After an incident where a complaint has been submitted against my private social media profile by students (with whom I had no interaction, nor were my posts directed towards) I felt attacked in a way I didn't feel before. Since my research is the most valuable thing to me in my life, I decided that my reaction will be to shut down all of my social media interactions and kept quiet for the past half a year. I am considering the cons of reopening my social media accounts and would love some input.

When closing my accounts, what scared me the most was the idea that a part of my life that has nothing to do with research, would interrupt my academic reputation, which is hard enough to build on its own as you all know. Weighing out the different possible outcomes, I felt like I prefer focusing on my research than being the Rosa Parks of crazy posting online.

Things became most awkward when at some point, I felt like I was forced to explain myself to faculty who come from a different generation, with different perception of the nuances of social behavior now days, which is already a stereotypical issue in the field I come from to begin with. This made me very frustrated. I found it very uncomfortable when I tried to explain the situation to some professor whom these students approached in order to file an official complaint against me, and this Professor didn't even want to hear me out. Although our relationship has normalized since, I figured out that the more provocative social media interaction I take part in, the more I would find myself in the position of needing to explain myself to people without some necessary background or motivation to understand where I am coming from. This has led me to stop all of my social media interactions immediately after "the incident".

My advisor, which I absolutely adore, both as a researcher and as a human being, has advised me strongly against engaging in social media in any form since. He told me that time and time again he has seen people suffering from negative effects on their careers, and that it is not worth it. However, I do not feel like he necessarily knows all of the aspects in which I gain value out of participating in social media interaction, and besides, I should have the right to live my own private life outside the academia. My advisor says that as a T.A. in a university I am "half a public figure" and this forces me to some unspoken social code of behavior. However, I am not sure I am very fond of that unspoken social code. I understand why it is absolutely important to be sensitive and politically correct within the confines of the classroom, and when interacting with peers, students and superiors, but where is it said that choosing a research career implies that I must be PG13 within the confines of my own social life? Would you feel like you would personally want to opt out of having research interactions with someone that has a provocative YouTube channel or Twitter accounts? Do you feel that it is necessary for me to suppress my desire to express myself creatively online in favor of an academic career?

It should be mentioned that the faculty has revoked the complaint against me and has told me that their official response is that it is not anybody else's business what I do online. However, I do feel like there is room for extra care in such a gray area topic. I am curious to hear your thoughts on this quite personal contemplation.

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    There is no question here. This isn't a social commentary site, actually.
    – Buffy
    May 27, 2020 at 23:38
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    Academics are bound to social codes of conduct in the same way and for the same reasons doctors, lawyers and other professions are, in particular teachers. You refer to your research but not to your role as educator, which is telling. There is a great deal of social responsibility both inside and outside the class.
    – user117109
    May 27, 2020 at 23:54
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    What is your question? May 28, 2020 at 1:23
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    I'm a bit (well, more than a bit) concerned about your phrase "Rosa Parks of crazy posting". Whatever do you mean by that. Rosa Parks was a heroine who put her life on the line for a principle. Do you intend an insult? Curious!
    – Buffy
    May 28, 2020 at 12:39
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    A number of people have very publicly ruined their career by posting something controversial on social media. Whether you think this is unreasonable or unfair or whatever doesn't really matter. The simple fact is that it happens and you already know the type of things you post can get you in trouble. Ultimately it's your choice how you continue, because you need to live with the consequences. But plenty of people have social lives despite not using social media, plenty of people don't post things controversial enough to cause problems and you're free to use an alias (on some sites).
    – NotThatGuy
    May 28, 2020 at 12:42

2 Answers 2


Often, people confuse the protections of the freedom of expression in various forms as protection from judgment by others rather than protections from government (and sometimes employer) sanction. In a free society, you have the right to express the things you want to express on social media (with a few key exceptions), but you do not have the right for that expression to not influence the opinions others have of you.

It seems like you've run into conflicts based on not knowing the boundaries of this principle. Therefore, stepping back from social media seems like good advice from an academic perspective.

You'll have to weigh for yourself whether this advice is too stifling on your personal expression. Some types of expression may be too valuable. However, if you make that choice you have to understand that it comes with consequences.

Social media is not a venue through which you get to have a pulpit without taking a risk. You can reduce the risk through anonymous accounts or by sharing among friends rather than the general public, but things you post on Twitter are no different in principle from things you stand and shout on the street outside your university buildings.

I personally am not opposed to working with people who speak their mind publicly, but there are certain things, such as those that are racist or sexist, those that are homophobic or transphobic, those defending or supporting certain types of crimes, etc, that for the sake of my own expression I will not tolerate. Just as some will choose to use their freedoms to express those opinions, I will use mine to avoid working with them as long as I'm within the law.

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    I appreciate your comment, and feel like you've touched on several key notes. I do want to maintain noise free academic interactions, and do view the online world as one that is parallel to the "real one". These are indeed tensions you pinpointed between the way I view the world and the way others do. To me, I think the answer should be somewhere in the middle, because I do think that some channels of self expression are too valuable to give up on.
    – kindasorta
    May 28, 2020 at 0:43
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    My favourite mottos on the topic are: "As you holler into the internet, the internet will holler back at you." and "They used to say, on the internet nobody knows you are a dog. It's not true. On the contrary: on the internet, everybody knows you are a dog. What's worse, on the internet everybody also has the pockets full of rocks. And some have cudgels." May 28, 2020 at 1:21
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    "such as those that are racist or sexist, those that are homophobic or transphobic" - even that is not so easy to decide. Some would say nothing except inciting violence against homosexuals is homophobic, others might say that simply not wanting to celebrate pride week is homophobic. Similarly, disagreeing with affirmative action and racial quotas are regarded as racist by some, while agreeing with it is regarded as racist by others. Social media, and the tendency of extreme opinions being louder, makes this even more chaotic.
    – vsz
    May 28, 2020 at 19:01

While I stay away from social networks myself, I have a bunch of friends in academia who are very vocal on certain issues which attract the attention of all sorts of people, many of whom are idiots or really nasty human beings who try to interfere with my friends' lives and academic careers.

So far, they are doing quite fine despite all the noise. If you decide to stay on social media, here is some advice based on their success:

Learn about privacy settings and use them

Many social networks have detailed privacy settings which allow the user to keep good control over who sees what. The default behavior is usually to share with everyone because it brings ad revenue to the social network's owners. You can keep nosy strangers out of your social circle by restricting their access.

Use a pseudonym on your social networks

While unusual these days, it's still a good idea to use a nickname while on social media. Your friends and family will get used to seeing a nickname and if you do not post too many photos of yourself, you will stay under the radar of strangers.

Learn to argue your point

If you say controversial things on social media, be ready for a confrontation. If your arguments are watertight, you do not need to fear being questioned about what you said. In academic context, it's good to have them supported by research.

When later questioned about your statements, do not go into defensive mode immediately. For example, if somebody tells you "People have been complaining about your statement X on social media.", do not start with "But it's true!", but rather "What did I say that they have problems with?" to make sure that you are on the same page. If it's something crazy (as it often is when some social justice warrior accuses you of wrongdoing), you can respond with "That's not what I said at all, I said that [include your reasonable statement here]".

Be a decent human being in general

Resist the urge to be nasty to people on social media. If your posts are calm and reasonable, people will generally not have reasons to complain and if they do, they will look like idiots. It is possible to say even controversial things in a way that makes it hard for anyone to accuse you of anything.

In the end though, it is up to you alone to decide whether the additional stress, effort and potentially occasional drama is worth your presence on social networks.

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