Mark McCaughrean is gradually moving his online home. McCaughrean, an astronomer with the European Space Agency, has had a Twitter account for many years. In the spring, when Elon Musk first proposed buying the social media platform used by nearly 240 million people worldwide, many were concerned that such a purchase would add to Twitter’s obnoxiousness and allow misinformation to drown out reasonable discourse — Musk calls himself is a “free speech absolutist” and has promised to stop censoring accounts. But for McCaughrean, it was beyond that. “At some level, I made a choice that I didn’t want to personally support his ecosystem.”
So McCaughreen decided to open an account on Mastodon, a recent, much smaller Twitter rival. “I just left a username there,” he says. But 2 weeks ago, after the Twitter sale went through, McCaughrean started using the new platform. “I was much more active there than I was on Twitter.”
With 16,000 followers, McCaughreen is not a 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 general public.
Initially dismissed by many as a platform for self-promotion, Twitter in recent years has 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 an important role in spreading 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 begun looking for alternatives or considering quitting social media altogether. For a while, the hashtags #GoodbyeTwitter and #TwitterMigration trended, and many researchers posted their new Mastodon exploits, encouraging others to follow them on the site, which gained more than 100,000 new users within days of Musk completing his purchase.
For now, most researchers are waiting to see what happens with Twitter. “I’m hedging my bets with a Mastodon account, but I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon,” says biologist Carl Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom, 163,000 followers) at the University of Washington, Seattle. Many other researchers do the same. This means that even if little changes for now, the groundwork is being laid for what could quickly become a digital mass migration of scientists.
The biggest fear is that Musk’s Twitter discourse will get even worse. Indeed, as part of Twitter’s mass layoffs today to cut costs, he left the curation team largely responsible for quashing misinformation on the platform. This, combined with a leak of experts, would mean that disinformation could go unchecked. “I’ve always felt that having expert voices to counter the spread of misinformation is important and necessary,” says Boghuma Titanji (@Boghuma), a virologist at Emory University with more than 22,000 Twitter followers.
Others worry that the idea of ”free speech” will go too far. “While I agree with the importance of free speech on social media, I’m also concerned that some of Musk’s rhetoric on the issue is being perceived by some users as relaxing the norms governing interactions on Twitter,” Petersen said. “We know from research that the norms governing a social media group influence the level of hostility in the group.”
Indeed, the use of racial slurs on the platform spikes after Musk took over the platform, though he said the rules hadn’t changed. “If it becomes too toxic and abusive, I will leave to preserve my well-being and consider other platforms,” Titanji says.
The issue of the platform’s toxicity only reinforces long-standing concerns that Twitter’s leaders are insufficiently protecting some groups of people, particularly women and people of color, from harassment and abuse, said Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “They rarely take action on reported tweets and there has always been abuse and threats on the platform.” Sridhar (@devisridhar, 323,000 followers) says he’ll see how things go before deciding to get off the hook.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan (@angie_rasmussen, 411,000 followers), has been a victim of such abuse. But she notes that Twitter helped her land her current job and start some research collaborations. “Right now, I still find it a useful platform for following colleagues and learning as well as sharing,” she says, adding that she won’t be leaving Twitter as long as the good outweighs the bad. “If people who like to tell me I’m a stupid/fat/ugly/old/not screwed up/unlovable/compromised/corrupt/conflicted/incompetent bitch get a free pass to say whatever they want without limit or moderation, the cost analysis and the benefits will change for me,” she adds.
Many researchers, whose tweets are what help make the platform valuable, also cringe at the idea of users paying a subscription fee to one of the world’s richest people. Musk offered a paid service that includes the blue checkmark that signals a verified account and fewer ads. “It will definitely push me out the door,” Titanji says. “Basically, I believe that social media users are creators of free content 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 while Twitter may be a public good, it’s never been a good business: The company has had between $1 billion and $5 billion in revenue in recent years, mostly from advertising, but only turned a profit in 2018 and 2019. Musk’s efforts to make the business profitable again, it may be that the platform is doomed, Bergstrom says. “I really think it’s a very real possibility that the whole thing will collapse in a few months to a few years.”
But leaving Twitter also comes at a price, 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 many researchers who have built large Twitter followings is that deciding to move elsewhere means starting from scratch. “Some people have gone to great lengths to build a following on Twitter,” Fisler says. “If I do leave, I’m not sure I’ll move to Mastodon right away or just use that as a reason to do less social media,” Rasmussen says.
However, online migrations tend to be gradual, says Fiesler. In one of her research projects, a participant described it as “watching a shopping center slowly fail.” But the speed with which academics flocked to Mastodon surprised her. “Things are changing faster than I thought even a week ago,” Fisler says. McCaughrean agrees. “I see institutions joining [Mastodon], observatories, institutes,” he says. For now, many people will maintain a dual presence, Fiesler says—there are already programs that can automatically post to 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 has largely moved to Mastodon, the big question is whether the general public will also move there, allowing scientists to communicate with more than just each other. “When I tweet, I’m talking to my neighbor, the guy at the grocery store, and the teenager who’s thinking about studying science in college,” Fisler says. “That’s the beauty of social media scientists.”