How are scientists like the Kardashians? According to genomics researcher Neil Hall, it’s because they can become famous for reasons that remain a mystery.
Writing in journal Genome Biology, Hall actually came up with a diagnostic tool for researchers like these–the kind that get invited to provide speeches at scientific conferences despite few academic chops. Sometimes their Twitter followings are impressive, but their academic citations, not so much.
Hall calls the tool the Kardashian Index, named after a clan that has somehow managed to firmly lodge itself in the collective conscious, thanks–largely–to a single celebrity sex tape from 2007.
Now consider Kim Kardashian; she comes from a privileged background and, despite having not achieved anything consequential in science, politics, or the arts …, she is one of the most followed people on Twitter and among the most searched-for person on Google. Her notoriety is said to have stemmed from an inadvertent Internet release of a video featuring her and a boyfriend in a private moment.
In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or Twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety. I was recently involved in a discussion where it was suggested that someone should be invited to speak at a meeting ‘because they will tweet about it and more people will come.’ If that is not the research community equivalent of buying a Kardashian endorsement I don’t know what is.
By Hall’s metric, scientists should start self-reflecting on whether they meet a K-Index score greater than five. These are the people with the most disproportionate Twitter followings compared to their actual contributions to the scientific literature. (By the way, Hall adds, his own K-Index score is pretty pathetic, but if you want to inflate it, you can follow him at @neilhall_uk.)
The K-Index is clearly intended as a bit of light-hearted criticism, but it also indicates an important question: Can social media influence distort our view of reality?
A recent visualization from data scientist Gilad Lotan on the way social media users receive information about the Gaza conflict suggests it can. As Lotan’s Twitter traffic network map shows, people on either side of an ideological debate create bubbles of one-sided information for themselves, which are then reinforced by social media recommendation engines. In this way, news arrives in a pre-distorted package, delivered to people with existing biases who only see information that affirms those positions. This kind of polarization actively changes the information environment we’re exposed to–and subsequently creates a feedback loop that continues to shape our opinions.
Maybe it’s time for Hall to follow up on that phenomenon. Perhaps a Kardashian coefficient?