Over the past year the landscape of academic social media has become increasingly complex, leaving researchers with the question of where best to spend their energies. Taking stock of the current platforms Andy Tattersall weighs up their pros and cons and how they might best be used by academic for social microblogging.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was a watershed moment that for many researchers, teachers and students was the straw that broke the blue bird’s back. But giving up on a useful medium to communicate with peers and the world is tricky. No doubt some have juggled another platform, or perhaps found themselves drawn back to planet X. Adopting yet another social media platform requires an investment of time and some assurance that it will be worthwhile, especially if you are juggling multiple platforms and accounts.
One strategy is to try and replicate your social network on other platforms. There are tools that can help, but they often have limited functionality, especially if you are using free versions. Fedifinder is a useful tool that searches your X contacts to find their presences on Mastodon. Sky Follower Bridge can help X users discover which out of their network have a presence on Bluesky. Much of this linking depends on what names users have given themselves on each platform. Having a consistent approach is advisable; my accounts are usually named Andy_Tattersall or AndyTattersall, but sadly not all platforms permit the same characters, which makes such tools less effective.
Another strategy is to duplicate content across platforms. Tools like Buffer provide a limited free offering providing some relief to overburdened social media managers. This can be an ever-changing environment, as new free tools appear and are shut down as social media companies limit their access.
However, for many with smaller followings, or just starting to engage with academic social media, there is real uncertainty about where the best place to focus your efforts is. So let’s take a look at what each platform has to offer.
X – Large user base – Good functionality – Unstable ownership
Despite individuals leaving or downscaling activity, X (formerly Twitter) remains the largest platform for academic organisations, funders and policy makers. This is because they are much slower to react to change compared to individuals and small groups. But also because it remains the main social media platform for engaging in the public sphere, due to the mix of media, policy makers, influencers and politicians there. For those wishing to engage audiences outside of academia, it still has value.
The platform is however haemorrhaging users and specifically academics. This is largely due to decisions to reduce the workforce, including those working on areas relating to trust and factual accuracy that have emboldened bad actors. Whilst I have long argued for academics not to give up social media platforms as they overwhelmingly represent the voice of evidence and fact, abuse is unacceptable.
The functionality of X, yet to be replicated elsewhere, is also slowly being scaled back. Tools such as Tweetdeck are reserved for paying users and Twitter data, a source for countless research projects, has become an asset for only those with deep pockets. New subscription models are also in development globally. Whether these will improve the platform, lure academics back and rid it of bots, only time will tell. However, you might question the long term financial stability of the platform following a Elon Musk’s ill judged posting and the subsequent flight of advertisers from the platform.
Bluesky – Small user base – Very limited functionality – Has potential
Bluesky, still in beta, launched in late 2021 and has been building momentum. Whereas Mastodon and Threads gained many followers overnight at the expense of Twitter; Bluesky has grown via an invite only model. Techcrunch reviewed the platform saying: ‘it is a functional, if still rather bare-bones, Twitter-like experience’. This synopsis can similarly be applied to Threads and Mastodon, due to their lack of thread and scheduling functions. Ultimately academic social media users want a Twitter interface experience with all the functionality, none of the abuse and the ability to filter and find quality information. Bluesky does have potential and those who joined Twitter in its first few years will note how similar the experience it feels. To succeed it needs to build a wider loyal user base.
LinkedIn – Large user base – Functionality could be better – Dry but professional
LinkedIn has long been established as a professional platform. Where LinkedIn is different from the other platforms is that it connects academics with professionals and their organisations. User profiles are notably more transparent and do not allow pseudonyms, which is relatively unique. I have found myself engaging with LinkedIn much more compared to last year and with a degree of success. The value comes from making sure you connect with the right people and join active groups. Whilst activity can be patchy in many groups and the interface is clunky, it remains a useful social network for academics. It is a social network where conversations, job opportunities, events and the ability to connect with those who aren’t on mainstream social media platforms takes place.
Mastodon – Small user base – Smaller disjointed communities – Unlikely to take X’s crown, even in an academic world
Post Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, tens of thousands of users moved to Mastodon and found it very different. It is decentralised, which means a steeper learning curve, one that many were not prepared for. You knew peers were on Mastodon, but that did not guarantee you could see their posts due to the server structure. However, this is good for those wanting safe spaces where they can talk to academics who share the same interests without having to deal with the slew of suggested content that appears on X and Facebook. Mastodon’s structure is more than a technical issue, it impacts wider engagement and for those wishing to have conversations and share updates to the world it may limit the appeal of the platform. For institutions this is a particular issue, as they use social media more as a broadcast tool than a conversational one.
Threads – Medium user base – Popular but driven by Instagram – Instagram connection likely to put academics off
Threads launched as a rival to Musk’s X, there is a feeling that the platform has been rushed. Firstly because users needed to sign up via an Instagram account, which at the very least will have recruited more followers for Mark Zuckerberg’s photo and video sharing platform. For the professional community, it brings up one of the ethical challenges academics and students face, the conflict between personal and professional online life, especially if you sign up with your personal Instagram account. Threads has been designed for mobile use, which will dissuade many professionals who are reliant on engaging with social media on desktop and laptops. It is now accessible on computers, but does not appear to have all of the same functionality as the mobile app, most notably a lack of threaded posts. For organisations already on Instagram, especially universities, the addition of Threads seems like a sensible thing to try at least. In terms of interface, again, like Mastodon and Bluesky it functions like X-lite, but like Bluesky is more intuitive than Mastodon’s interface. Unlike the two other platforms, Threads gained tens of millions of users, although according to Fortune appears to have lost the majority of them. The chances of users returning again is unlikely unless it can guarantee an experience equal if not better than X.
Special mention needs to be made for the other social media platforms, especially Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. All of the aforementioned tools have some degree of academic engagement, so cannot be excluded as potential alternatives to the likes of X. The latter two are notably more visual than those discussed in this article, so present different challenges to social media based around microblogging and the written word. They also lean towards personal rather than academic use. Caution therefore needs to be applied given the professional-personal barrier that prevents users from using a single platform for both activities, which has been perennially challenging for academics.
There is no doubt that many academic users of social media are feeling like the golden age of micro blogging has passed. Certainly the fractured nature of social media in an academic setting means established online communities are finding themselves rebuilding with old new faces as part of their network. That in itself is no bad thing but how organisations deal with this is another matter. Most realise that they cannot post effectively across every platform, even if they are using a cross-posting tool such as Buffer. It is inevitable that larger entities will stay on X whilst they weigh up their options, especially if they have built up a large following. Whether as an individual, group or organisation, never has there been a more important time to think about where to invest your time, who you connect with and ultimately question why you are using social media as an academic or organisation.
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Image Credit: Infographic, Andy Tattersall (CC BY 4.0).