Mark McCauren moves online contracts step by step. McCafrean, an astronomer at the European Space Agency, has had his own Twitter profile for years. In the spring, when Elon Musk first proposed buying the social media platform used by nearly 240 million people worldwide, many worried that such an acquisition would increase Twitter’s ugliness and stifle misinformation—as Musk described himself as a “free speech advocate.” “extremist”. ” and promised to stop censoring the account. But for McCafrin, it was more than that. “On some level, I made a choice that I didn’t want to support his ecosystem.”
So McCauren recently decided to open a profile on Twitter competitor Mastodon. “I just left a username there,” he said. But after Twitter’s sale ended two weeks ago, McCauren began using the new platform. “I was much more active there than I was on Twitter.”
McCauren, who has 16,000 followers, is not a Twitter celebrity, but he is one of countless scholars who use the platform to connect and debate with colleagues in the same field as well as scholars, artists, journalists, and the general public. public.
Dismissed by many as a platform for self-promotion, Twitter has also become a hotbed of hate speech, including violence, in recent years. towards scientists. But over time, Twitter has become a big boon to the community, says Aarhus University political scientist Michael Bang Petersen (@M_B_Petersen, 33,000 followers). “I believe it has played an important role in spreading knowledge around the world and between scientists and the public, for example during pandemics.”
Still, it’s unclear how Twitter will change under Musk’s leadership, and thousands of medical and scientific professionals on the platform are either looking for alternatives or considering abandoning the social media altogether. The hashtags #GoodbyeTwitter and #TwitterMigration have been trending for a while, with many researchers posting Mastodon’s new handle and encouraging them to follow the site, which gained more than 100,000 new users in the days since Musk completed the purchase.
For now, most researchers are waiting to see what happens with Twitter. “I’m hedging my bets with the Mastodon account, but I don’t plan on going any time soon,” says Carl Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom, 163,000 followers), a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Many other researchers are doing the same. This means that the foundations are being laid for what will be a digital mass migration of scientists, albeit with little change so far.
The biggest fear is that Musk’s Twitter rant will get worse. Indeed, today, as part of Twitter’s massive cost-cutting cuts, it has let go of its curation team, which plays a key role in cracking down on misinformation on the platform. This means that disinformation will no longer go unchecked, along with the expert exodus. “I’ve always felt that it’s important and necessary to have expert voices to combat rampant misinformation,” says Emory University virologist Boghuma Titanji (@Boghuma), who has more than 22,000 followers on Twitter.
Others worry that the idea of ”free speech” will go too far. “While I recognize the importance of free speech on social media, I am concerned that some of Musk’s rhetoric on this issue may be interpreted by some users as softening the norms that govern Twitter interactions,” Petersen said. “We know from research that the norms that govern social network groups influence the level of group hostility.”
In fact, using racial slurs on the platform expanded Although Musk said the rules didn’t change after he took over the platform. “If it becomes too toxic and violent, I will leave to preserve my own well-being and consider other platforms,” Titanji said.
Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh, said the issue of toxicity on the platform adds to long-standing concerns that Twitter’s leaders are failing to adequately protect certain groups, particularly women and people of color, from harassment and abuse. “They rarely act on reported tweets and there is always violence and threats on the platform.” Sridhar (@devisridhar, 323,000 followers) said he 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 experienced such abuse. But Twitter helped him land his current job and start scientific collaborations, he noted. “For now, I think it’s a useful platform to follow, learn and share with colleagues,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t leave Twitter if the good outweighed the bad. “If people who like to call me stupid/fat/ugly/old/unaged/unable to love/merciful/corrupt/contradictory/incompetent mustard get free rein to say whatever they want without restriction or regulation, then the cost-benefit analysis will change for me ” he added.
Tweets help make the platform valuable, with many researchers urging users to pay for subscriptions to one of the world’s richest men. Musk offered a paid service with a verified account and a blue symbol indicating fewer ads. “It definitely gets me out the door,” Titanji said. “In principle, I believe that users of social networks are free content creators for these platforms and access to them should not cost users financially.”
Some of these challenges will become moot if Twitter fails as people leave the platform. Twitter may be publicly owned, but it’s never been a good business: The company has generated between $1 billion and $5 billion in revenue, mostly from advertising, in recent years, but only turned a profit in 2018 and 2019. Musk’s attempt to make the business profitable again could destroy the platform, Bergstrom said. “I think it’s a very real possibility that everything will fall apart in a matter of months or years.”
But leaving Twitter also comes with a price, says University of Colorado data scientist Casey Fiesler (@cfiesler, 23,000 followers), who studies the migration of online communities. For many researchers who have built a large following on Twitter, the biggest practical consideration is that the decision to relocate means starting over. “Some people have gone to great lengths to build a following on Twitter,” Fisler said. “If I leave, I’m not sure it’s going to be a direct move to Mastodon, or a reason to do it less on social media,” Rasmussen said.
However, the online migration is gradual, Fisler said. A participant in one of his research projects described it as “like watching a mall slowly fall apart.” But to his surprise, academics flock to Mastodon. “Things are changing faster than I thought a week ago,” Fisler said. McCafrean agrees. “I see organizations that are now merging [Mastodon]observatories, institutes,” he said. Many people will now have dual engagement, Fisler said — there are already apps that can automatically post to both platforms. In order to move the public, “there has to be a compelling reason to go, an immediate alternative. ” he said.
Even if academic Twitter moves to Mastodon, the big question is whether the community will move there and allow scientists to communicate with more than just each other. “When I tweet, I’m talking to my neighbor, to the person at the grocery store, to the teenager who’s thinking about studying science in college,” Fisler said. “That’s the beauty of social media scientists.”