Social media vs. social change

Sometimes, we hear a lot of from people bemoaning the destructive impact of social media upon society, culture and, in particular, youth.  We hear about how social media drives us apart, decreases human connection and facilitates online bullying and extremist views.

While I wouldn’t say that there isn’t anything negative about social media at all, I really believe that it can also be a powerful force for driving social change.  Rather than increasing isolation, social media allows us to connect and network with a diverse range of people on a global scale; to exchange and share views on important local and global issues; to raise awareness and to share ideas.

A great example of this is a recent hashtag trending on social media, #‎GirlsWithToys‬.  This hashtag came about after CalTech professor and leading astronomer Shrinivas Kulkarni said in an NPR interview that many scientists are just “boys with toys”.  In response, women scientists from around the world have been sharing pictures of themselves with their scientific equipment with the hashtag #‎GirlsWithToys‬.

As reported by the BBC, within 48 hours nearly, 17,000 #‎GirlsWithToys‬ tweets were published, showing women scientists from a broad range of fields, with equipment ranging from telescopes, to mass spectrometers, to dark matter detectors.

No doubt that the original comment was not intended to offend, but rather to counter the assumption that science somehow isn’t fun.  However, as Lizzie Plaugic from The Verge pointed out: “defaulting to a certain gender (usually male) when referencing a diverse group of people is not only dated and closed-minded, it also doesn’t make sense — and many people don’t even think twice about it.”

Although I’ve ended up working in mental health, my first love and interest has always been science.  I distinctly remember the reaction I got as a teenager, when telling my (female) boss that I intended to study science at university after leaving school.  She informed me promptly, “Why on earth would you want to study science?  Science is for boys.”

I will never forget that statement and, although a lot has changed over the last 15 years, the quote from Kulkarni shows how pervasive this outdated attitude still is.

The #‎GirlsWithToys‬ photos are sending an important message.  In this case, social media enabled women from around the world to say, “Hey!  Not only is science interesting, but it’s also for anyone who chooses it.”

Although the comment I mentioned didn’t stop me from studying science, if #‎GirlsWithToys‬ had been trending when I was a teenager, it certainly would have had a huge impact on my self-confidence and let me know that I would be supported in my chosen career, by a global community of women scientists.  And in my view, that is an incredibly powerful and positive change for the better.

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