As Musk reshapes Twitter, academics ponder taking flight

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Mark McCaughrean has been moving his online home in steps. McCaughrean, an astronomer at the European Space Agency, has had a profile on Twitter for many years. In spring, when Elon Musk first suggested buying the social media platform used by nearly 240 million worldwide, many were concerned that such a purchase would increase the nastiness of Twitter and allow misinformation to drown out reasonable discourse—Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist” and promised to stop censoring accounts. But for McCaughrean, it was beyond that. “At some level, I made a choice that I don’t want to support, personally, his ecosystem.”

So McCaughrean decided to open a profile on Mastodon, a recent, much smaller Twitter rival. “I just left a username there,” he says. But 2 weeks ago, after Twitter’s sale went through, McCaughrean started to use the new platform. “I have been much more active there than I have been on Twitter.”

With 16,000 followers, McCaughrean is no Twitter celebrity, but he is one of countless scientists who have used the platform to connect with—and debate—colleagues in the same field, as well as scientists from other fields, artists, journalists, and the general public.

Originally dismissed by many as a platform for self-promotion, Twitter has in recent years also provided a venue for hate speech, including abuse directed at scientists. But over time, Twitter has become a major public good, says Michael Bang Petersen, a political scientist at Aarhus University (@M_B_Petersen, 33,000 followers). “I believe it has played important roles in the dissemination of knowledge globally and between scientists and the public during, for example, the pandemic.”

Still, with uncertainty about how Twitter will change under Musk, many of the thousands of medical and scientific experts on the platform have started to look for alternatives or are considering giving up on social media altogether. For a while the hashtags #GoodbyeTwitter and #TwitterMigration were trending, and many researchers have been posting their new Mastodon handles, encouraging others to follow them to the site, which has gained more than 100,000 new users within days of Musk completing his purchase.

For the moment, most researchers are waiting to see what happens with Twitter. “I’m hedging my bets with a Mastodon account but not planning to leave in the short term,” says biologist Carl Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom, 163,000 followers) of the University of Washington, Seattle. Many other researchers are doing the same. That means even if little changes for now, the groundwork is being laid for what could quickly become a digital mass migration of scientists.

The greatest fear is that under Musk discourse on Twitter will deteriorate further. Indeed, as part of massive layoffs at Twitter today to cut costs, he let go of its curation team, which is largely responsible for quelling misinformation on the platform. This, combined with an exodus of experts, would mean misinformation could go further unchecked. “I have always felt that having expert voices to counter the rampant misinformation is important and necessary,” says Boghuma Titanji (@Boghuma), a virologist at Emory University with more than 22,000 Twitter followers.

Others worry the idea of “free speech” will go too far. “While I agree with the importance of free speech on social media, I also worry whether some of Musk’s rhetoric on the issue is taken by some users as a relaxation of the norms governing Twitter interactions,” Petersen says. “We know from research that the norms governing a social media group do have an effect on the level of hostility in the group.”

Indeed, the use of racial slurs on the platform spiked after Musk took over the platform, even though he has said the rules have not changed. “If it becomes too toxic and abusive, I will leave to preserve my well-being and consider other platforms,” Titanji says.

The problem of toxicity on the platform only adds to long-standing worries about Twitter’s leaders insufficiently protecting some groups of people, especially women and people of color, from harassment and abuse, says Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “They rarely acted on reported tweets and there’s always been abuse and threats on the platform.” Sridhar (@devisridhar, 323,000 followers) says she will see how things develop before deciding to jump ship.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan (@angie_rasmussen, 411,000 followers), has been on the receiving end of such abuse. But she notes that Twitter helped her find her current job and start some scientific collaborations. “Right now, I still find it a useful platform to follow colleagues and learn as well as to share,” she says, adding that she won’t leave Twitter as long as the good outweighs the bad. “If the people who like to tell me I’m a stupid/fat/ugly/old/unfuckable/unloveable/compromised/corrupt/conflicted/incompetent bitch get a free pass to say whatever without constraint or moderation, the cost-benefit analysis would change for me,” she adds.

Many researchers, whose tweets are what helps make the platform valuable, also bristle at the idea of having users pay a subscription fee to one of the world’s richest individuals. Musk has proposed a paid service that includes the blue check mark that signals a verified account and fewer ads. “That will definitely push me out the door,” Titanji says. “As a matter of principle, I feel social media users are free content creators for these platforms and accessing them should not come at a financial cost to users.”

Some of these challenges may become moot if Twitter simply fails as people leave the platform. And although Twitter may be a public good, it has never been a good business: The company has had revenues between $1 billion and $5 billion in recent years, mostly from advertising, but it only ever turned a profit in 2018 and 2019. Musk’s attempts to make the business profitable again may well end up dooming the platform, Bergstrom says. “I do think it’s a very real possibility that the whole thing collapses in a matter of months to a few years.”

But there is a cost to leaving Twitter, too, says Casey Fiesler (@cfiesler, 23,000 followers), an information researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has studied the migration of online communities. Perhaps the biggest practical consideration for the many researchers who have built a large following on Twitter is that the decision to move elsewhere means starting from the ground up. “Some people have put a huge amount of effort into building a following on twitter,” Fiesler says. “If I do leave, I’m not sure I’d move to Mastodon immediately or just use this as a reason to do less social media,” Rasmussen says.

Even so, online migrations tend to be gradual, Fiesler says. In one of her research projects, a participant described it as akin to “watching a shopping mall go slowly out of business.” But the speed at which academics are flocking to Mastodon has surprised her. “Things are changing faster than I thought even a week ago,” Fiesler says. McCaughrean agrees. “I’m seeing institutions now joining [Mastodon], observatories, institutes,” he says. For now, many people will keep a dual presence, Fiesler says—there are already programs that can automatically post on both platforms. For a mass exodus to happen, “there has to be both a compelling reason to leave, and an immediate viable alternative option,” she says.

Even if academic Twitter ends up largely moving to Mastodon, the big question is whether the general public will move there, too, allowing scientists to communicate with more than just each other. “When I tweet, I’m talking to my neighbor and the person in the grocery store and the teenager who is thinking about studying science in college,” Fiesler says. “That’s the beauty of scientists on social media.”

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