What does the bumpy situation at Twitter portend for scholarly communications? For libraries, professionals, and scholars who rely on information exchange, organizations including publishers who rely on its megaphone, the rocky tenure of Twitter’s new CEO and what many see as his open embrace of disinformation may portend a dramatic shift away from what’s been a decade plus-long bulwark of the industry.
At the same time, the options for what Twitter offered aren’t clear. Neither Post, with its appealing aesthetics and interface, with no ads but a(nother) billionaire backer, and Mastodon, with a more complex and less intuitive interface and a decentralized, open structure, have the numbers to compete with Twitter despite clear signs of a Twexit. In contrast to Twitter, both promote their “algorithm free” experience of feed and browsing.
One of the sharpest critiques of any options is the lack of diversity that even remotely approaches what Twitter is – or was. “Black Twitter” is one example of a phenomenon for activism and scholarship; the use of Twitter for openly sharing information by global communities of political resistance isn’t being replicated elsewhere. Corporate and even governments’ reliance on Twitter as a broadcast mechanism is seemingly not yet replicable elsewhere. We wondered what the Chefs think about the brave new world post-Twitter, or post-the Old Twitter, or if there is even a passing of Twitter at all.
If you have been a regular user of Twitter, and have spent time cultivating your network, it can feel like a robust community. Yet, we know that Twitter is smaller than some of the other social networks. Still, communities like #MedTwitter or #AcademicTwitter or scholarly publishing in general can feel fairly robust.
Formal journal reader surveys and anecdotal conversations with researchers tell us that Twitter is an important network for finding collaborators, discovering new journal articles, commenting on the latest research, and making career development connections (aka, networking). All of this becomes infinitely harder if a community is distributed over multiple social media networks. For some Twitter users, learning a less than intuitive platform with relatively few people from your network engaged is a bridge too far. There are literally not enough hours in a day.
For journals investing in social media strategies for content promotion and engagement, Twitter has been receiving the bulk of the attention. Facebook and Instagram have not been widely adopted for “professional” engagement and scholarly content discovery. Curiously, LinkedIn is also touch and go depending on the discipline. Tik Tok is constantly on the precipice of being banned in various countries, which makes it hard to take seriously for this kind of content.
The situation at Twitter has certainly dampened enthusiasm at journals. First, there is the question of whether one should continue to push out content on a platform that is actively turning a blind eye to anti-science content and promising to not moderate hate speech. Second, the only point of being on Twitter is to engage your community and if they moved off the platform or are using it less, your efforts become less meaningful. And third, changes to policies at Twitter are confusing – can an organization purchase an $8/month subscription? Or is it $11 because we typically post from software? If we don’t have a subscription, then are our Tweets even being seen? There seems to be two buckets in the Twitter business model – advertisers and individuals. A journal account in neither.
Without Twitter (either because people left or Twitter stops making the data easily available) then how useful is the Altmetric donut?
The turmoil at Twitter has another ramification – changes to attention metrics like Altmetric.
The only social platform being reported by Altmetric is Twitter. LinkedIn used to be counted by Altmetric but is no longer. Without Twitter (either because people left or Twitter stops making the data easily available), then how useful is the Altmetric donut? Most papers don’t end up in patent applications. Most papers aren’t picked up by news sites (and that “news” category is mostly websites with press releases). I would imagine that collecting data from other platforms is not an easy lift AND not on the top of their development queues.
For the time being, Twitter seems to be stabilizing somewhat and I suspect for many, this is a relief, even if just temporary.
My social media is mostly professional; for myself and my organizations, and for the last decade Twitter proved invaluable as a way to share information about events and publications as well as critical issues. After years of pretty intensive use, though, since late November I haven’t spent much time on Twitter. I joined Post and, with two colleagues, started a Mastodon instance, historians.social (and a nonprofit entity to manage it). That’s where I have most of my social media exchanges now. Though I quit Facebook some years ago out of concern for disinformation and the algorithm there, I also just started an Instagram account for my research. So it feels very much like a new social media world for me.
I don’t know how to quantify or even assess “Twexit.” I am grieving for the information network that I was used to on Twitter, which was mostly learning a lot of fresh insights and perspectives from experts across a range of specialties. The diversity of my Twitter timeline – in all ways – was what kept me so appreciative of the experience. Someone somewhere said that the great thing about Twitter was that you could eavesdrop (of course, some people do more than that) on an exchange among experts and learn a lot from what they prioritized and shared with one another. That was especially true for me with Black feminism, especially in history and literary studies, but also with critical archival studies and early career researchers around the globe in different disciplines. There are people I miss “seeing” and reading, and there are issues I miss reading about though I’m finding them other ways. I’ve dusted off my Feedly account and am reading more through RSS and regular email subscriptions to blogs and newsletters.
How will social media be both a professional announcement service and a place of diverse exchange in this context?
Most importantly I’m starting to meet and connect with new people and to learn about new projects and events in my field and related ones through Mastodon; that’s a huge win. We’re seeing more journalists and news organizations either join or start a Mastodon instance; will we see journalists reporting events that unfold or linking to comments on a social media platform that isn’t Twitter? A bunch of professional orgs have also now started to join Mastodon, too. I’m going to keep a close eye on that. It’s clear that Mastodon needs to be a place for a more diverse public to reach its potential. Still, though it’s not what Twitter was, it’s already become quite valuable as a professional space.
What strikes me most forcefully about the Twexit conversations is how disengaged it seems from some of the bigger events and phenomena; that is, there is discussion about the politics of Twitter leadership and how that’s shaping the political structure of the platform, but I don’t see much discussion about how the pandemic is knitted into this. One example: Twitter served an essential purpose for following events in absentia; now that more organizers have hybrid options it’s less vital. More profoundly, the pandemic has shifted so much (*yes, politically too), not just ways of working and expectations about work, but also the opportunity to work (in my discipline, a declining academic job market has now fallen off a cliff) and the capacity to work (how many of us are now calculating how many days we will annually lose to illness). How will social media be both a professional announcement service and a place of diverse exchange in this context?
I’ve been watching the discourse on this topic with some interest in recent months. So far, I’m not yet convinced that the bluster around Twexit is being matched by actual mass behavior – Twitter still seems like the place where an awful lot of the scholcomm world’s public announcements, arguments, bloviation, posturing, and (even, sometimes) rational discussion is happening. Of course, just because the body is still warm doesn’t technically mean it’s still alive, so there may be more evasive action happening below the surface than is immediately apparent to me. Personally, I’ve joined Post but find myself never really going there; when I have something to say to the big wide world I still say it on Twitter. (If I want to limit what I’m saying to several thousand of my closest friends and colleagues, Facebook is still my go-to.) I made a tentative move towards Mastodon but apparently failed the IQ test that is its sign-up process – and the idea of picking and choosing from a constantly-expanding universe of servers with hyper-specific audiences (“furry.engineer”? “corteximplant.com”?) doesn’t really scream “THIS IS GOING TO SOLVE A PROBLEM FOR ME.”
I have no illusions that my experience so far is either typical or unique.
Like others, I’ve also been thinking a fair amount about the political dimension when it comes to Twitter and its competitors. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over the possibility that I’ll be considered a Muskovite simply because I’m still on Twitter – I would hope that people assess my politics based on what I say and do, rather than on who owns the platform I happen to occupy at a given moment. I do think about whether my participation in Twitter is providing material aid and comfort to someone who strikes me as a bit of a crazy sociopath and with whose politics I largely disagree, but of course if I only shared space with those I approve of and agree with I’d never leave my house, so again with regard to Twitter this isn’t an issue that really keeps me up at night.
So right now I’m still on Twitter and have no plans to leave. My position may change in the future, and as with most things like this, I have no illusions that my experience so far is either typical or unique. At this point, I continue to watch developments with interest – and to use Old Twitter as much as I ever have. Which, truth be told, was never really that much to begin with.
Having joined Mastodon in 2019, or perhaps I should saying “having had an account on one of the distributed Mastodon servers” since 2019, given one can’t really join Mastodon per se as it doesn’t exist, I found the suddenly flurry of interest brought on by leadership and policy changes at Twitter rather fascinating.
I have been an early adopter of many social networks and have been through the heights and demise of multiple platforms. I published guidance for libraries seeking to use “Web 2.0” (what a quaint term now!) for outreach and marketing and have advocated that libraries explore the potential of virtual worlds since the era of SecondLife. You can – or at one point could – find me on Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, Swarm/Foursquare, Mokum, Post, Strava, Myspace, Instagram, TikTok, AIM, LiveJournal, Orkut, Friendster, and no doubt others I’ve forgotten about. I am rather indiscriminate in setting up accounts so I can explore what’s on offer. And, of course there are the professional and scholarly social networks of Linkedin, ResearchGate, Academia.edu, ALAConnect, and the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s C3 Community. Platforms come and go in their existence and their centrality to my online life. All of which is to say that this current moment feels to me less unique and more like an echo of the evolutions — gradual and sudden – that I have seen many times before.
So, what can we take from this moment? All of the things that people hail as positives about Mastodon technically have existed for years. Yet, there was no flight from Twitter and there were relatively few of us using both. To me, this is a great example of the reality that “build it and they will come” is not necessarily the case when the switching costs from an existing service that is acceptable are higher than the perceived value of the change. What started the Twexit was the change in status of Twitter for folks – it was no longer acceptable for some and that ushered in a period of casting about for alternatives and/or pitches from platforms that saw the opportunity of the moment.
All of which is to say that this current moment feels to me less unique and more like an echo of the evolutions – gradual and sudden – that I have seen many times before.
Nonetheless, what I’m observing, at least among those folks with whom I was regularly following and/or interacting professional, is that they are now on Twitter and Mastodon, with a number of them automating cross-posting of their Tweets and Toots (this term has been officially retired — the “Toot” button has been replaced a “Publish” button – which I suspect grates on many readers of The Scholarly Kitchen!). For organizations there is the question of engaging with audiences but also brand protection. It is best to claim your organizational identity on any emerging platform even if you do not use it particularly actively or at all. There are parallel considerations for individuals.
Early on with Twexit there were assertions that staying on Twitter would be a sign that the organization or individual agreed with the views of the leadership and platform policies. No doubt this is a consideration, when are we using a tool and when are we endorsing the totality of a platform’s politics? Many of us sit with an uneasy recognition of this tension – whether it be a social media platform, news and media subscriptions, or even our employers – navigating the complexity of how our values fall into conflict with each other. Those initial claims seem to have dissipated though anyone responsible for stewarding a brand will of course be monitoring this..
For me personally, Twitter is still delivering far greater value than Mastodon. In fairness, it is also the case that my Twitter network is both larger as well as more curated. I have always made extensive use of Lists to manage my Twitter experience, which remediates many of the problems people have with the algorithmic feeds. I find the distributed nature of Mastodon a weakness and the promises of the seamlessness of server migration are greater than what was delivered in my experience. Nonetheless, my personal patterns have changed before and, I expect, will change again at some point. What I am confident of is that we are experiencing neither the death of social media nor a dearth.
I have very deliberately been a late adopter for social media. Never did MySpace, nor FaceBook nor any of the other myriad products in between or since. I have a LinkedIn profile but still am not quite sure why. For years I ran The Scholarly Kitchen Twitter account, but did so sparingly, and mostly in a “read” manner rather than a “publish” manner. Because I was representing this blog (and the organization behind it), a level of discipline was necessary in what was said, rather than making it an extension of my own personality or opinions. It wasn’t until 2021 that I started tweeting under my own name, and even so, for me it’s still more about information gathering than it is about broadcasting. And Twitter has been good for this purpose professionally, replacing my previous workflow of using an RSS feed to monitor what was new in the world of science and publishing blogging. Twitter certainly expanded my network of sources well beyond just the rare few of us who enjoy blogging.
If I have to create and learn a new workflow, it’s just as easy to do that elsewhere, rather than sinking more effort into a platform that is increasingly less useful over time.
And so I had taken a similar slow approach to leaving Twitter. I figured I’d stick around as long as possible, and let others work out where the next party was going to be held (not to mention sorting out the seemingly impenetrable details of establishing a Mastodon account should that end up as the chosen successor). But last week something big happened — at 7:30 PM on 12th January, Twitter began blocking third party apps from accessing their API. This means that my usual tools, Tweetbot and Twitterific no longer function. These are both essential parts of my workflow, largely because they present a vastly superior user experience than the native Twitter app or the web interface. These apps offer a strictly chronological timeline, with no promoted tweets or ads, and none of the nonsensical cruft that is increasingly becoming a part of Twitter. I also really like the sparse nature of their visual presentation, largely because it is in many ways less engaging and lacks many of the built-in psychologically addictive triggers that power so many social media sites. Using one of these apps allows me to quickly dip in and dip out of Twitter without feeling a strong pull to keep digging. Clearly I’m not the only one that feels this way.
For five days, it remained unclear whether this was a result of Twitter “breaking” or rather a deliberate action. Twitter no longer has a Communications department, so there’s no one to answer questions nor make a statement. Finally, on Tuesday, a tweet was sent out from the @TwitterDev account:
Twitter is enforcing its long-standing API rules. That may result in some apps not working.
This is the entirety of comment that the company has made about a major disruption, one that has inconvenience users and shut down a number of related businesses. It has been described by some as “weak sauce” and by others as “highly unprofessional and anger-inducing“. It’s also untrue — as noted by the makers of Twitterific, “We have been respectful of their API rules, as published, for the past 16 years. We have no knowledge that these rules have changed recently or what those changes might be.”
For me, this may be the last straw. I’ve moved over to Fenix, which still seems to be working on the iPhone, but once that goes down, it may very well be time for my own personal Twexit. If I have to create and learn a new workflow, it’s just as easy to do that elsewhere, rather than sinking more effort into a platform that is increasingly less useful over time. There are business lessons here as well. First, don’t build a business where your mission-critical infrastructure is in the hands of someone else, particularly someone completely unreliable (attn: Altmetric). Seen in this light the ongoing acquisitions of infrastructure providers by major publishers makes a lot of sense. Second, this fiasco once again reinforces the notion that the internet’s business models remain broken. The advertising-based model for most (all?) social media networks places users secondary to the real customers, the advertisers. In the end, what’s best for the paying customer is all that matters, and for Twitter, unless you’re an ad buyer, that’s not you.