Social media as a tool and trap!

Social media is everywhere. It is the manifestation of the Millennial generation; an instant hit, a quick fix, a vehicle driving many peoples desire for more friends, followers, and likes. Whether we like it or not it is part and parcel of daily life for most of us; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (not dealt with further but great for positive visual shares), LinkedIn etc. How often do you casually pull out your phone to check for notifications or find out what’s happening on Twitter or Facebook? Given the average person checks their phone 100 (!!!) times per day, spending at least 2.5 hours on it, I’m guessing for most of us it’s a lot. Social media can also be a treasure trove of information, especially for ecologists; links to the latest papers, job vacancy notifications, up to the minute information on sightings and weather; and a tool to generate positive awareness of issues.

It can also be a trap.

Let’s have a quick look at how to use it to get the best out of it and how not to fall into any of its traps.

Do you spend too much time on social media?

Do you spend too much time on social media?

Trump syndrome – A post-truth world & the art of misinformation

Before we get into the individual apps we need to look at post-truth, misinformation, and opinion expression. Trump has demonstrated this very well over the last few months. Those who shout the loudest and first often win. The facts can be completely false, brazen lies, but if you back it up with stubbornness then ultimately people can start to believe you. Social media has given everyone an almost unbridled voice. Is this a good thing? Freedom of speech says it is, after all, we are all entitled to our own opinions, but that doesn’t necessarily make those opinions right. What we are faced with is an interface where we can present opinion as fact, frequently backed up by other similarly opinionated and possibly misinformed people (known as confirmation bias). On social media there are frequently no editors to siphon out fantasy from fact (unless the moderators are particularly good), and as a result we can see personal opinion championing over scientific fact (e.g. Trump and climate change); this is post-truth. A lot of people feel the need to contradict for the sake of it, but this only breeds further misinformation, greater polarity in opinion, and ultimately a weaker society (e.g. protest votes during Brexit ultimately causing a wave of polarity and hate crimes). Social media seems to breed the need to be right, well at least not be wrong, and we always want to have the last word.


Social media has bred an urgency and a need for increasing self-gratification like never seen before. There is science behind this and the recent synopsis of it by Simon Sinek is well worth watching.

Of course, the businesses behind these only serve to propagate this urgency but many of us now feel the need to share EVERYTHING with all our friends, acquaintances and followers. We used to take a photo (carefully, because film was expensive), then send a roll off for development, then only choose the best from the images that returned for local lectures, or to stick in an album. These days it’s all about being ‘Live’, the BOC shot (back of the camera shot), or ‘this is happening NOW!’. Whether you consider this right or wrong much of it is relatively harmless, but is it necessary? Could we wait a few hours to download our images properly and then upload better quality images? Social media can trip us up though and given the public nature of many of the updates it pays to think carefully before posting.

Twitter & Facebook

It’s quite easy to plague social media with criticism but used well it’s a brilliant platform. Take Twitter for example, if you follow only those organisations and individuals who share useful information, articles and news that is interesting or relevant to your own interests (e.g. conservation charities, consultancies or businesses, and professionals) then your news feed will be highly relevant and ‘uncluttered’ with less relevant tweets. Set up notifications for organisations that are of particular interest to you from a professional level, for instance why not follow companies you would like to work for so you are up to date with what they are doing and you will be alerted when job vacancies arise too. This aspect of twitter is superb. Try not to follow too many people, it’s impossible to keep up with them all! Remember Twitter is public. If you fire out a rapid retort, or a drunk tweet it can reflect (very) badly on you. Many employers will look at twitter feeds of job applicants and over-use, as well as misuse, does not reflect well, similarly good use can be apparent.

Professional ecologists often get to work in some stunning places, but sharing pics of them on social media can often breach your confidentiality agreements

Professional ecologists often get to work in some stunning places, but sharing pics of them on social media can often breach your confidentiality agreements

Do you use Twitter or Facebook too much? It’s proven to be addictive (the dopamine hit we get from seeing new likes, followers and notifications is what does it). Personally I find it hard to step away from my phone but things like airplane mode help not only to conserve battery life but also to avoid distracting notifications. You can even turn off notifications, hide email accounts at weekends, or how about downloading the app Moment to monitor your use. Over the past few years more and more people feel the need to post photos while undertaking ecology work on sites. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing but many sites are confidential, surveyors are bound by confidentiality agreements, and photos often identify the site. If I had a tenner for every time I’d seen a surveyor selfie with headphones in then I’d have enough to buy my beer for a year. There is almost never an occasion when a surveyor should have headphones in (unless sound recording!), and it reflects exceptionally badly on that person. Social media also tells us how often a person is using it so if that person should be at work but has updated their status, shared a link, and liked some twitter updates then it’s apparent their mind isn’t fully on the job. Many photos are also geo-tagged, i.e. they have location data within the file information so make sure that any locations services are turned off if you post images of, for instance, Schedule 1 bird nest sites (taken under license). The sharing of bird images on social media has occasionally caused increased disturbance to some individuals and species, something which those posting the images need to consider before publishing. The last and by no means least significant negative is the continual subjection to often depressing environmental (and social) news. If your Facebook and Twitter feeds are anything like mine then the majority of shares tend to be exposure to global catastrophes and to be quite honest it gets too much to take on many days. It can also breed a ‘why do I bother?’ attitude among those viewing this material, counter-productive to the original intent.

Hen Harriers are a Schedule 1 species and disturbing them requires a license. Images can also contain location data which can reveal sensitive information.

Hen Harriers are a Schedule 1 species and disturbing them requires a license. Images can also contain location data which can reveal sensitive information.

Facebook is not all bad though. There are groups for everything and this can be a superb way of learning about events and sightings, finding useful articles (e.g. on social media), and enjoying some positive news. It has also changed how we interact with each other. Groups bring people together who would probably have never met otherwise. A Focus on Nature and Next Generation Birders are connecting young ecologists giving them hope, focus and not least, opportunities. There are groups for those who love camera trapping, plants, conservation, garden wildlife, cetaceans, bats… the list goes on and on and on. They connect people and the information shared is often interesting and even invaluable. They are also a great place to express the excitement at seeing something different, unusual or unexpected.

Facebook and Twitter are now the go-to platforms for sharing your latest written and visual works. This is a superb way of self-publicity but it does rather favour the most vocal. This Trump Syndrome (he who shouts the loudest and first wins) isn’t always a good thing and it pays to read articles with a critical eye; are the facts right, does the text mirror the stance outlined, what’s the overall point of the article, should the person spend more time in the field and less time on the internet?


Lastly, LinkedIn is becoming increasingly popular and essential for those wanting to have a public professional profile. Strong covering paragraphs and clearly outlined skills are a must. Use it to connect to relevant professionals. It too has very useful groups that allow professional discussion of interesting topics. If you are going to invest in a LinkedIn profile then make it as good, and as relevant as you can.

Five top tips

In summary, social media can be a great thing but use it wisely. Here are my 5 top tips for getting the most out of it:

  1. Limit your use of it, overuse can reflect badly and breed addiction;
  2. Use it wisely; select those organisations and people from whom you’ll gain the most;
  3. Think about the content you are sharing, is it original, interesting, and most of all accurate;
  4. Be polite. There are enough idiots out there and provocative and impolite retorts don’t help;
  5. Be the bigger person, having the last word is not always the right move.