Making Peace with Self-Promotion

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Liz Neeley (current Executive Director of The Story Collider) breaks down the most common arguments scientists use against self-promotion. Storytellers and those with trepidations about putting themselves “out there” will benefit from this well-researched piece.

I prepare for writing projects as if they are adventures, so when I sat down to write a book chapter this spring, I was excited. The topic was self-promotion in social media, for the forthcoming The Complete Guide to Science Blogging, made possible by an NASW Ideas Grant. My coffee was hot, my playlist was inspired, and my background research had me buzzing… but before I started writing, I first saved the tweet I would post when I submitted:

self promotion tweet_liz

Those of you who knew Steve Schneider may find the cadence to be a familiar one. He wrote, “In my view, staying out of the fray is not taking the “high ground”; it is just passing the buck.” These are deliberately provocative soundbites designed to question countervailing norms: they are fighting words. I like this approach, but – as we teach in our workshops – advocacy for yourself or your science – online or off – is a deeply personal decision with lasting consequences.

In the chapter, I write that there seems to be “a deep-seated belief that while the work of content creation is noble, the work of drawing attention to that content is distasteful if not in fact degrading. It’s an emotional reaction, exacerbated by the suspicion that the usual advice for increasing traffic—repetition, jumping into comment threads to mention your post, direct requests to retweet—can indeed annoy the very people you hope to impress, particularly if you are female. In the past five years, I’ve taught social media to hundreds of researchers in dozens of workshops, and have never had a discussion about self-promotion that didn’t feel at least a little uncomfortable.” Consider it to be a professional skill – you need to learn how to do it well, despite feeling awkward at the outset. The three most common arguments I hear are:

1) But I don’t want to annoy people 

  • Soundbite version: Thank you for being a decent human being!
  • But seriously: Thank you. Fortunately, bad behavior is not inextricable from self-promotion. I enjoyed reading this paper: titled “Self Praise in Microblogging,” it distinguishes between bragging (associated with inflated ego and deceit) and positive disclosure (associated with healthy self-confidence). Hint: it’s not using the word “I” instead of “we” that’s the problem. Bragging is aggressive, competitive, and often exaggerated. Positive disclosure shares true information, is modest in scope, and is often moderated by praise of others. The former annoys people, and there are studies of exactly how and why. It’s a false dichotomy to set up silence as the only alternative to obnoxiousness.

2) But I want my work to speak for itself

  • Soundbite: Sorry. You know better.
  • But seriously: If you are not familiar with the concept of the attention economy, I recommend reading up on it. In short, it argues that conditions of information superabundance have shifted the historical dynamic and made undivided attention a precious commodity. Furthermore, we do not make these decisions independently, but are strongly influenced by our networks. I am reminded of what Noshir Contractor presented at the 2013 Sackler Colloquium: it’s definitely not just what you know, nor even who you know (social networks), but also who they think you know (cognitive social networks) and what who you know knows (knowledge networks). Wishful thinking about meritocracy ignores the abundant science about how information and attention flow in human societies.

3) But I don’t want to overpromise

  • Soundbite: Ok… so don’t do that then?
  • But seriously: I struggled with the name of this one, because unlike the other two, this concern is more amorphous. It goes something like, “Well, I wrote a post/made something/have a project but it’s not the best thing ever and I don’t want to jack up expectations.” Fair enough. Not every idea is ripe yet, and sometimes we share for feedback as much as anything else. I have two diverging thoughts here, and I don’t know which one is best suited to your needs:
  • Be critical…: Exercise your best judgment and calibrate your efforts accordingly. Don’t cheapen your superlatives with overuse. In graphic form, Jay Rosen nails the #1 rule of being influential on social media: “[if] you say it’s good, it’s actually good”
  • …but be fair: There is a wonderful discussion of the impostor syndromehappening online. This entire enterprise is contingent on your own conviction that you have something important to say: don’t let doubt and disbelief sabotage you.

As I say in ending the chapter, “Done well, self-promotion is acting in service of your ideas, not just clamoring for affirmation. Finding your voice, focusing on great content, and positioning it effectively can create positive spirals to benefit your work and your career. You have great ideas. Get over yourself, get out there, and help us discover them.” You’re not asking for favors, you’re doing us a favor when you share relevant people and material, and that absolutely includes you and your work.

We always want to know what you are working on and excited about so please, shake the awkward feeling and use the comment section to tell us about yourself or a project you’d like to share!

Papers I reference (for easy access):

Moss-Racusin, C. a., & Rudman, L. a. (2010). Disruptions in women’s self-promotion: the backlash avoidance model. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(2), 186–202. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2010.01561.x

Dayter, D. (2014). Self-praise in microblogging. Journal of Pragmatics, 61, 91–102. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.11.021

Hoorens, V., Pandelaere, M., Oldersma, F., & Sedikides, C. (2012). The hubris hypothesis: you can self-enhance, but you’d better not show it. Journal of Personality, 80(5), 1237–74. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00759.x

Other good sources on self-promotion in the sciences:

*This article was originally published on May 30, 2014. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

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