by Sophia K. McKinleyFor years, I limited my participation in social media: my tendency is to untag all photos of myself on Facebook, and as recently as six months ago I had never visited I do have some experience writing personal travel blogs, but the main purpose of those online posts was to communicate to an audience of one (Hi, Mom) that I was safe and sound despite being thousands of miles away from home. If you had asked me a year ago why I wasn’t more engaged with the online community, I would have responded that I was too introverted and private, or that I had nothing worth sharing with other people.Today, I have a Twitter account and have written blog posts for both the Association of Women Surgeons and the Association of Academic Surgeons. I’ve even explored options for launching a personal website, though instead of describing which remote destination I’ve visited, this website will outline my research interests and link to my Twitter feed.

It sounds implausible, but I began to overcome my hesitation to develop an online presence through an old-fashioned essay writing course. The instructor, Nancy Sommers, embraces a philosophy that everyone has a story to tell and that the world is better off when those stories are shared. The essays my classmates wrote were fascinating not because they were perfectly polished, but because they were genuine and authentic. Their stories were interesting and full of meaning, and I found myself thinking this might also be true of my own life. I was forced to reconsider my assumption that I had nothing to contribute to a larger conversation.

The next experience that pushed me to become more active in social media was hearing a talk by Dr. Mary L. Brandt at the Women in Surgery Career Symposium in San Francisco. Dr. Brandt provided an outline for creating an online presence and reviewed useful applications for tweeting and blogging, but the most important thing I learned was that the online world is still dominated by written language. Previously, I thought that the kinds of individuals who shared frequently online would be extroverts who easily navigate cocktail parties and always have a snappy verbal reply at the ready. I’m most confident when communicating through writing, so viewing tweeting and blogging as forms of writing made these activities less daunting.

There continue to be moments when I cringe at the thought of other people reading my tweets and blog entries. Sometimes I wonder if I am oversharing, or if I’ve only added noise to an already crowded internet. What keeps me stepping outside my comfort zone and hitting that “tweet” button one more time is the overwhelmingly positive feedback on what I have already transmitted into cyberspace. Just a few tweets and blog posts have led to productive face-to-face networking opportunities with other medical students, surgical residents, and even leading surgeons.

I may never stop untagging photos on Facebook, but I now consider Twitter and the blogosphere as additional writing venues within my professional life. Whatever hesitations you may have about establishing an online presence, I’d urge you to be courageous and dip a toe into the social media waters. Not as warm as a Balinese beach, but that’s a post for a totally different blog.

Sophia is a dual-degree M.D./Ed.M. student at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She received the 2012 Association of Women Surgeons Patricia Numann Medical Student Award and spent a year as a Zuckerman fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. Sophia is passionate about medical education, and she hopes to be an academic surgeon who brings educationally-sound innovations to surgical training. Her clinical interests are gastrointestinal and minimally invasive surgery. Sophia is in the process of applying for general surgery residency for the 2014 Match cycle.

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