[This article first appeared on the website of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It has been shared with the permission of Mark Carrigan and Michelle Pauli. Views expressed in opinion articles do not reflect the view of the Round Table editorial board.]
As Twitter enters its death spiral, there is a plethora of social media alternatives for academics to consider moving to. Mark Carrigan advises
What the demise of Twitter means for academics
Twitter has been central in UK HE in the sense that it has been seen as the single most important gathering place on social media for academics. Individual academics have tended to see Twitter as the default place to have their social media presence. Research projects have also followed a formulaic pathway to impact where they set up a website and associated Twitter feed as standard.
As a result, Twitter has been institutionalised in UK HE, but in ways that have progressively undermined the value that the academic community can find in social media. As a platform, Twitter is very good at incentivising the pursuit of visibility and, since academics are already prone to metricising themselves, academic culture and social media culture have synergised into a quite unpleasant thing over time – a destructive, unhelpful place which many people were increasingly sucked into without a clear sense of why they were there.
One of the reasons Twitter was so engrossing for academics was that it combined two very different activities. Firstly, talking and engaging with wider publics; secondly, participation in research communities. Although they do not seem immediately compatible – how we talk to people in our academic communities is very different to how we talk to the wider public – there was a porousness to Twitter and an almost osmotic quality where it felt possible to do both at the same time. However, the risks involved in doing that have increased with time, and particularly under Elon Musk’s leadership after he sacked the team that monitored and censured hate speech. I believe Twitter can now be a dangerous place for many academics, particularly if they are from minoritised groups – a very large portion of the academic community. We should be taking that seriously in terms of choosing where to spend time and energy in the coming months.
My current concern is about how, in this moment, we can reclaim a sense of the more community-focused elements of how we use social media. As the social media platform landscape fragments, it will become a more specialised pursuit where, increasingly, you need a relatively sophisticated understanding of the incentives on different platforms, and a strategy about using scheduling software, for example, for maintaining a presence across multiple platforms. Any lingering sense of Twitter as a democratising space where academic hierarchies can be levelled, further falls apart under those conditions.
Alternative social media platforms for academics
If you’re an academic looking for a replacement social media platform, it’s not straightforward. If you already have a Twitter presence, particularly if it is for a project, organisation or network, it might make sense to keep it, even though we’re entering the death cycle of Twitter and it could be gone as a company in six to 12 months. If you’re already on there, I’d suggest spending a bit less time and energy, in recognition of the fact that the nature of the platform is changing. Cautiously continue and recognise how the landscape is changing and that, unless you are subscribing, your opportunities for visibility are going to continue to shrink.
If you’re not already on Twitter, it is a case of wait and see. We’re in a situation now where it’s not clear that any of the alternatives will become the alternative. We’re entering a more fragmented landscape where the path to visibility and promotion is going to involve maintaining a presence across a whole range of platforms. However, the only way to have that presence effectively is to become your own digital comms officer and strategically maintain it, keeping track of how the platforms are changing. That’s a huge undertaking.
Post-Twitter options – in brief
If you already have a presence and network on LinkedIn, lean into it – a sizeable portion of the academic Twitter community has migrated there.
Limitations: a clunky interface; a horrible aesthetic; different norms around interaction and sustaining an online identity.
Meta’s Threads is a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire.
Limitations: it will inevitably soon turn on the advertising juggernaut; nobody in the EU can access it; quite alien norms for academics as it is based on Instagram networks.
Mastodon’s federated design architecture is attractive but not designed to be a good fit with the kind of academic social media culture that has built up.
Limitations: it is designed to avoid scale; involves a substantial learning curve; and requires a cultural shift.
Whatsapp groups are familiar to most and can be effective for research discussions.
Limitations: can be overwhelming when busy and exclusionary to those who cannot keep up with them; can erode the divide between public and private.
So, it’s a bad time to commit to using a new platform in a serious way. Under these conditions, it makes sense to reflect on what it is you want to do and what you’re trying to achieve.
If you are using social media in the hope that, in an incredibly complex and competitive landscape of publication, social media will turbocharge your visibility and help get your publications read and cited, it’s probably not going to have that effect for most academics. The time and energy spent doing it could probably be spent more productively on other things. That’s an individual decision.
If your goal is public engagement and you want to take a very strategic, committed, focused approach, you are likely to need funding for extra communications support to leverage your presence across multiple platforms.
If you’re trying to find out about opportunities and new developments, you need to explore the other ways you can do that. So, for example, I’m working on generative AI, and the newsletter platform Substack has come into its own for that. I’m learning much more with much less effort about generative AI from Substack newsletters than I have been from Twitter.
I’m increasingly convinced there isn’t going to be one single Twitter alternative because the marketplace of Twitter alternatives is so crowded. For an individual academic, the key is to experiment with a platform to get a sense of whether it works for you, and try to understand where the people you want to talk to are gathering, whether they are having the conversations you want to join, and whether those are a reflection of existing networks or involve people you don’t yet know. It’s the connections that are important.
University support for academics’ social media activity
The social spaces that have emerged through social media are part of the research infrastructure. Universities have long recognised that conferences are important to research culture even if they are upstream of the eventual research outputs which ultimately count. Academics need to go to conferences to meet people outside their institutions and keep in touch with current developments in their field. Arguably, social media is even further upstream than conferences, contributing to a whole range of collaborations further down the line, but in a way that is hard to quantify. Social media allows networks to coalesce at the very early stage, and all sorts of interactions and collaborations, projects and publications happen downstream of that.
Universities need to recognise that this kind of digital infrastructure is part of how academic communities coalesce and recreate themselves. It is particularly important for early-career researchers who do not have those networks and, in the post-pandemic environment, have less capacity for collaboration because there are fewer opportunities to meet face to face.
Universities could put resources into minimising the workload and technical difficulties in setting up bespoke community sites – for example, universities could support research groups to develop their own Mastodon instances or offer training in setting up a Discord server. These sorts of solutions create networks that will be more closed than Twitter but that can be mitigated by ensuring they are advertised and people have an opportunity to join easily.
However, universities have traditionally missed the significance of social media by seeing it as a mechanism for public engagement, at best, rather than as part of the research infrastructure. My broader concern is that universities are still pushing the model of social media that was the norm throughout the 2010s – that every upwardly mobile ambitious academic needs to be highly visible on the dominant platform and be seen engaging on a regular basis. That was always bad advice, and, now, it is becoming counterproductive and, in some cases, dangerous, advice. Universities need to adapt to this new reality in terms of the advice they’re offering.
Twitter facilitated a social infrastructure for academic life in which a limited few with a big social media footprint were able to leverage it to advantage in their academic career, with greater visibility for their publications, a wide network and lots of opportunities. As that breaks down, our academic communities need to get much better at facilitating other modes of engagement so that we are never again so reliant on a big corporate platform.
Mark Carrigan was speaking to Michelle Pauli for the LSE Higher Education blog.
Dr Mark Carrigan is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester, UK.