For the last few days I’ve been preoccupied by the prospect that Twitter will fail and what this means for higher education. There are two forms I could imagine this taking: a hard fail in which the platform does go bankrupt as a consequence of the doom loop it now seems to be stuck within, as well as a soft fail in which a steady combination of declining users and declining engagement from those which remain means it becomes something like a ghost town. In the event either of these take place, the subtle but significant dependence of higher education upon the platform will soon be starkly revealed in a ways which might prove surprising to some. Here are a few suggestions:
- It becomes much more difficult for organisations to promote events, initiatives, funding calls etc. For those who have come to depend on Twitter for dissemination, the engagement rate with what’s shared will steadily drop while still requiring the same amount of work to write and post.
- As engagement rates drop there will be a general tendency to shout more loudly and more frequently in order to try and make up the difference. The good work which Twitter did to improve ‘conversational health’ in recent years will rapidly be eroded. The result will be an erosion of the experience for remaining users, leading to more users leaving the platform and more disengagement from existing users.
- The capacity of Twitter to direct attention to publications, either within academia (with implications for citation measures) or beyond academia (with implications for altmetrics and societal impact) will radically diminish. In the event of the platform’s death this would leave us with a strange attentional vacuum, where those with social capital on the platform would effectively fade into a general category of ‘high profile academics’ who enjoy visibility for their work on the basis of being widely known. But unlike those who have reached this status through established collegial/citational means, those more dependent on Twitter for their profile are unlikely to be able to reproduce this status which means it might fade away over time.
- The role of academics blogs which are sufficiently high profile that (a) people check them out of habit (b) they are embedded in feed readers (c) disseminate their posts through a cross-platform social media presence become much more important under these conditions. High profile blogs played a significant role in the development of academic Twitter through their embrace of it as a means to disseminate their work, before having their audience at least in part consumed by the addictiveness of Twitter. It would be a positive thing if more of this attention moved back to blogging. The need for blog editors to think about EDI issues, who gets seen & who gets heard, becomes even more pronounced under these conditions.
- Without a coordinated transition towards Mastodon the social networks formed through Twitter will begin to fragment, with people drifting towards (hopefully academic run) instance which will preserve some of the positive features of academic Twitter despite being more insular, as well as others drifting away from academic social media as a whole because they find Mastodon too confusing and/or find the service doesn’t have the same compulsive quality which drew them into Twitter.
- There will be a move across a range of platforms (e.g. including Facebook and LinkedIn) but this will increase the workload in maintaining a professional social media presence while decreasing the rewards involve. The long overdue return on investment conversation amongst universities, publishers and funders with regards to thing like videos and podcasts (is it worth spending £10,000 on something which is only viewed a few hundred times?) is likely to take place as a broader conversation about social media as a whole. Should there be a rethink of investment in the area as costs increase while rewards decrease?
- Those organisations who have been maintaining e-mails newsletters will have a massive head start in surviving the fall out from the Twitter crash. E-mail marketing as a whole will become more important within higher education and those celebrity academics who leveraged Twitter visibility into personal newsletters will be the ones most able to reproduce their visibility in a post-Twitter world.
- The interaction between scale and porousness will become important to the extent that Mastodon becomes mainstream within higher education. What made Twitter so interesting was the porousness of the networks, in so far as that the inclination towards scale (bigger is better, wider is worth more etc) built into the platform created a tendency for people to organically stumble into conversations. This was the source of many serious problems but it also created opportunities for networks to grow and expand across what might otherwise have been closed boundaries. My understanding is Mastodon is built in a way which rejects this underlying ideology of scaling, means that networks will tend to be less porous, both within and between instances.
- The role of higher profile academics on Twitter will be crucial in shaping the direction of travel as the platform withers because they have an outsized role in establishing norms for users. My suspicion is that the inclination to preserve the social capital vested in Twitter will create a tendency towards inertia, though this might be counteracted by an inclination to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing.
- Collaboration platforms like Discord and Teams will become much more important in this environment. What this means in the longer term is a complex question which I’m still thinking about. But my suspicion is that these are the most promising outlet for post-Twitter academics, if not necessarily higher education as a whole.
It seems like a central, if informal, part of the scholarly communications infrastructure is about to crash into an iceberg and we urgently need to think about what this means. There are many organisations within higher education who have sought to exploit and benefit from this space but have failed to offer any strategic curation of them and the self-defeating character of their shortsightedness is likely to be revealed in the near future.