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NeoAcademia Episode 11: Steve Rathje - The psychology of academic social media
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NeoAcademia Episode 11: Steve Rathje - The psychology of academic social media

What goes viral, science communication, and academic NPCs

NeoAcademia is a biweekly exploration of the shifting walls of the ivory tower.


I have to admit, I had mixed expectations for my conversation with Steve. As you might know, I choose guests on a whim…sometimes. I have a running list, but sometimes someone strikes me, and before I know it, we’re recording. Just like with Todd Kashdan and Tani Berlo, I saw Steve’s TikTok, and within 2 minutes knew I wanted to have him on. However, when I was prepping for the episode, I started to worry that he was gonna be an academic NPC. SORRY STEVIE! His TikTok is so neutral, that you wonder if he has a personality!

This is the thing about the term “NPC”, though. If you don’t know, it is video game shorthand for Non-Player Character. You know, the guy you walk up to and ask for directions, who has a pre-selected set of answers. The NPCs are getting better and better, and you’re less able to tell which ones are AI-operated. It’s making us question everything. The science behind this is more about free will and determinism, but if you follow this logic through, you start to wonder, am I an NPC? Is my personality programmed?

Probably, but that’s for another episode.

In this season’s final episode, we get into the rationale for his TikTok branding, and I get it. Putting yourself “out there” is always a risk, and get why Steve has chosen to mitigate risk on social media. Young academics who want to get a job and eventually get tenure have to be calculated in what they say and what they study. This is true in the corporate world as well… yet another parallel between the two. We talk about this at length throughout the episode, and I appreciate Steve’s candor and openness to having a somewhat ‘risky’ conversation about ‘risky’ conversations. :)


Show Notes

01:40 Academics on TikTok, and predicting success

06:04 Academic NPC fragility and the stigma around science communication 

09:10 Publishing and the tenure track job search in psychology vs. biomedical science,  

14:35  Who gatekeeps the hidden academic curriculum?

17:48 Neoacademia brainstorming about duties for academics: mentoring and sci-comm 

21:33 Gatekeeping, hierarchies, metrics and heuristics in academic success

23:29 Academic mentorship: the keys to the gate

25:39 What NeoAcademia is about

28:03 The meta-psychology of @stevepsychology 

29:09 The data on what goes viral

31:00 Neutral branding vs having a personality online

33:40 Why people love Lex Fridman and Joe Rogan

35:52 Gay Rams and how the left can be anti-science  

38:11 Controversy in psychology around political ideology; @dankahan on Motivated reasoning

43:48 The future of creators and platforms

48:27 The idyllic undergrad experience and the mystery of academia

54:10 Thoughtful content and what if…

56:40 SciComm: The difference between Psychology, Physics, and Biology

01:00:54 Social media villains 

So you’ve been publicly shamed: Jon Ronson

01:05:23 Tech worship and  Even more bay area house party 

01:06:57 Having an impact through research on social media

Follow Stevepsychology on TikTok!


 For more resources from this episode, check out the collection Steve and I created for you. Use the password “neoacademia” for access.

Readocracy is NeoAcademia’s first sponsor, and I highly encourage you to sign up for an account. I have been using it daily for years now, and I even include some of my personal metrics in my monthly Rabbithole newsletter for my paid subscribers. It’s a fun way of reflecting on what you consume, and potentially building your expertise as a NeoAcademic.

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Thought experiment:

Win money for answering on Big Nerve!

How could science communication be improved on social media?

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