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Mark Carrigan calls for more strategic direction in the way universities use social media platforms

Three months ago, Elon Musk completed his takeover of Twitter to become its owner and CEO. Entire teams have since been cut from the company, leading to questions about Twitter’s capacity to counter misinformation or hate speech. It remains to be seen what the medium- and long-term implications will be for the security and stability of a platform that has long enjoyed a political influence far outweighing its relatively modest number of daily active users.

It might not be immediately obvious why this Silicon Valley issue matters for UK higher education. But that is part of a problem that all universities will need to address in the coming months. In a relatively short space of time, social media in general, and Twitter in particular, have become ubiquitous features of academic life. They are used for marketing at university, department and programme level, to raise awareness and support recruitment. They are used for internal communications by services and teams attempting to cut through the information overload that afflicts most universities. They are used for networking by centres, groups and initiatives to increase the visibility of the work they undertake. They are used for public engagement by research projects to reach external stakeholders and make an impact in wider society.

Perhaps most strikingly, they are used by individual academics, with Twitter coming to feel like a necessity for early career researchers afraid of missing out on potential benefits in a hyper-competitive job market.

These platforms are now deeply integrated into the communications infrastructure of the sector in ways that are informal and unplanned but no less integral for that. To see the current turmoil at Twitter as irrelevant to higher education reflects exactly the disregard for social media that has enabled this systemic reliance to develop in such a strikingly ill-thought-out way. The realistic prospect of platform death—a fate that has befallen many social media firms in the past—foregrounds the institutional problem that has been allowed to develop.

Knowledge production

Consider academic participation at conferences, seminars and workshops. These events serve a crucial role in facilitating knowledge production by enabling the building of connections and exchange of work in progress. Universities often expect their research-active staff to participate in these gatherings in order to contribute to the visibility of the institution and the possibility of collaborations leading to research grants and auditable publications.

These are the instrumental outcomes that most concern universities but there is a deeper value found for academics in the intellectual communities reproduced through these events. Participation in these communities contributes to the conditions that make scholarship possible through fomenting collaboration and sharing knowledge.

It is hard to quantify the role these events play in knowledge production because they tend to be far upstream of discernible outputs (with the exception, perhaps, of conference proceedings). But it is nonetheless possible to reliably trace at least some causal role played by scholarly events in the eventual genesis of a publication or project.

The same is true for the use of social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn by academics, even if the path from tweet to blog to peer-reviewed article is even less likely to show up in routine practices of research evaluation.

In part, this is because our evaluative practices tend to exclude the preliminary work that makes an eventual publication possible (in the process individualising knowledge production and contributing to epistemic injustice) but the widespread assumption that social media is a trivial feature of academic life with significance for knowledge exchange but little else means there is little appetite to try to draw out these connections within the sector.

Digital acceleration

During the pandemic it was much easier to see the significant role played by social media, supplemented by videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Teams, because these were the only means through which collaboration could proceed when academics were confined to their homes. There was a sense in which the entire sector underwent an accelerated process of digitalisation driven by necessity rather than slow shift in cultural norms—one that is far from being reversed given the ubiquity of online meetings and normalisation of hybrid working.

It is curious, therefore, that the role played by mass commercial social media platforms in the research infrastructure remains wilfully ignored, with the partial exception of its relationship to the impact agenda. It is from this perspective that the possible unravelling of Twitter under Elon Musk poses a challenge for the sector.

Academic Twitter has become a vital means through which academics disseminate information, publicise their work and lay the groundwork for collaboration. Its importance has only increased in a landscape in which meetings are as likely to take place online as they are in person, posing particular challenges for early career researchers who find it more difficult to network at online meetings.

Leadership needed

While there is a real potential for a more sustainable social infrastructure for scholarship through platforms such as Mastodon, it will require a careful approach that looks beyond the existing horizon of research communications. Unfortunately, the tendency to regard social media as a trivial feature of academic life means such leadership has long been lacking.

In its absence, academics have been driven into the arms of corporate platforms not fit for purpose and encouraged to think narrowly in terms of their individual careers rather than the communal purposes being served by digital engagement within the sector. Unless universities, research councils and learned societies begin to intervene in these spaces in a strategic manner, it is likely we will see this dynamic repeated. And if the critical mass of academics that coalesced on Twitter during the 2010s begins to disperse across a range of platforms, then the communications infrastructure of the sector will be left in an even worse place than it is at present.

Mark Carrigan is programme director for the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education (DTCE) and co-lead for the DTCE Research & Scholarship group at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, published by Sage and now in its second edition.