More thoughts on the enshittification of academic social media


A couple of months ago I wrote a post called ‘The enshittification of academic social media’, riffing on ideas put in the world by Cory Doctorow.

It’s fair to say, this post was a minor viral hit, resulting in me being interviewed by Geraldine Dougue on ABC radio, and a piece in The Australian, which I haven’t yet managed to read because it’s behind a pay wall (and I don’t pay Rupert Murdoch). Since I put out that post in July. I formally closed my Twitter account and have been splitting my social media time between Mastodon, BlueSky and Threads (I’m ‘@thesiswhisperer’ on all three). People keep asking me for another post – but I’m still thinking about what ‘advice’ should look like. 

As you know, I stopped posting regular guest posts a while back, but when Zeb Larson offered to write one on Twitter I said “yes please”. I have never met Zeb in person, but have enjoyed reading his posts across a couple of platforms and thought he had an interesting take on the current situation, particularly the way that many people still stick to Twitter. 

Zeb Larson has a history PhD from Ohio State University, where he studied the anti-apartheid movement in the United States and defended in 2019. He started working as a freelance curriculum developer in 2016 (don’t tell his advisors) and as a freelance writer in 2020. Tired of contingency and the pressures of the academic and alt-ac markets, he became a software engineer in 2020 and continues working on the side as a freelancer. Find out more about Zeb’s work here, or follow him on Linkedin here.

Writing this hasn’t been easy. Twitter’s implosion feels like it’s gone from slow-motion into fast-forward over the last few weeks. Predicting the platform’s death was so easy in November or December, and of course it didn’t happen. I jumped away quickly and deleted my account in November of 2022, but to be clear I did so because I was very ready to have a clean break with some of my Twitter communities.

Musk was a good incentive to get out, and I didn’t want to end up coming back. As I built new networks on Mastodon, my old community of Twitterstorians showed up – but critically, they didn’t stick around. Other Mastodon users would ask me, “why? Why did they go back to Twitter?”

Obviously, I’m only speaking for myself here, and I was never a significant personality on Academic Twitter. My experience of Academic Twitter is also rooted in the fact that I was there as a graduate student, a contingent scholar (briefly), and then as somebody who left academia. Moreover, I’m a historian, so I cannot fully speak to the experience of those in STEM and the social sciences.

The Obvious

Some of the reasons that Twitter hasn’t been abandoned yet are simply because a critical mass of people don’t exist elsewhere, and the alternatives are too small. Mastodon is a network I really like, but it has fewer than two million daily users; moreover, the experience of picking a server seems to have turned a number of people off.

Bluesky is still in Beta and similarly has fewer than two million accounts. Features for the former are fiddly; features for the latter are still in progress. Threads is a terrible vehicle for discussing news, and academics really like being able to discuss the news. LinkedIn is popular for the alt-ac crowd, but by and large it’s not being used by those within academia. Twitter’s been a community for people and a source of support, so they’re not likely to abandon it unless their networks have mostly migrated.

But while those are important, they’re not the whole story. There are specific features of Academic Twitter that have kept people there even as alternatives have begun to proliferate.

Career Advancement

In the arms race that is academic hiring, Twitter was (in theory) one of the last open frontiers. Peer-reviewed publishing is grueling, grants and fellowships are in short supply, conferences are expensive, and where you go to school does a lot to dictate how well you’ll do on the job market. But on Twitter, there were no barriers to entry – all it took was time and effort, and those are two things that academics are willing to sacrifice.

A few years ago, Twitter was even being described as a potential advantage on the academic job market by increasing your visibility to potential committee members. People were even starting to talk about having an online presence as a kind of career necessity, part of the process of being a scholar. All of this made Twitter attractive.

In practice, Twitter/X had superstars the same way that academia has superstars – a few people’s boats were lifted by it, but it wasn’t going to solve the jobs crisis. Whether it really made any difference for people on the academic job market is difficult to parse, but feels unlikely: anecdotally, I can think of plenty of high-profile academic twitter accounts who were in the trenches as contingent scholars despite having plenty of visibility.

And the problem with credential arms races is that everybody has an incentive participate: you don’t stand out if everybody is doing it. But it was something to cling to, and in the hunt for academic positions people are willing to try just about anything. Of all the magical thinking people engage in when they’re on the job market, a hope that Twitter might provide some small advantage wasn’t beyond the pale.

Public Engagement

At least in my corner of the humanities, everybody wants you to be publicly engaged. It’s supposed to be a mark of a good scholar, and vital to the survival of disciplines such as history that are under threat. There’s a problem, however: how do you do that?

Training for that kind of scholarship isn’t consistently available in graduate programs. Writing op-eds or essays and commentating is easier for people at the top of the field, but it’s a lot more difficult for grad students or people who lack an institution to call their own. Twitter was an easy place to be publicly engaged. There was a limitless supply of discourse to be had and an algorithm that made it easy to zero in on what would bring likes, retweets, and engagement. (The absence of such an algorithm on other platforms is probably one of the things subtly keeping academics around – it helps them know what to talk about!).

The barrier to entry was low. Critically, it was also a chance to network outside of academia – and that’s a really important thing for most academics, because their professional circles rarely overlap with other industries. If you’re interested in anything other than a tenure-track job (and statistically speaking, you should be), Twitter was a gateway to people who had done it and were willing to talk about it.

The Vibe Check

Perhaps most revolutionary of all (and the most difficult to replace) was the fact that Twitter/X was a vibe check for the whole of academia. Two generations ago, people like me who left academia almost always just disappeared and stopped being a part of the conversation. Grad students are almost invariably treated as apprentices, and they usually work siloed off far from each other.

Adjuncts and other contingent scholars generally have very little visibility as well: they’re not well-represented in scholarly societies. This is true even for faculty members at SLACs, many of whom have to treat scholarly knowledge production as a hobby. You learned about the “State of the Field” from the keynote address at your society’s conference; it played out in roundtables in a journal that were curated by the leaders of your discipline.

But on Twitter, everything was up for debate, and everybody got to be a part of the conversation. ECRs and grad students and adjuncts could talk freely about all of the things that aren’t working in academia, and free from the polite confines of a panel talk at a conference. You could call bullshit on somebody saying that “good work gets a job” or that grad students didn’t deserve unions. You even had people willing to push back and to argue that everything was fine in academia, actually, and that was perfect: you had just enough people to argue with.

I don’t know that the conversations that took place were ever particularly productive: every year, we had to have a fresh fight as to whether advice threads for people seeking tenure-track jobs actually accomplished anything. Being loud on Twitter wasn’t the same as having power or influence. But one of the varieties of loneliness and isolation in academia is that there’s nobody to complain to about deadbeat advisors, relentless adjunctification, the dysfunctions of academic publishing, and anything else.

That’s one of the things that could still be revolutionary for the profession: a sense of solidarity and that you’re part of a whole rather than a lone genius (or, like most of us, a temporarily embarrassed lone genius). And here’s the crux: you really need to have everybody in order to have that kind of discourse going. Social media for academics elsewhere has largely been a listserv. People make their “I’m pleased to announce” posts and circulate CFPs or jobs – but if you’re in the humanities, you already have H-Net. Academic Twitter was the experience of everybody in a very hierarchical system having a voice.

If only some people leave, you can’t recreate the ecosystem very effectively.

Will people leave Twitter?

So even now as Twitter seems poised to fall off a cliff, I’m skeptical that people are going to leave on their own.

If the stench of Musk’s politics (and to be clear, Twitter had serious political issues prior to October of 2022) or the enshittification of the platform so far wasn’t enough to drive people away en masse, I’m not sure that losing headlines or occasional downtimes will be enough. This goes for academics too, who have invested a lot in Twitter and don’t readily have a substitute at hand.

Perhaps Bluesky or some new service will eventually supplant Twitter, but for now it seems likely that the status quo will persist – at least until Twitter’s financial woes finally kill it.