Cultivating my social media garden

Five ways I’m branching out beyond my social media bubble and why

Photo by Melissa Westbrook on Unsplash

I don’t have a green thumb. At various stages of my life, I have tried to be a plant mom and failed. I can keep plant babies alive temporarily, but inevitably I have one bad week of unregulated pruning or watering. It stresses them out to the point that they no longer want to be green. Recently, I have found that making it a habit to check on them helps. Who knew? (Today, they look a little wilt-y. But I am trying!)

I’ve noticed it’s also hard to cultivate meaningful conversations with people, too — particularly those I don’t already know. When I was younger being curious and social, but (1) introverted, (2) quiet and soft-spoken, and (3) more on the empathic side, meant I was often read as shy or asocial.

I remember throughout grades 2 and 5, I would try to make friends by edging closer to a group of students talking. I would listen for a while then try to jump in with (what I thought was) funny anecdotes or (maybe a little too) personal opinions. I would soon recoil in the utter embarrassment of what I said or how I said it. In retrospect, I was probably mislabeling honest confusion about my out-of-context comments as disapproval and requests for me to repeat what I said (more loudly) as being misunderstood. Nevertheless, I tended to shrink away from social interactions altogether.

I purposely adjusted my strategy in grade 6 and again in 9. Though timid at first, I began more aptly introducing myself. I stopped trying to jump into the deep end of other people’s conversations instead I waited for others to include me and learned how to start my own. I set goals for myself and tried to make it more of a habit to reach out to people in one-on-one settings.

These early years of relationship-building reinforced the notion in my head that (like keeping a plant alive) speaking to strangers is a feat close to impossible. If against the odds, a person became my friend it was because of extraordinary circumstances.

I have noticed something lately that may be an offshoot: I assume that my friends and close contacts fully share my point of view. In talking to my labmates, coworkers, friends, and family I catch myself believing that they already know and share my perspective and am surprised when they don’t. For example, measures like wearing certain PPE — masks, face shields, and/or gloves — that make me feel safe outside during COVID-19 times are viewed as either excessive or not enough for them.

On the flip side, I assume that the people I don’t know have vastly different perspectives (e.g. don’t struggle as much with their identities such as being a scientist or writer).

To tackle this belief, I ordinarily have the natural interactions when I bump into and talk to people from different departments, friends of friends at a party, or strangers on a stalled subway train. (HA! I’m kidding on the last one.) I’ve never talked to a stranger on a stalled train — headphones on, eyes averted.

Although the data indicate that I probably should. Researchers found that social interactions benefit both the initiator and the approached party in a conversation in both the lab and amongst rail and bus commuters (Epley & Schroeder, 2014).

Regardless, my point is this: Pre-COVID, we had many more coincidental opportunities to talk to each other (both friends and strangers) and thus combat these pre-conceived notions of who other people are.

To compensate, I’ve turned online to social media.

Social media is an amalgamation of the best and worst of us with a lot in the middle. The more we use it, however, the more we are siloed into our own comfortable bubbles. With the help of carefully crafted algorithms, we choose our preferences, our interests, our loves, and our likes. (Medium notwithstanding.) Based on that, we continue to get more of the same and also more of what is already popular in our individual filter bubbles with detrimental effects. A great review of the topic of filter bubble Kristen Allred on Medium.

Instead of staying in my bubble, I aim to expand beyond it. I strive to cultivate a beautiful and diverse social media garden, a vivid metaphor offered by brand strategist Nick Westergaard. I have put in a bit of effort recently to choose who and what to follow or plant (for the analogy’s sake). In this way, I have a mix of the people, businesses, organizations, and institutions that I like and support, as well as those that challenge me.

Here are 5 ways I have been doing this:

1. Changing my feed from “Top Stories” to “Most Recent”

I have found that changing my Facebook newsfeed to Most Recent allows me to see what a larger scope of Facebook friends are doing in real-time, not just the ones whose posts that I usually “like” and are already popular. (A similar feature is switching to all comments in a Facebook thread instead of just most relevant.)

In this way, I have actually started liking and commenting on posts from people I am not as close with. Even when my feed defaults back to Top Stories I have started seeing posts from my “new” friends.

The default for Facebook is Top Stories. I change this to Most Recent whenever I remember.

2. Asking questions

Even if I don’t know the post’s author, Commenting on the posts (on Facebook, Twitter, etc) that I find informative, funny, or cute, usually results in a “thanks” or at least a “like”. It’s a nice positive reinforcer (#DopamineBoost).

Image of an Instagram story. I asked a question for engagement from my friends (and just a tad bit of shameless and lighthearted self-promotion). I definitely was not expecting a unanimous result.

More importantly, I think that posting questions and especially adding questions in the comment section has been very valuable to me. If I find something confusing or intriguing, posting an inquisitive comment for more clarification tends to end with me getting more information.

Representative image of me responding to someone who says they’ve never worn a mask by asking a question in a comment section. They respond. I follow-up with information based on my perspective. The “like” is from the same person I engaged in this conversation.

In the example above, I asked whether a person (who said they have never worn a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic) if they were in contact with potentially vulnerable people. This question could have been left unanswered. (I have a ~57% answer rate so far.) But, they answered earnestly (it seems). I’m not sure if they will change their behavior but I introduced them to someone they had apparently never met before (i.e. someone who wears a mask) and share my reasoning for doing so. They didn’t reply again but they did “like” my comment.

Two things.

First, I was super anxious when I first did this, I am not naturally outgoing or bold (as I said before) but I am curious about others. Asking questions and interacting with people with differing perspectives has gotten easier over time. I have enjoyed learning more about the nuance in people’s views (*more on this in the Tending the social media garden section*).

Second, I am not advocating for using any specific voice (and am not tone policing). I have developed an “inquisitive & conversational internet voice” (e.g. lots of Hmm’s & I wonder) and use that most of the time. I am only suggesting that you can ask questions on the internet. You can do so in your voice.

3. Answering questions

I have had interesting virtual conversations by answering questions posted online. Sometimes they are rhetorical and it leads nowhere. Sometimes they are just bots or trolls. (I have started to figure out who is who.) But many times, there is actually a knowledgeable human who is open to doing the back and forth on the other end. I find that I gain a lot more perspective and expand my own. Because I learn how other people are thinking, this is probably my favorite bubble-bursting technique.

Above I joined a Twitter thread where @astro_jaz asked followers when they started calling themselves scientists. Answering this question posted above led to the entire second half of my last Medium story.

4. Using more than one type of social media

I have found that as I started to use each of my social media accounts regularly I was able to get a fuller “social” experience. I have been getting more entertaining, informative, surprising, and interesting content. Here are the ones I use and why.

Facebook

I spoke about Facebook earlier, but I use this to stay in contact with friends, family, and acquaintances. It’s the OG for me and is still where I do much of my asking and answering questions.

Twitter

I was admittedly anti-Twitter when it first came out because I thought it was redundant. More recently, it has been a great addition to my social media mix. I get to communicate with people across the world who share my identities (e.g. people who are Ph.D. students, scientists, writers, bloggers, podcast lovers, have Jamaican parents, etc). This often happens through specific hashtags like #BlackInNeuro, #AcademicChatter, #PhDLife, #Scidentity, #WritingCommunity, and #Bloggerswanted.

It took me embarrassingly long to find out how to get to my DMs. My first Twitter anniversary just passed so… look at me now! Also, I was today years old when I learned that you can draft Tweets to send later. (I know… I should go into the box of Millenial shame.)

An additional bonus: Reading and responding to Twitter threads sparks creative inspiration for my blog posts. Evidence of this is seen in the quote below from my last Medium story. (It refers to the same Twitter thread from the Answering Questions section).

“I didn’t even notice the title distinctions in their email until later when I scrolled through this Twitter thread […]

Anecdotally, on the thread, more men than women were claiming the “scientist” title at an early age.”

-From “(Re)claiming my scientific identity during dual pandemics” on Medium

Instagram

Scrolling through the explore page on Instagram has fueled my love of beautiful images and art. I have curated my feed to be a mix of my friends’ pictures, awesome cartoons, illustrations, and memes. I also get inspirational quotes and poems, amazing pictures of Jamaica and Jamaican tings, and much more from organizations and other people I follow. Here too I follow certain hashtags (like #jamacianfood and #phdlife) to get more diverse content.

Posts that appeared on my explore page today. From left to right: @domrobxrts @haleydrewthis @txturemagazine @diamond_prettyass @kelseymontagueart @yeskis4king.

Instagram has also started to become a source of information for me through beautifully-crafted infographics (like the one in the top left of the image above).

Content (like the ones above) can also be bookmarked for viewing later. I’ve been using this feature a lot lately.

I particularly enjoy making stories using posts that catch my eye or provide information on the concepts and ideas I am wondering about (e.g. qualified immunity).

I am also using stories right now to release my latest blog posts and updates. This is a nice feature because as long as the content is my own it can automatically be posted to Facebook and Twitter. (That reminds me: I need to finally sync my Twitter.)

LinkedIn

This is not always seen as social media, but it is still a place to gather even if we are all in business clothes. I was not always active on LinkedIn but it has also become a source of inspiration and motivation as I find people who are doing what I want to do when I grow up (i.e. graduate).

It is not always easy to network, but LinkedIn is a great tool for it. I have found that I can connect and keep in contact with people I met at conferences, workshops, seminars, etc.

It is also a place where I can share academic achievements, work updates, and my writing.

This LinkedIn post was introducing my second CRAC blog post.

5. Tending the social media garden

My mom unlike me has a very green thumb. Each place our family has lived had a garden (or at least a nice mix of plants). Even still, I remember that my mom once planted what she thought was a lovely and harmless wild plant in the garden only to find out it was invasive. It spread over an entire fence and began creeping towards the house. Poison ivy or Virginia creeper? Well, this was definitely toxic.

The weeds: Toxic or nah?

Especially when I try to follow accounts that challenge me, I get weeds (as Nick Westergaard calls them) and include ads, propaganda (often racist or anti-science), trolls, bots, etc.

Like in-person, online, we need to keep an eye on our gardens. I periodically scan my social media feeds for annoying, bothersome, or problematic content. If those accounts continue to post that kind of content, I decide whether to unfollow.

It is not always overt toxicity that I need to watch out for (see image below). On Instagram, for example, I can easily find myself looking at beautiful pictures of celebrity’s fancy cars and homes, vacation spots, and lavish lifestyles and start to feel down on myself. (COVID-19 has actually reduced some of this FOMO since there’s little to miss out on…)

I also don’t have an exact equation to balance the various social media toxicities. (Shout out to @ravenscimaven and @simmie_kafaru for this idea.)

I find so much truth in this Twitter thread by @ravenscimaven. Highlighted are the various types of toxicity that are typical on the four social media outlets I mentioned.

But, I do try to try to regularly assess how I’m feeling as I scroll. (Btw… Kafaru simmie writes about data science on Medium.)

I’ve unknowingly planted negatively toxic invasive species on my feed also. Troublingly, they invade and take up mental real estate. I start to ponder ideas and content designed to evoke anger and fear-fueled reactions. I used to try to combat their comments with logic, scientific data, and anti-racist resources. I don’t anymore.

Existing during dual pandemics is angering and scary already. Persisting through it all is more than enough. I don’t get into heated debates and hopeless arguments. I answer direct and earnest questions. I offer the facts that I know, the resources I have, and maybe throw in a few opinions. And… I’m done✌🏾.

The flowers

I am still learning, but in return for tending my social media garden, I get the content that makes me feel a sense of community and “gets me”. I think this is vitally important for everyone, and especially for anyone who is a part of a minoritized group. I also get coincidental chances to stay connected, learn how others (friends and strangers) are thinking, and share my points of view.

Like writing a blog post or planning a scientific experiment, tending any garden including this online one takes time. I admittedly don’t have many followers on my social media outlets. But, in changing my approach and setting boundaries, what started off as scrolling through my feed with social anxiety, is now liking and commenting with more awe and “hmmm’s”. It is possible.

A still image from a video I posted on Instagram recently. Social media gardening too can reap beautiful flowers (of social connection).

I‘m a writer ✍🏿 & neurobiology Ph.D. candidate 🧠 studying a mechanism behind how we think & behave flexibly. Grateful 🙏🏿 for family, friends, & food ❤️.

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