As the real possibility of platform death looms for Twitter, Mark Carrigan reflects on the role of the platform as stage for the accumulation of academic social capital and urges academics, learned societies, funders and those involved in the field of scholarly communications to think carefully about their role in the future of online academic sociability.
In the early days of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, I imagined the worst-case scenario to be that a platform already rife with troubling behaviour would become something even darker and more problematic. What I didn’t expect was a potentially existential doom loop in which advertisers already spooked by the mismanagement of the transition would depart in even greater numbers in the face of mounting chaos caused by vast cuts being to content moderation, security and development. Musk himself alluded to the possibility that the platform might go bankrupt. While this might not come to pass, it’s increasingly easy to imagine a rapid descent into MySpace-esque irrelevance tantamount to platform death, even if the service lingers on in some eviscerated form. Remember that MySpace’s dominance seemed so certain in 2007 that the Guardian’s Victor Keegan could ask “Will MySpace ever lose its monopoly?” shortly before it entered its own death cycle in a far less competitive social media landscape.
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.
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.
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.
As Andy Tattersal pointed out in a recent post, these issues are even more complicated for institutions “who have often developed extensive and complex audiences” with even more social capital lodged in the vault now presided over by a mercurial billionaire whose management of the platform is taking on an increasingly self-destructive air. The social capital which institutions have accumulated through Twitter represents, as Andy points out, a central pillar of their internal and external communications.
In this sense there has been an entrenchment of the sector’s dependence upon private corporations to provide the infrastructure that enables knowledge to circulate through academic networks: the for-profit publishers who dominate the journal system have been joined by a for-profit media company, which feeds off the quasi-public domain of scholarly sociability that is itself a necessary but insufficient condition for journals to have anything to publish in the first place.
Twitter and other social media have extended the scope of face-to-face seminars, conferences and workshops to produce a mediated domain of interaction which was exciting, open and innovative. This is more important than ever given how unlikely it is we will see a return to physical meetings on the scale which was the norm prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the over-reliance on a single platform imbued this vital social infrastructure with a remarkable fragility which we are now grappling with, as well as creating a digital scholarly culture defined by the clout-chasing which afflicts those users who began to take Twitter overly-seriously. Rather than take responsibilities for an infrastructure upon which their operations depended, universities encouraged the narrow and unreflective use of these platforms in a way which entrenched the existing competitive individualism within the academy.
If the transition towards a post-Twitter higher education is driven by the same dynamics, then I expect we will be left with an even bigger mess than we confront at present. There are specific functions the sector has come to depend on social media for providing: networking, knowledge exchange, research community. The over reliance on Twitter meant that the intellectual ecosystem myself and others imagined in the early 2010s, built for example around a mix of personal blogs and university hosted group blogs, never came to pass. Instead, we were left with a single point of failure represented by Musk’s Twitter. This is a time for universities, funders, learned societies and publishers to show leadership by supporting, funding and coordinating the transition towards a multifaceted, reliable and fit for purpose social infrastructure for scholarship. If they fail to do this, we are likely to see a disorderly transition as different groups drift across multiple platforms in chaotic and time consuming ways which rapidly chip away at the communicative and collaborative potential which still inheres in digital media.
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