So a couple of weeks ago I unfollowed every science-type person in my Twitter feed. Not because I don’t like them, in fact, many were friends and colleagues. But there’s something sickly in the online science community, and this was an experiment in ways I might build around that.

I have mixed feelings about Twitter. On the whole, I think it’s a marvellous invention, which exposes me to people and ideas that I might not ever come by otherwise. I’ve gotten work through it, made pals, and learned many interesting things. But there’s also a certain predisposition to sourness. It’s a poor format for nuanced views, and people grow comfortable enthusiastically supporting glib, stupid sentiments in the regular wildfires of hysteria that sweep through it weekly. But most of all, it’s too goddam negative.  I get tired of waking up and checking my phone, only to invite a torrent of snide, bitter comments on the day’s happenings into my still-warm bed.

Now I realise that, if I’ve curated a feed that  I don’t like, that’s entirely my own fault. I’m free to unfollow people whose needling voices I don’t like. And to a large extent, I have. At the start of the experiment, I only had some 120 people in my feed. I’d long since found it was better for my blood pressure and my soul to write off the people I found most objectionable. At the end of the day, it’s easier to just click that button than raise my voice in protest at the tenth boorish comment they’ve made that day.

But I’ve come to realise this solution only goes so far. The problem isn’t particular individuals per se, but a culture of combativeness and negativity that pervades the online science community. For sure, certain people more readily embrace it than others, but there’s a general antagonistic tone that all discussions gravitate towards. To pluck an example out of the air, here’s how Ben Goldacre announced the unveiling of a £1,000 prize for science bloggers:

 Bloggers often reach more ppl than those getting cheques in the Royal Society science book prize shindingle. Justice: http://bit.ly/ShudJp

It’s weird to me to announce such an awesomely cool initiative in such a bellicose way. You have to be prepared to put a special bit of effort in to achieve that. And that’s not a criticism of Ben, he’s always been a pugilistic commentator. My complaint is rather the way his style is endlessly aped by other people who, consciously or unconsciously, have  adopted it as the standard way to discuss science news. While across the board these people are wonderful, smart, funny, and incisive, I’m exhausted by the way all these tiny little brush strokes habitually arrange themselves into Goya landscapes.

For the large part, these people are privileged, well-educated, financially stable, they are in a position to realise their ambitions and have the respect of their peers; I don’t understand the culture of a group who can have so much and yet be so eternally disappointed with their world. I don’t understand their lack of joy. There’s so much wonderful cool science stuff in the world, it doesn’t make sense to me to only be willing to discuss it in argumentative terms. Strangely, the further you get from the online science crowd, the less cynical people seem to be about science. I adore the simple, honest, joyful way that lay people share science items in my feed. The ones that go “OMG check this crazy lizard out!”.

So, back to the experiment: I unfollowed everyone* in my feed who was predominantly science-based. Somewhat surprisingly, they only made up a third of my total. The first thing I noticed was that my stream got a lot slower, because the people I’d removed were also the most talkative. I followed a few extra non-science people. I tried to move instinctively toward whatever might improve the community of my feed. I found some cool new voices. So that’s a win. Secondly: the reality of missing out on cool science news is far less traumatic than the fear of missing out on cool science news. Honestly, you can dial down the firehose of your Twitter/FB/Feedburner/G+/rss etc and everything is just fine. Thirdly: I spend less time online, which I think is a good thing.

Ultimately it was an interesting experiment, but I think you can’t build a new Twitter feed if all you have is an axe. To make it really good, I need to discover not just good people to follow, but a positive community to be involved with. I guess it’s my responsibility as much as anyone’s to make that a reality, rather than just shying away from the existing one. So aside from trying to be more positive myself, perhaps I’ll start imploring other people to rediscover their childish joy of science too. What’s that expression, “be the change you want to see?”. Something like that.


Well, this got a lot more attention than I expected a little personal piece to, which is a shame as a) I’ve been too busy to curate discussion, and b) I would have written a better piece.

Some points to address: certainly it's possible this is a more a skeptic / British thing, rather than a science thing.  If so, I guess it's evidence that the British science writing community is still dominated by skeptic writers. There's obviously a lot of overlap.

More importantly, I should have clarified: this isn’t just about unfollowing negative people; it’s about how I go about building a positive community that includes people who I respect and admire as individuals, but who as a group tend towards negative discussion. I think the solution is really to follow, not unfollow: to follow so many people that I can keep those described above, but prevent them from defining the overall community. So the next part of my experiment? Follow everyone.


* except Ed Yong and Gimpy. They’re the last two people I’d unfollow.

** One very important thing I forgot to add: I miss the contact with my colleagues / pals on Twitter, and it encourages me to meet them face-to-face to catch up, which is a nice thing.


More like this

I like the experiment, but by following Ed aren't you getting more than 50% of the science news anyway?


By Chris Lintott (not verified) on 05 Oct 2012 #permalink

I can totally relate to this. I have always maintained an equal interest in science and photography/design, and most of my feed are actually photographers/designers. Not only do they make for a visually stimulating feed, but they're still very much "Wow, look at this..." School of Tweet. The only issue is they're less chatty, hence the need to follow more of them.

Hope you find the brain food and challenges you want, from the warmth of your bed ;-)

Love this post, Frank. Really made me think. I so agree with the fatigue that sets in regarding the endless snark and negativity pervading Twitter - not just science. I believe discourse is a broad space, but should still permit optimism - and courtesy - as a default.
I am a science communication postgraduate, and so have many great science tweeters on my timeline. But I have always mixed this with other voices from arts, law, politics and the rest. I feel that - yes - our timeline is our own creation, but we can be more proactive to make it better reflect the hugely diverse society we live in. In a tiny way, I think this helps keep the 'echo chamber' of science discourse in context.

I have to say that I don't recognize the culture you describe; well, I do, but to me it's a caricature, it exaggerates some features and leaves out others. I'm not saying you're wrong, but that's not how I perceive it. When I look at my feed I'd say a large proportion of Tweets are just "this is cool" or at worst "this might be cool but I'm doubtful, is it?" Sure, there's also snark. But it's all a rich tapestry.

By Neuroskeptic (not verified) on 05 Oct 2012 #permalink

This is fascinating -- I never thought much about the overall positivity or cynicism of my Twitter feed, but now I will.

In terms of positivity, how much of it is about subject matter and how much is about tone? People are doing lots of cool projects and writing lots of great pieces, and it's nice to link to those and celebrate how great they are. But the great projects and pieces I want to link to are often addressing difficult problems of disease, poverty, and cuts to important government programs.

Looking at what I've tweeted and retweeted from the past couple of days, I see a lot of grim items: 90% of US restaurant workers lack paid sick days, there's a 20-year wait for housing assistance in DC, researchers have found plastic off the coast of Antarctica, polio vaccinators in Pakistan were kidnapped, and one in six Americans gets a foodborne illness each year. There are also some more neutral items, like links to where people can learn more about various health policy issues. I wouldn't say that I've taken a particularly sarcastic or cynical tone, but I'm also not spreading good cheer.

It sounds like your resolution has more to do with tone than with content. But I expect there's often a choice to be made when linking to something -- which aspect of it do you emphasize in the 140 characters?

I'm a relative newcomer to Twitter (6 months or so). I follow over 1000 people, but use Hootsuite to maintain a top list of about 25 which is about all I ever read in detail. The rest are there if I want to dip into their posts, but they don't provide a constant stream. I find the experience almost entirely positive, despite working and tweeting in the contentious field of climate change.

I have about 700 followers myself and always try to Tweet politely, though of course I sometimes fail.

If you have any interest in climate policy, it sounds like we should follow each other.


Thanks for these thoughts. I'm not a Twitter user and don't plan to become one, because the thought I had when I first heard about it is the same thought at the top of the queue now: "That sounds like a waste of time. Why would I care what Joe Schmoe thinks about topic A, B or C? And how does anyone expect to communicate anything meaningful in 140 characters?" I guess that sounds a little cynical in light of your post, because good ideas are passed along too, but it really is the proverbial double-edged sword. Great ideas can be spread quickly, but so can a lot of rubbish, and I'm going to, in somewhat opinionated fashion, state what I suspect a lot of people believe sort of half-heartedly but won't admit because Twitter is too trendy: that about 95% of what's tweeted is pointless, mainly in the sports and entertainment worlds. I couldn't care less what Demi Moore is wearing today or what Bill Maher thinks about anything.

The other reason I really object to Twitter is because it's yet another electronic tether, consuming our attention in mostly pointless ways. Explain to me why anyone needs to check their phone right after they wake up to see what someone thought of what he/she posted earlier? Can't that wait until you get to work? I tell my students that I'm not some crabby 50-year-old technophobe who has grudgingly learned how to email and put my quill and ink in storage, but when I see people walking around all day staring at their phones (and tripping over cracks in the sidewalk), I can't help but be a little saddened by this. I challenge them now and then to go 8 hours without checking their phones, and it's a lot harder for them than they anticipate. Thanks. Again, not trying to provoke a fight, because I know a lot of what gets tweeted in our worlds is of interest to someone, but so much of it just seems pointless, and I try to teach my kids that every day that goes by is a day you don't get back, so spend them wisely. And Twittering is not how I'm going to spend my time.

Oh, Bob. I thought just like you 6 months ago. Then the publicity officer in my university department explained why journalists didn't contact me any more for comments on climate stories.

Also, if you choose who to follow carefully you never even see the 99.99% of Twitter that is vacuous nonsense. I don't mean you can filter it out, I mean it has no way of getting into your Twitter feed.

So, for me, it's been a great way to get my voice heard again, and to hear from others who tweet about interesting and useful new knowledge, with very little overhead.


Interesting... I have to say, the people who I follow on Twitter don't seem nearly as bitter as those who you seem to have been following.

To give the obligatory background, I've been using Twitter for a few years now – as a science blogger, following mostly science bloggers and news feeds. I haven't particularly noticed the same level of negativity which you're talking about here. Most negativity has come from matters regarding politics and not science.

I have to wonder if it has anything to do with what scientific field people hail from...

By @InvaderXan (not verified) on 05 Oct 2012 #permalink

Perhaps science writers are combative because science is a competition of ideas. To me, it would be a bad thing if all science was is saying, "Wow, look at this cool lizard!" I like the combat, the debate, even the snark if it doesn't get in the way of the reasoning. I think a bigger problem is science writer tweets is that it's a big echo chamber. The echo chamber on its own isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just that it is fairly clear that people read the first paragraph, don't read the primary source material, and then Tweet sensationalism.

How's that for negative? Sorry, bro.

By Brash Equilibrium (not verified) on 05 Oct 2012 #permalink

I agree with Chris. Twitter really is what you make of it.

By Neuroskeptic (not verified) on 06 Oct 2012 #permalink

I think it's known in psych circles that people are more motivated to act (inc. whine on Twitter) when things annoy them than when they are pleased, hence the general negativity. And one could see your "pruning" as an act of passive aggression (negative).

I find that the science community (meaning teachers, researchers, science bloggers, people who are just curious and interested in it etc.) in Google+ is quite friendly and supportive. Perhaps it is the platform, which gives you good control over filters both in outgoing and incoming messages, and generally gives you more space to explain your points and facilitates conversations much better than Twitter. It's a different medium that affords different kind of activities and engagement than Twitter, but I'd recommend to give it a try!

By Tommi Himberg (not verified) on 08 Oct 2012 #permalink

Twitter has overall changed the way we used to talk about things in our daily lives

I like your point here. There are extremely negative comments on twitter and they us negative vibes throughout the day so better remove them earlier in your feeds.