Academic discourse after Twitter

TL: DR: Twitter is moving away from the role that made it useful for scientists and academics, but this opens the way for something better and everything will be fine.

Whether you feel that Twitter (now X) is experiencing a pretty brutal business transformation that will see it emerge, phoenix-like, as the everything-app we’ve all been longing for, or if you think we’re watching its death throes, it’s pretty obvious that things are changing.

For social media managers and those that manage them it’s all a bit scary out there at the moment, but what will things look like when the storm has abated, and we settle into a new normal for social media?

How we got here

First, it’s important to look back on how and why academic publishers found Twitter to be useful and how we all ended up there in the first place.

From 2007 – 2011 I was involved in establishing the first social media presence for quite a few organisations, some in the academic space, some in other industries. At the time, the social media networks and the relationships within them were too untested for us to form a solid business case for participation. But marketers collectively sensed that this was an important way of communicating and we jumped on to the new networks because it seemed like another channel to promote our messages (customers and stakeholders quickly disabused that things would be that simple!).

I sense that a lot of organisations, especially complex ones, have never carried out a sophisticated analysis of what they hope to gain from social media, and whether it delivers. Instead, a marketing executive putting out promotional posts in the late 2000’s morphed into a manager reporting basic traffic numbers in the 2010’s, morphed into a social media manager delivering against KPI’s and trying to wrangle near-constant negativity in the 2020’s.

With major social media networks experiencing phenomenal growth in users in the 2010’s, it was hard to argue against it being an important channel. But as the first networks mature and younger audiences, (soon-to-be early career researchers) move to new platforms, we are finding an increasing number of clients coming to us asking for an assessment of their social media. These publishers and societies aren’t asking us for guidance on how to increase their social media footprint, or gain more followers and engagement, or be more efficient. They are asking; what are we doing this social media thing for, anyway?

The short answer is, of course, because audiences and readers are important to you.

The promise of Twitter

This soul-searching has been precipitated by the changes at Twitter that kicked off a year ago when the network was purchased (reluctantly) by Elon Musk and has since been rebranded as X. His vision for the network; an everything-app that encompasses payment technology and is so fascinating and addictive that users never leave (to, for instance, read an article on a publisher platform) is at odds with what a lot of academics and publishers found useful about Twitter.

For academics, what attracted them to Twitter was the concept of a virtual, interdisciplinary town square filled with interesting people who shared their level of expertise, a wider group of colleagues from related disciplines, and an even wider group with whom serendipitous connections might be formed and interesting conversations develop.

For academic publishers, the attraction was to fill this town square with signposts to peer-reviewed content, with the intention that academics could return to Twitter to debate its contents (hence, Altmetric).

New priorities for X

The current owner has clearly stated what he wants to do with Twitter, which is to make it a payments and shopping ‘everything internet’ platform similar to WeChat. There are real issues with that goal; WeChat established itself at a point when the functionality was new and there was a first-mover position to be gained. Moreover, people in the West are used to having choices and options, we’re suspicious of monopolies to the extent that we regulate them. Do users actually want one app that does everything?

Crucially, this journey towards an everything app will mean sacrificing what made Twitter useful for publishers; the idea of a cultural clearing house where people could find useful content. Musk has stated that if organisations want their content read on the platform they should post it as a series of posts and not link to their own content. That’s obviously not a model that publishers can derive much from. And neither can researchers since it’ll be impossible to keep track of what they’ve read.

The current version of Twitter has blocked and delayed links to third-party sites, and seen a steep decline in daily users.  For publishers, this means that the platform is less and less useful for driving traffic. For academics, the more people migrate away (or more seriously, never arrive) the less compelling the discourse becomes until more interesting fruitful conversations are to be found elsewhere.

Probably, this decline will be slow and the business case for abandoning Twitter entirely won’t ever materialise for many organisations, especially while they know their competitors still have a presence on the platform.

The death of the platform will accelerate (unless it suddenly combusts or ceases to be financially viable) for one very important reason. If you were a young person just out of college, why would you join? Social media for people in their early twenties doesn’t look remotely like the ‘big 4’. They use Snapchat and WhatsApp – a bit of Instagram, and some Tik-Tok. They’ll all join LinkedIn at some point when they are job hunting but why would any of them go for Twitter or Facebook?

Also, social media has no novelty value for this new generation of postgrads, eager to publish their first paper. A lot of them aren’t crazy about it. There is also now a trend towards ‘de-influencing’ and mocking people who broadcast their whole lives. Social media has matured to the point where we have experienced its downsides. And got bored.

The next generation of platforms

The good news for academics and publishers is that humans are social beings. We may be experiencing the slow decline of social media platforms that have facilitated conversations for the past decade or so, but the human desire to investigate, and create, and share; the very reason so many societies and publishers were founded in the first place, will continue.

A number of new platforms have yet to gain the numbers that Facebook and Twitter achieved, and perhaps they never will. What comes next may be a far more fragmented landscape of different online communities having slightly different conversations. This makes life more challenging for social media managers, who may end up managing a collection of smaller communities across lots of different platforms – some of them exclusive and hard to find. But smaller conversations might be much more meaningful for those taking part.

The single biggest activity marketers should be doing now is monitoring their audience to figure out where they end up. Ask them, if necessary. Are they heading for Bluesky, or Threads, or Mastodon or a Discord server? Or are the comments on a particular YouTube channel where the conversation is at its most vociferous?  Has someone started a LinkedIn group with an unlikely name? Whatever your audience, it’s probably a combination of these, because the days of huge networks are done for a few years, giving way to smaller, more exclusive online communities.

That said, the research community has already demonstrated that it is capable of establishing cross-disciplinary technical solutions that make academia work better. Think ORCID. Think Crossref. Is somebody out there quietly planning a massive social network aimed at us all? If they are, the tech will be a walk in the park compared to the editorial policies. Which is why I suspect that they’re not.

Whether Twitter/X literally implodes or not, the loss of confidence of users, and its irrelevance for younger researchers, is death by a thousand cuts. And now really is the time to prepare for the fragmentation that’s already beginning to happen.

Maverick’s social media services can help you identify your key challenges and develop strategies that are best placed to meet both your organizational and customer needs. Reach out to your Maverick representative or email to learn more.

By Megan Toogood, Senior Associate

With over 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, Megan specializes in strategic marketing and communications, content development, and training.

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