Elon Musk took control of Twitter on Oct. 27, prompting many academics who tweet to ask whether the moment calls for choosing a different social media platform. The billionaire owner and self-described “free-speech absolutist” has, among other controversies, floated the idea of reversing the ban on former president Donald Trump. That has left many in academe concerned that toxic content and disinformation about social, medical and political issues could accelerate in the Twitterverse.
“Anything Twitter does which makes it a space where people are more likely to experience hate speech or threats of violence will erode its status as an essential gathering place” for higher ed, said Tanya Golash-Boza, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced, who has 15,800 followers. “I have long considered leaving Twitter—mostly because I go back and forth with regard to whether or not spending time on Twitter is fruitful or enjoyable.”
Few think that the 16-year-old Twitter will remain the same in the wake of recent changes. Many have already fled, and the platform’s political center of gravity has recently shifted right, according to an investigation by The Economist.
#AcademicTwitter community members are now weighing the nontrivial opportunity costs of leaving. They are also making plans in case an ongoing affiliation with the company feels intolerable. But few are fleeing the digital gathering space in which they have invested so much—at least not yet.
A Platform in Transition
Twitter is struggling to keep its most active users—those who log in six or seven days a week and tweet about three to four times a week—according to internal documents seen by Reuters last month. Such users “account for less than 10 percent of monthly overall users but generate 90 percent of all tweets and half of global revenue.”
At the same time, Twitter plans to charge users $8 per month for account verification—a previously free feature noted by a blue icon with a check mark, usually given to celebrities, journalists and influencers. Such a move could disrupt the community in unpredictable ways, especially for academics.
“Fewer scholars will opt for [verification] while a flood of new accounts will acquire it, weakening the overall value for everyone,” Kevin Kruse, professor of history and director of the Center for Collaborative History at Princeton University, wrote in an email. Kruse, who has a blue check, has 494,500 followers on the platform. “Twitter will become an uglier and less regulated space, which will surely drive many academics away.”
Kruse has not left Twitter but remains open to the possibility if, for example, the moderation system is weakened, once-banned accounts are allowed to come back or the targeted harassment of scholars increases.
The Economist report found that, since Musk’s acquisition, Twitter’s political center of gravity—at least from a U.S. point of view—shifted to the right. The report found that, in the four days following the acquisition, Republican members of Congress gained 470,000 followers (an average of 1,800 each), while Democratic members lost 420,000 (an average of 1,600 each). High-profile Democrats, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, weathered some of the biggest hits; all lost more than 35,000 followers. Such counts are noteworthy, even if they represent fewer than 1 percent of these individuals’ followers. The author suggested that the changes are “likely to be a result of right-leaning users joining the platform and left-leaning users leaving.”
“If the type of people on the platform dramatically shifts, then that’s going to change the platform just as much as actual design decisions change the platform, such as charging for verification or changing the way they do content moderation,” said Casey Fiesler, associate professor of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (All sources but Fiesler were contacted via email.)
Opportunity Costs for Professors Who Leave Twitter
Online platform migrations are often triggered by specific events, according to Fiesler’s research. Musk’s takeover of Twitter, for example, could be a trigger. But that alone would not ensure a mass exodus.
“For a migration to succeed, you need both a compelling reason to leave and a viable alternative option that already exists,” Fiesler said. “It is unclear to me at this point how good of a viable alternative option Mastodon is,” referencing the 6-year-old, decentralized platform that many academics are considering as an escape hatch. Mastodon gained 70,000 users in the days following Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.
But leaving is not simple. Academics who have invested considerable time and labor to establish a presence on the platform may suffer opportunity costs.
“The vast majority of social media users are stuck inside those walled gardens, and they are holding each other hostage,” Cory Doctorow, a journalist, author and activist, wrote on his blog last week. Doctorow has 491,000 Twitter followers. Said differently, when someone leaves, their disloyalty is “penalized” by disconnecting them from the followers they have worked hard to cultivate.
“For people who built up a huge following on Twitter, it is absolutely a substantial cost to leave,” Fiesler said. “Some people are going to be way more willing to leave Twitter than others, because the cost will be different.”
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, is in this camp. Neal, who has 79,500 Twitter followers, appreciates the platform over others, including Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram, because it “really did value the sharing of ideas.”
“Twitter is where I’ve invested the most time and content,” Neal said. “That will not change in the immediate future, and few of the other platforms offered me the immediacy of community—academic #BlackTwitter—that Twitter does.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian and history at New York University, who has 183,300 followers, also plans to continue tweeting. She views the platform as essential for transmitting research results that support civic education about democracy, propaganda and authoritarianism.
“Twitter has made me a more synthetic and effective communicator, has put me in touch with senators, CEOs, students, farmers and people all over the world who care about democracy, and has become a kind of adjunct to my classroom teaching,” Ben-Ghiat said. “I would never give all that up just because some far-right operative who backs [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and [Chinese president] Xi [Jinping] decides to buy Twitter. I would not have been chosen to advise the January 6 Committee—I was interviewed twice and submitted a report—if it were not for my presence on Twitter.”
Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University, who has 139,600 followers, is also taking a wait-and-see attitude. Given the recent change at Twitter’s helm, his antennae are up, but he has not yet noticed any degradation of the quality of conversation.
“Just yesterday I tweeted something very mathematical, and based on the number of likes and retweets, it appears that much of my community—math and science lovers, teachers, students, lifelong learners—is still on Twitter,” Strogatz said. “To be clear, whenever I stray off the mathematical part of Twitter, I’m disappointed or dismayed by some of the tweets about politics and current events. It’s been bad for a while, and maybe it will get even worse. If it gets so bad that I feel I should leave, I’m not sure where I would go. I’ve been thinking of quitting social media altogether, or maybe I’ll check out Mastodon or Tribel.”
Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, has 42,700 followers. For him, Twitter has functioned as academe’s public square in the past decade. He acknowledges that the company’s ownership and proposed policy changes could drive people away, but he also believes that fleeing has drawbacks.
“Leaving the platform might cut academics off from journalists, policy makers, leaders and the public,” Van Bavel said. “If academic Twitter migrates to another platform, it might be good for the internal watercooler discussions that often dominate academic Twitter, for example, around graduate school culture, work-life balance, journal policies, etc. But it might reduce the impact of our work if those other audiences don’t leave Twitter, and I expect they won’t. It’s important to have academics who do policy-relevant work—for example on COVID, inequality, misinformation, politics—to continue sharing that work with a broader audience.” Van Bavel is taking a “wait-and-see” attitude concerning whether he will leave Twitter.
Besides, leaving Twitter for another social media platform could come with a steep learning curve.
“Tech-savvier people will get there first. Some people find [Mastodon] confusing,” Fiesler said. “It would take a while for something to become like Twitter again.”
Opportunity Costs for Institutions and Presidents to Leave Twitter
Twitter has emerged as a way to “talk at” big brands.
“Someone said to me yesterday, ‘If Twitter goes away, how am I going to yell at airlines?’” Fiesler said, noting that colleges and academic professional societies are themselves brands.
Some who interact with brand accounts seek to complain. Others are looking for information. Fiesler, for example, chairs a conference that recently needed to announce a location change. But without an email list of people who are interested in the conference, she announced the change with a tweet using the conference’s hashtag. Those who leave could miss out on information from organizations with which they associate.
College presidents also often serve as brand ambassadors for their colleges on social media.
Walter Kimbrough, former president of Dillard University, has 24,500 Twitter followers. As president, he announced weather cancellations, and live tweeted commentary while watching Scandal and Insecure. He also trash talks sports rivals and engages with students who vent and complain, and he corrects “those who believe Trump was the savior of HBCUs.” Though he considers Musk’s acquisition of Twitter “destabilizing,” he is not now planning to leave the platform.
“Twitter still provides me with the best way to reach a broad range of people with the work I am now doing at Morehouse College, as well as my continued HBCU advocacy. It remains one of several tools, including Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, which I employ,” Kimbrough said.
Tania Tetlow, president of Fordham University, has 1,199 Twitter followers. She does not consider herself a digital native but recognizes that many faculty members, students, parents and alumni “meet” her for the first time—or exclusively—on Twitter. Tetlow views the platform “less as a public square than as a digital coffee break.” There, she shares information on university policy and events and offers a window into her interests and activities as president.
“We’re on Twitter now because that’s where a significant portion of our constituency is. Should the changes drive our students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents away, we’d certainly have to consider whether to continue investing person hours,” Tetlow said. “For the time being, we will wait to see whether they stay before making any big decisions.”
Academe Is Hedging Its Bets
The prospect of migrating an online community is a collective action problem. Few want to be the first to leave, as others may not follow. But when many wait to see what others do, a potential mass migration may not succeed.
“It’s like a game of chicken where you ask, ‘Have enough of my friends gone to Mastodon that it makes sense for me to be there?’” Fiesler said.
All the academics with deep roots in academic Twitter that Inside Higher Ed contacted exhibited varying levels of concern about recent changes on the social media platform. But none have left—yet. For many, this wait-and-see approach means maintaining a Twitter account while also joining another platform with potential to replace it.
Brian Nosek, co-founder and executive director at the Center for Open Science in Virginia, has 32,100 Twitter followers. He relies on the platform to learn about new papers, meetings and ideas that are relevant to his work.
Still, he would like to see his digital community migrate to Mastodon, which he views as more compatible with his values. To this end, he tweeted a request to followers in his academic corner of Twitter. For the month of November, he suggests that they: create a Mastodon account, post new content on Mastodon, do not post on Twitter other than notice of the move to Mastodon and previews of Mastodon content, and do not retweet or reply on Twitter other than content related to Mastodon.
“I am pleased to see that it is gaining traction,” Nosek said. “I have no idea if it will lead to sustainable change, but the collective interest in doing this as an experiment for a month, we are sure to learn a lot about the two platforms and about some of the barriers to adopting new solutions.”
For now, #AcademicTwitter community members are not yet fleeing the digital gathering space in which they have invested so much.
“It’s not going to be that suddenly, next week, Twitter is dead,” Fiesler said. “If there’s a decline in Twitter, it’s going to be incredibly gradual.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated the location of the Center for Open Science. This has been corrected.