I have been following the saga of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter over the last year with mounting alarm. Last April I offered practical tips for academics who wanted to disengage from the platform without entirely leaving it. I suggested this could be an occasion to rethink our engagement with a platform which has become an unwieldy hybrid of knowledge exchange and community building. The problem it seemed lay in the social capital which academics had accumulated which was now effectively in the possession of an unpredictable billionaire with uncertain outcomes. It has been six months since the purchase went through and it is clear there is a fundamental change underway within social media, reflecting a broader trend within the digital economy, which the sector urgently needs to adapt to. I strongly suspect there will be mounting personal and institutional costs to inaction while the positive benefits which have led academics to use this platform will rapidly evaporate. My suggestion is the sector needs to recognise the role which social media plays in supporting knowledge production (e.g. academic networking, inter-institutional collaboration, circulation of opportunities) in order to more actively steer the development of digital academic culture towards desirable outcomes which serve collective objectives. At present it has been institutionalised within universities in a chaotic and individualised way, compelling engagement through a mixture of carrot (being evaluated as having capacity for research impact) and stick (foregoing a potential advantage in a brutal job market) with little systematic sense of the purpose it serves beyond the repetitive calls to ‘get your work out there’ which little official guidance from universities and funders.
If you have a Twitter account for your department, research group, network or union branch then it can make sense to maintain this institutional presence in order to keep a channel of communication open with your audience. In which case paying the monthly subscription would be prudent in order to ensure the reach of your external communications. It might seem like a wasteful expense but without it you will be spending more time and energy in order to reach a shrinking audience. If you have an institutional commitment to communicating through Twitter then not paying the fee would almost certainly be a false economy. However it’s important to realise that your audience is likely to deteriorate over time even with this decision, both in terms of numbers of users but also how engaged remaining users are with the platform. Paying the subscription mitigates the impact of this trend by effectively letting you jump to the front of the queue but it will not reverse the underlying direction of travel. Furthermore, its utility declines as more users are willing to pay the subscription fees; in the same way that speedy boarding on budget airlines stopped being useful when the majority of passengers began paying to avoid the gruelling experience which otherwise awaited them.
While the decline of Twitter’s audience and engagement inevitably remains contested given how central it is to evaluating whether Musk has saved or doomed the platform he now admits he was forced to buy, my suspicion is the cloud of uncertainty which now hovers over the platform is likely to accelerate its demise. Once there are doubts expressed over the future of a platform, with regular departures and prominent conversations about alternatives, the rationale for continued engagement evaporates. The continued prestige of the follower count might slow progress in this direction however. The value of this follower count reflects the vitality of the wider network. During the 2010s when Twitter was becoming mainstream within the sector, early adopters rapidly accumulated followers as more academics joined the platform. The rate at which this social capital could be converted into academic capital was always uncertain. My own experience as someone with one of the most followed accounts within my discipline was that it led to a rate of speaking and media invitations totally out of sync with my intellectual and career status. But it did little to help me get a permanent job (beyond underwriting the diffuse sense I was obviously an engaged academic) and the sprawling web of weak ties it generated was immensely distracting. My concern has been that academics already primed to metricise their work have tended to overvalue quantitative markers of online popularity at the cost of the relational possibilities which platforms open up. To the extent the follower count meant anything it was a fallible record of the visibility the wider network afforded to you; the capacity to talk and be heard from a position of relative centrality within the platformised academy.
It was recently confirmed the Twitter algorithm on averages populates the ‘For You’ column with a 50/50 mix of tweets from within your network and those coming from outside your network. It identifies the latter through the tweets which people you follow engage with, as well as the recent likes of those who like similar tweets to yourself. As Zvi Mowshowitz puts it, this “essentially authorizes those you follow to upvote content for you by interacting with that content”. If you are a celebrity academic on Twitter possessed of the urgent need to maintain your status, the only possible solution lies in intensifying your engagement with your network. It’s going to be more work to maintain your centrality with less practical pay off in terms of the visibility you accrue. While those more casual users will find parts of their network slipping out of their feed due to the aforementioned dynamics. I’ve got a million other things to do at the moment but I would like to sit down and map out the different mechanisms at work here because I’m increasingly convinced there are a series of vectors through which the experienced utility of the service will rapidly decline that intersect with the governance failures to constitute the early stages of an existential doom loop that will eventually end in platform death or a state approximate to it.
(though draw your own conclusions from the fact I’ve cleared but not deactivated my one remaining Twitter account)