The enshittification of academic social media


If I started my blog today, 11th of July 2023, you would never hear about me.

I built a readership in my little corner of academia, and some measure of influence, by sharing my work online. When people ask how I got to 100,000 followers on social media, I used to share two tips:

1) make stuff and share it
2) share the work of others more than your own

I write about things I think will interest you here. I also pride myself on recognising good stuff and making sure you know about it via social media. This approach has made me a trusted source of information about the PhD and academic life. Lots of people follow me on Twitter and elsewhere because they trust my taste: in people, links, apps, books or whatever. In a noisy information world, trust is influence.

I guess I am an influencer? But you know – without the botox. Being an ‘niche micro-celebrity’ has not made me squillions, sadly, but it has helped me get good jobs and be promoted to professor at ANU.

I teach social media for academics at ANU. In the last 10 years I’ve helped others grow a presence online for their benefit (I’ve even co-edited a book on the topic). Social media was important because it was proven talking about your work on social media would drive up citations and such.

But things have changed. Telling academics they can achieve career success by using today’s algorithmic-driven platforms is like telling Millennials they could afford to buy a house by eating less avocado on toast. It’s a cruel lie because social media is a shit way to share your work now.

Not a little bit shit either. Very shit.

Social media has fully completed what Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin call ‘The Enshittification cycle’. It’s a concept fully explained in their excellent book, Chokepoint Capitalism, but here’s the nub of the argument, as Doctorow puts it in an excellent article about TikTok in Wired magazine:

“HERE IS HOW platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”

Academics are both users and business owners when it comes to social media. Basically, it’s no longer true that you build can a substantial audience by doing Good Work and telling people about it. Today you can talk about your research on social media platforms all you want, but hardly anyone will hear you unless you pay cash money because Algorithms.

I know this is true. Facebook has been functionally useless as a way for me to promote my work for about 8 years. I’m lucky if 300 people out of my over 27,000 follower base see a post unless I pay the Meta landlord. Personally I think the ethics of ‘pay to play’ are shady. Also, it’s just not practical: my university does not give me an advertising budget.

The enshittification of social media has been going on for years, but has become more visible with the agonisingly slow death of Twitter. I deleted the Twitter app after that fuckwit Elon took over and fully embraced the fractured social media landscape. On my phone I now have three Twitter like platforms – Mastodon, BlueSky and Threads – in addition to Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. ‘Promote your work’ on social media is now an endless game of cut and paste with no time left over to talk to people.

Once the work is on a platform, it’s a crapshoot whether someone sees it with the possible exception of Mastodon. Mastodon and the whole fediverse concept, where people run the platforms instead of corporations, is a really great idea. I want it to work. But the dirty secret is: people bloody love the algorithms. They make platforms more… fun. But they also control what you do and see.

There are always ways to ‘game the algos’, but you have to ask yourself: what’s the point? One enough people work it out, they they will only move the goal posts.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with this situation as a teacher of social media. Should I keep teaching people how to do this objectively shitty thing?

My social media guru, Dr Mark Carrigan, shares my discomfort, but, as usual, expresses it more eloquently, especially when he talks about how universities are now pushing social media engagement as a way to create research impact:

“The content of this encouragement tends to repeat motifs such as “get your work out there”, “publicise your research” and “make an impact”, which are becoming increasingly misleading with each passing year. These ambitions are not in any way impossible but achieving them in a sustainable way is becoming more demanding, with greater risks that are yet to be adequately handled within universities. It feels the professional normalisation of social media has reached its crescendo at precisely the point where the risk/return ratio no longer makes sense for many academics.”

(By the way, if you haven’t read Mark’s book ‘social media for academics’, you should – it’s good).

Mark’s post convinced me to shelve my social media course for now and think about what the best way forward should be. But the truth of Mark’s observations hit me hard again while writing this post. My original post was thinking about a future of multiple, federated platforms. But between drafting this post and publishing it, Meta released Threads and I had to throw the whole thing out. The insane growth of Threads changed my mind. Not because I don’t like Threads, let’s be clear.

I’m no longer optimistic about social media because I bloody love Threads.

It’s been three days, but Threads seems to be providing the dopamine hit Twitter users, including me, have been craving. It’s addictive and fun. I’m having trouble managing my time on it. The teacher in me immediately thought ‘oooh, maybe this is the next Big Thing?! Maybe this will replace Twitter for researchers?’. I even started building a class…

… then I stopped and asked myself: where does this end?

Sure, you can teach people how to optimise Threads for engagement (probably), but when will the next platform ‘everyone has to be on to create impact’ spawn? How many platforms are too many? A future of feeding a bunch of different platforms with ‘content’, and being always present to talk to people, is not sustainable for most working academics, including me.

In the immortal words of Joshua/WOPR from Wargames: “The only winning move is not to play”.

So, what should individual academics and universities, especially units like mine tasked with supporting researchers, *do* about social media?

Here’s my advice for academics and PhD students, for what it’s worth:

  • The Socials are now virtually useless as a communication tool. maybe they are ok for building brand awareness, but individual schools and units like the one I work in, should not waste their time. Besides, we’re starting to see Zoomers in the PhD now and ‘Contact us on Facebook!’ is, as the Youngs would say, cringe. Good luck getting access to their discord servers (this is where they are bitching about your teaching in real time, just so you know). In case you’re an ANU student and reading this, @ANUresearcher is now owned by the DVC – we will just email you.
  • Think – really think – before incorporating social media use in your teaching. My nephew was recently made to sign up to Twitter to participate in a class. There’s no excuse for this – the teacher should know Twitter is an unsafe, nazi-troll invested, transphobic hell scape. As @knitrospective on Threads pointed out, making people engage on Twitter, at least right now, is both unethical and unsafe.
  • I give the same advice about social media to academics as I do to women asking what to wear: do whatever the hell you want. Share your work – or not. If you share it, stop worrying about click throughs and views as you have little control over who will see it unless you pay. I guess paying is an option, but personally I’d rather not – but you do you.
  • Social media can just be… social. It’s ok to just have fun and chat with people. Low key ‘academic networking’ (or as we should call it ‘making nerdy friends’) is a good thing. As @academicbatgirl said to me on Threads “(I use it to) find my squad, share practises, laugh, lament, laugh some more, find good people I’d like to collaborate with”. Wise words.
  • Use platforms to share, but not to author stuff: everyone who built an audience by writing Twitter threads instead of blogging is now having regrets. Tik Tokers are going to feel the same soon, if not already. Always own your ‘content’. At the very least, have a simple website-repository where people can find your stuff easily. Dare I say it, maybe Blogs will come back and I will be fashionable again.
  • If you invest more time in building anything to try and ‘increase your reach’, make it a mailing list. You can do this by simply putting up a google form, although there are plenty of more sophisticated options. Email is still the best distribution medium of them all: cost free and free from algorithms. I just started a mailing list for people interested in my neurodiversity in the PhD research – I already have 160 or so people signed up, which is so incredible (thank you!). I plan to use this list to test out research ideas and get feedback on research in progress. Much more effective than shouting into the wind on Threads or something.
  • Pace yourself. Work out where and when to have conversations based on the amount of energy you want to commit to being present. You don’t have to open yourself up on all channels, all the time. Sometimes it’s better to log off and just do your research.

This turned into a rant, but before I get off my high horse, this last word is for managers and decision makers in universities.

Please stop encouraging academics to use social media as a way to create research impact and engagement.

The numbers on Twitter and Facebook don’t measure what you think they measure; likes and follows are virtually worthless because of enshittification. And you can’t even measure the engagement that happens in semi-closed systems like Discord (which can be remarkably effective as a communication and teaching channel).

We must be clear eyed about the opportunity costs of social media engagement for researchers: both individuals and groups. Stop wasting people’s time and find other ways to further your ‘impact agenda’. Let people get on with The Work – whatever that means for them.