What would a ‘social crash’ within higher education mean for the discovery function within the knowledge system

I’ve written recently about the possibility that we may be in the early stages of seeing a ‘social crash’ within higher education, in which the social capital lodged within Twitter dissipates because the service dies (or dwindles into Myspace-esque triviality) without those networks being reproduced in another forum. This might be because they get reproduced across a range of platforms, lacking the default quality which has defined academic Twitter in recent years. It’s also possible we might simply see less connected use of digital media by academics in general, as well as perhaps less use overall in a straight forwardly quantitative sense. This is how I described the problem in the blog post linked above:

This creates a strange predicament for academics who have spent months and years building a presence on the platform. There is an element of the Ponzi scheme about social media use by academics, in so far as that the continued value of the visibility a user accumulates depends on the continued use others make of it and the steady introduction of new users into the network. What’s the value of having thousands of followers if they rarely log in to Twitter? The technology critic Rob Horning memorably described this as a ‘hostage crisis’ brought about by Elon Musk “unilaterally purchasing the vault in which all this social capital is stored (and the primary means by which it circulates and valorizes itself)”. There are many reasons academics have been drawn to using Twitter, including the fact that it can be fun, but it’s important we acknowledge that it’s also a field in which visibility and status have been accumulated. The mechanisms through which this network status can be exchanged into academic advantage are not straightforward, but any academic who has achieved a degree of popularity online can attest to the direct and indirect advantages which this has brought to their career. A status reflected in the many recent posts imploring their followers to move with them onto new platforms.

What if that capital is now worthless? It’s a strange position that has the potential to leave academics clinging on to their Twitter accounts long after the beneficial impact of the platform has evaporated in a mushroom cloud of moving fast and breaking things. The collapse of Twitter would be a significant event within higher education, analogous to (though not on the same scale as) citational rankings being reset overnight. It will have cultural reverberations within the sector, which I suspect will play out for some time in subtle and unpredictable ways. The risk is that it might lead to a dash towards popularity on some other platform, attempting to reproduce the status quo ex, ante rather than taking this ‘social crash’ as an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and how we might avoid the same thing happening in future.

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2022/11/19/requiem-for-a-tweet-is-there-a-future-for-the-academic-social-capital-held-on-the-platform/

This matters because the networks embedded within Twitter provide mechanisms through which ranking and discovery take place. There is a hierarchical sorting inherent to the design of the platform in which quantified popularity is understood to be an (unreliable) cypher for value. The dynamics through which this can (sometimes) be exchanged for more traditional forms of capital within the academic field remain empirically murky but exchange demonstrably does take place e.g. receiving conference invites, approaches from publishers or increased readership because of a social media presence. It’s this final point which I’ve been preoccupied with today because I think there’s an increasing recognition by publishers that there has been a shift in the dynamics of visibility within higher education, in which network discovery increasingly replaces journal-based discovery of research outputs.

However if I’m right that a ‘social crash’ is a real possibility, what would it mean for the direction of the knowledge system more broadly? To what extent is the gradual shift from a journal model to a platform model (from filter then publish to publish then filter) predicated upon the assumption that there is an expanded and effective discovery function dependent upon the increasingly complex networks between academics which social media has facilitated? Have the implications of mainstream social media use become a taken for granted part of the knowledge system without their full significance being adequately recognised? If we imagine that a hard ‘social crash’ takes place then would this mean there was more need for journals as a mechanism for filter and discovery then there was at the high point of academic Twitter?

These are thoughts in progress which I’ll develop into something more long form in the new year. But I’m increasing preoccupied by the possibility of a ‘social crash’ (which I should eventually stop placing in scare quotes if I’m serious about it as a concept). Both as an empirical possibility within significant ramifications for knowledge production within higher education but also as an analytical device through which we can scrutinise the socio-technical structures which constitute the dynamic character of that knowledge system. In that sense it’s very much like ‘morphogenic society’, ‘the accelerated academy’ and the ‘platform university’ as the kind of sensitising concept I’m drawn to which guides inquiry by postulating an outcome which is an intensification of existing trends rather than something which is a prediction per se. Though having said that there’s part of me which does think that each of these states affairs could be argued to have come to pass, even if I was less committal at the time of my initially writing about them.

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