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Elon Musk is “Chief Twit.” Since Musk’s takeover of Twitter on Oct. 27, the atmosphere around the site has resembled “last night of camp,” as many users declared their intention to leave. Whether they will actually leave will probably depend on what happens next on the platform. The early signs, to be sure, are not exactly promising. But if the many doomsday projections actually come to fruition, losing Twitter will be a sad day for academia.
Let’s face it: whether you’re on it or not, you love to hate Twitter. If you’re on Twitter, you probably still call it a “hellsite.” You probably complain about it constantly. There are lots of things to complain about, to be sure. Misinformation, toxicity, even harassment. These things were the case long before Musk took it over. And yet, if you are on it, you are on it a lot. (I’m certainly guilty of that.) Because as much as everyone complains about it, Twitter, and Academic Twitter especially, is useful, interesting and sometimes even supportive. Curating a space that is actually productive, to be sure, takes a lot of work and requires using the mute and block buttons liberally. But it is possible.
You might think that I’m insane, but it is true. Twitter can be good, and not just for delighting in adorable pictures of puppies and kittens, following the absurdist humor of @dril, or watching (probably bootleg) sports highlights. I did my Ph.D. outside the United States. Being outside a “top 20” American department, my academic network was small, especially compared to colleagues at more renowned American institutions who were able to afford to go to flashy conferences and connect with their advisers’ extensive peer networks. Twitter changed that. When I started posting and sharing my work, not only did I encounter other graduate students and faculty from other universities from all over the world engaging with my work, I was able to build a community, get feedback and find new collaborators. These weren’t just weak ties. Now, when I go to conferences, I get to meet with people in real life who I feel have been my close friends for a long time due to Twitter. In a frequently alienating world of academia, that is huge.
But Academic Twitter brings more than networking opportunities. It is arguably the best mechanism to stay on top of research in your field. In addition to posting published articles, with long threads explaining their findings, researchers also post ideas, preprints and working drafts. Frequently, the first rounds of peer review happen on Twitter and not in the double-blind peer-review process at a journal. With the world of academic journals so large and fragmented, it is hard to keep tabs on research. By enabling you to follow researchers in your field, Twitter serves as a de facto aggregator for research and allows you to truly stay up-to-date.
In addition to aiding in research discovery, Academic Twitter has become a go-to resource for locating job postings, both in academia and beyond. Every field has its own job platform, but over the years it has become increasingly common for researchers to post the openings at their institutions on Twitter, whether it’s a postdoc, a visiting teaching gig or a tenure-track position. Jobs frequently emerge on Twitter before they appear on more officially sanctioned platforms. And the social network competent of Twitter allows candidates to reach out to people to ask more details about a given position, demystifying the process somewhat.
Furthermore, given the soul-crushing scarcity of permanent academic jobs, Twitter has also become an unparalleled resource for alt-ac jobs, whether in not-for-profits, tech companies, government, polling, market research or any other sector. Entire communities, like SocSci PhDs in Industry, have sprung up, offering insights for academics on how to approach alt-ac employment as well as actual job postings. Chances are, as a graduate student, people in your department might not have a clue about how to approach jobs outside academia. But people on Twitter do, and they are more than willing to help you out. That makes it a tremendous resource.
Finally, Twitter is great for academics who want to engage with the broader public. Of course, many academics are on the platform to just interact with fellow academics, and that is OK. But for a lot of folks, the goal is to disseminate their work beyond the gated confines of the ivory tower. Connecting with journalists, industry researchers, think tankers or policy makers allows many academics to expand their influence, make people aware of their research and, hopefully, have more concrete impact on the real world. Personally, Twitter has allowed me to connect with editors who then solicited more public-facing contributions from me. Those op-eds and commentary pieces not only allowed my work to penetrate the public consciousness (however marginally), but also resulted in more citations and engagement with my more traditional scholarly work.
To me, all these features of Twitter make it worthwhile to stick around, at least for now. It is entirely possible that Elon Musk will work tirelessly to make Twitter an insufferable cesspool of right-wing trolls and spam. If enough academics leave, that will certainly be the case. However, it will take a long time, and massive coordination efforts, to recreate the best aspects of Twitter on another platform. So for me, it is worth it to at least try to preserve what we have built on this “hellsite.”