Social media debates and social capital

I like science Twitter. Science social media has pretty much been my education for all things related to statistics, metascience, and philosophy of science. I’ve talked with great people and been exposed to ideas I would almost certainly never encountered otherwise. But the way it, and all mediums through which scientific ideas are informally discussed, works can be counter productive[note]What?! Someone call the coastguard![/note]. I want to look at a recent example of this and dig a little deeper into perhaps why this happened.

This post was precipitated by the publication of a preprint and the subsequent social media commentary[note]This post is not intended as a call out of anyone, more an opportunity for us to reflect on how we interact with each other.[/note]. [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:7V39JM9T}” format=”%a% (%d%, %p%)”] posit that preregistration cannot supersede strong theory when it comes to developing scientific knowledge (among other things). This sparked a wide ranging discussion of the paper, some of it valuable, some of it less so

[note]I’m not going to explore the gender element here, though it is worth noting that men have expressed similar ideas and have not been dismissed in the same way.[/note]

. Why did some people, who would likely argue they are primarily concerned with discussing ideas and promoting knowledge, engage in ways that are antithetical to this? There are many possible explanations, but I want to focus on one.

Social marketplace

[zotpressInText item=”{5421944:AH2EYS6R}” format=”%a% (%d%, %p%)”] argued that because capitalism has completely enveloped our culture, a ‘business ontology’ has been established. This is the idea that everything, from education to healthcare, is thought of as a business[note]Whether you agree with Fisher’s general thesis is not important for the crux of my argument, but I think it’s an interesting framework.[/note]. Thus, social interactions can be viewed through the lens of markets. People interacting with one another are exchanging and extracting value. This value is commonly called ‘social capital’. This term is often understood as the ability to gain benefits by participating in social structures [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:REVXW3G9}”]. This takes the form of good will people have for one another; those with higher social capital have more good will, sympathy, trust, and forgiveness from others [zotpressInText item=”{5421944:KCEGQ6Y7}”].

The application of markets to social interactions can be most clearly seen in social media. If you have greater social capital, you get more followers, likes, retweets, and comments[note]It is possible to have a lot of this capital and not engage in social media e.g. Andrew Gelman (though this more the exception than the rule). However, this example does show how capital doesn’t have to be cultivated to be accrued.[/note]. Because people trust you, your opinions carry more weight. People also seek your advice or look to you for what the right things to believe are. Your papers are more likely to read, because they are shared more widely, and the results are more likely to be believed. It can lead to collaboration and even job offers[note]It is not uncommon for people to state this as one of the benefits of social media and how they have personally benefited from this.[/note]. Building up social capital has benefits so it is understandable why some seek to build theirs.

Hoarding capital

There are many ways to gain capital, but the most relevant one is: publicly agreeing with those who have social capital. By agreeing with them, the hope is that others see you having the right opinion and therefore give you capital. Alternatively, the person you’re agreeing with can give you capital. You may do this intentionally or not. However, there is a tension between the desire to productively critique ideas and to gain social capital by jumping on a bandwagon. By trying to gain capital, we risk engaging in behaviour which runs counter to our espoused values. Not only that, this behaviour is more likely to create factions than lead to fruitful debates. By showing you’re more concerned with declaring your allegiance, you’re reducing the chances of meaningful interactions with those you disagree with.

Can’t we all just get along?

I’m sure many of you are aware of how these things are working and how this is playing out. But my hope is that if we make it explicit, it will encourage people to be less concerned with point scoring and more with growing knowledge[note]Though having knowledge of something doesn’t necessarily stop you from doing it, as anyone with unhelpful thought patterns will tell you.[/note]. Before commenting, it may be helpful to think: why am I commenting? Is it to further the discussion? Or is it to gain capital by showing I hold the right opinions? By being honest with ourselves, we increase our chances of having meaningful and enlightening conversations.

By being aware of why we are engaging with others, we can also help reduce the competitive element of social media. If we can avoid trying to put others down for personal gain, social media can be better for everyone. We can avoid using these discussions as an opportunity for point scoring and instead develop our shared understanding. This is not to say there shouldn’t be robust criticism. But competitively seeking capital warps criticism from a constructive exercise to an extractive exchange, to the cost of almost everyone. One of the authors of the inciting preprint has previously argued for reducing the competitive nature of criticism. I think doing so would benefit everyone, from those whose ideas are being criticised to those watching.


As a bonus, here are two great examples of constructive criticism from Dr. Christina Bergmann and Professor E.J. Wagenmakers.


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