The death of Twitter - if it comes (and I hope it does) - will be the greatest development for academic public engagement since the invention of Twitter.
Twitter has been essential in my career as a public-facing historian. My Twitter profile has facilitated most of the engagement opportunities I have had in both traditional academia and broadcast media. It is a space where I found an audience for my research who otherwise would have never interacted with my work.
But I hope I can delete my account someday soon.
Public engagement is rooted in the idea that a more comprehensible world is a better world. Being a public historian, I believe, is ultimately about helping a wide audience make sense of the past and how it shapes the present. But I no longer believe it is possible to make the world more understandable on platforms which, by design, manipulate us into a profitable state of irritation.
Shortened attention spans and increased anxiety are trade-offs of commercial social media that most of us understand and regret. Yet we remain on the platforms. In part, we remain because being active on social media is how we remain part of the academic conversation. It is, in essence, a part of our jobs.
If we imagine Twitter as part of our workplace, then we can start to question why we accept ‘working’ conditions that we would find intolerable elsewhere. People rightly reject the idea of working in a space where harassment is rife. Yet our digital workplace is now on the verge of becoming even more of a trolling wild west.
Conversations between academics on the platform are not simply the products of academic debate but are structured within a business model that relies on provoking emotional investment. Anxious and outraged people spend more time looking at a screen, so they see more adverts. The particularly bitter invective that characterises so much academic discussions on Twitter, as compared to more respectful discussions in person, is a feature of the platform.
I have spent too much time crafting tweets for a context-less audience, designing messages that both maximise engagement while minimising reputational risk. What if some far right trolls brigade me? What if the target of my snark is tagged into the conversation? What if, unbeknownst to me, there is another reading of my well-intentioned tweet that leads to controversy? I often consider these questions before tweeting.
The hours I have spent mulling over these anxieties has been time wasted. On a properly moderated forum where discussion was structured largely by a shared desire to engage in good faith with sincerely interested people, I would not need to ask such questions.
Not for the first time, my newsfeed is full of people looking for an alternative. What are the options?
At its most basic, Twitter is a real time text feed plus a vast audience. The first part of that equation can be replicated relatively easily without billionaire control, advertising and loose moderation. However, it is the audience which keeps us tied into this system that many of us perceive as harmful to both our profession and society.
The task, then, is not to reinvent the wheel but to encourage our colleagues and audiences to leave and engage people in spaces we have neglected in favour of Twitter’s convenience. This is a difficult task, of course. But the enormity of a challenge is no reason to give up, particularly when the stakes really matter.
Beyond the status quo of Twitter lies enormous potential. There are vast opportunities for engagement with wide audiences in more meaningful and more creative ways than tweets.
We can gain independence from a platform that takes our precious time and converts it into ad revenue. Perhaps most importantly, we can ensure future generations of scholars can build their careers in safe workspaces, whether they are physical or digital.
You have nothing to lose but your threads.
Maurice J Casey is a Research Fellow in the School of History Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. You can follow him on Mastodon: @email@example.com. You can unfollow him on Twitter: @MauriceJCasey