn group is a good way to begin exploring how communication on that platform works.

Discussion groups on slower-moving social media platforms liked LinkedIn sometimes don’t have the energy to sustain themselves, so you may find yourself having joined a group that has become dormant. And sometimes still-active groups only get a couple of new posts each week or month, which may suit the group’s active users but provides you little chance to get to know its members. If you truly want to interact with more people, you must get involved in a faster platform. Twitter isn’t a bad place to start.

Getting Started

Despite its reputation for rancor, Twitter can be a good place to develop new connections. It has a lower-key entry point for interacting with people you don’t know. While on LinkedIn, you begin relationships with others by asking them to connect; Facebook steps up the ersatz intimacy by making you ask others to be your friend. On Twitter, there’s only following -- still an uncomfortably stalkerish word, but one that has for centuries had among its meanings a sense of paying attention to the news.

On Twitter, you can pay attention to other people’s news and comments without an awkward introductory transaction. You can follow up to 5,000 people, if you want, without building up any followers yourself. Following friends, acquaintances and people in your field feels pretty natural. Soon you’ll begin noticing and following those who respond to or amplify material put out by the first few people you follow. Pay attention to how others respond to scholarly, personal and humorous tweets and think carefully about what kind of tone you’d like to set when you respond or post material of your own.

I first became involved in online education and scholarly virtual communities when I was a postdoc, and ever since, I’ve enjoyed exploring new communications platforms as they evolve. But I was slow to grasp the usefulness of Twitter, a microblogging space named for the inconsequential nature of what users were meant to communicate there. I didn’t try it out until years after it first appeared. When I did finally try it, what I liked best about it was the challenge of telling stories in 140 characters -- a tight word limit, but one big enough to write a limerick with room to spare. But what did I really want to say?

From Watching to Communicating

When people communicate through speaking, letter writing, publishing newspapers or broadcasting the evening news, the focus is on finding or creating information, making it understandable and sharing it with others who will benefit from knowing it. Social media is different from other media in that participants can both produce and consume the information that is shared. The key, then, is to contemplate who needs the information you have, and who has the information you need.

Do you want your account to only be about work? Will you season your content stream by adding occasional tweets that show your other interests? While my Twitter account exists to spread news and information about the grant programs I run, other funding opportunities and Ph.D.-level career/workforce issues, I also post notices about free and inexpensive events in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, where I live, and in my home region, the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, which has recently become more important as a destination for scientists. On weekends, I usually post something about music or writing, because that’s usually what’s on my mind on a Saturday or Sunday morning. These are personal interests, but ones many people share. Writing about them, I hope, lets my work friends know me a little more.

Thinking It Through

What do you want to say to others, if your goal is to make connections that will help your work? Here’s one way to figure that out. First, think about the group that may seem the hardest to break into: the top people in your field, whether they discovered everything you remember from your undergraduate textbooks or they’re a rising star whose every new paper is important and definitively of the moment. Among the things you might want from them are potential training opportunities, the chance to tell them about your work, the benefit of reading more about how they see new developments in your field and an opportunity to build up their awareness of you as a rising scholar.

Then, consider the people who influence your thinking but work in related fields. Getting to know some of them can help you stay aware of differing perspectives on new discoveries, provide you with opportunities for interdisciplinary training and introduce you to work relevant to your research that you might not otherwise have come across.

Next, think about the most easily approachable people -- students and postdocs inside your field and beyond. From them, you can get practical help when starting to work with a new technique, pointers to interesting papers you might have otherwise missed in the literature, a sense of what other workplaces are like, insights into how others interact with their advisers and committee members, and maybe most important, a chance to make new friends and acquaintances with whom to spend time at meetings and other professional events.

“What, You, Too? I thought I Was the Only One!”

Finding people to hang out with at meetings is important. Feeling isolated when everyone else seems to be talking can produce a sense of disconnection. Eating alone by necessity rather than by choice is dreary. Having no one to talk with about an exciting workshop or a talk heralding a paradigm shift sacrifices a great chance to enter what you heard into your long-term memory.

A couple of years ago, Joe James, a microbiologist from Florida, had dinner with an old friend at a meeting. They ended up commiserating about how they felt attending meetings alone. From that conversation, James developed an idea for something that could have improved the experience of being a relative newcomer attending a meeting alone. That idea became Binning Singletons, the goal of which is to facilitate networking among scientists at meetings, conferences and beyond. The first large Binning Singletons gathering was held at ASM Microbe, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, in 2019. Binning Singletons organized an event that connected meeting newcomers, especially postdocs and graduate students, with one another in groups of about three people at the beginning of the event.

With a more seasoned meeting goer connected to each small group of newcomers as a mentor and guide, participants gained a better idea of how the large conference functioned and got more out of it than they would have on their own. Recruiting enough mentors was easy: James asked for volunteers on Twitter, and many established investigators who had themselves gone through meetings uncomfortably alone stepped up.

A paper on Binning Singletons will be coming out in mSphere, a multidisciplinary open-access journal published by ASM, in the next few months. The idea is such a good one I think it will quickly be taken up by other big meetings, as well as even small ones. It’s easy to find and become connected to future activities online: look for the Binning Singletons group at Facebook or for Joe James tweeting as @bsingtons.

Bio

Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. The scholarly communities she was involved with as a postdoc included BioMoo, home to the first live online interactive course in the life sciences, and the first online journal club.

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