Music,  twitter

Your social media choices, as 70s disco tracks

Let’s play an imaginary game (it might actually be real for some of you). You are applying for a large research grant, and one of the work packages relates to dissemination and community building. Beyond the standard conference papers, academic articles and workshops, there is an assumption that there will be a strong online element. What platform or approach do you write into your grant?

For the past decade or so, the go-to answer would be a Twitter account, probably with associated website and maybe a YouTube channel. The other bits may vary, but the Twitter account was often the sine qua non in getting engagement with a project beyond its immediate participants. All life was there, you could hijack hashtags for conferences or topic areas to draw attention to it, create a regular identity, follow and engage with prominent names, disseminate resources, etc. Inger has commented “Please stop encouraging academics to use social media as a way to create research impact and engagement”. It’s toxic, a mess and that takes all the fun out of it. But it would also seem odd not to use digital networks as a means to disseminate, engage and build community if those are aspects of your project.

I’ve deliberately been a bit vague as to what the purpose of social media is in this hypotehtical project, and we’ll come to that later. Amplify FE conduct an annual audit of FE related Communities of Practice. In their 2022 report (the new one is coming in Sept so will be interesting to see the impact of Musk’s twitter takeover) of the 260 CoPs they reviewed the breakdown of platform was:

  • Twitter 109
  • Mailing lists 79
  • Jiscmail 34
  • Facebook 47
  • Facebook groups 12
  • LinkedIn 36
  • LinkedIn groups 12
  • Instagram 16
  • Teams 12
  • WhatsApp 1

Mark Carrigan provides a useful overview of your post-Twitter options on the LSE Blog. The point is, the choice is now a lot more complicated, and the audience a lot more fragmented. So let’s look at our choices for our hypothetical research bid work package, framed as 70s disco tracks (because I’m tired of writing about twitter, you’re tired of reading about it, so it may as well have a good soundtrack).

Twitter/X – it is still the largest social media site, but it’s not just a few principled people leaving now, major players are decamping, the stability of the site is questionable, functionality such as website APIs has been turned off, blue tick verification now just means you’re an asshole (to the point where people want to hide it), and, well the whole Elon Musk, white supremacy, piece of crap vibe is not really something you want to be associated with, or spend your time in. It might be worth setting up an X account still, but it feels like the whole enterprise is holed below the water line now.
Love don’t live here anymore.

Threads – the shiny new kid, with lots of privacy issues and a whole load of functionality still required to be really useful. This could be a good bet, but lots of people tried it and then went away again, so it will need to start implementing things like hashtags, web interface, APIs and searchability pretty quickly to maintain momentum. And we’re all wise now, we know a billionaire can just shut it down on a whim. Probably can’t be your only, or even main, platform at the moment.
Keep on, don’t stop till you get enough

LinkedIn – a lot of people have moved to or at least increased their LinkedIn activity post Musk Twitter takeover. The engagement is quite good, and if your goal is disseminating reports, sharing useful resources and engaging on a professional level, it is a pretty good option. It lacks the informality and personal charm of the interaction that you find on other platforms, it’s a strictly business channel, and the interface makes you want to go and look at flowers for a day to remind yourself that beauty still exists, but it is functional.
Some of the work gets kinda hard at the car wash

Facebook – this is the opposite of LinkedIn really, it’s all about family, friends, and interests. Facebook groups can be quite useful, but it is difficult to get traction in these unless it’s a subject people are really interested in (it’s unlikely your project itself will be such a subject). Distance education students make a lot of use of Facebook and groups, because they prefer it to the formal VLE forums and like being away from the formal gaze. But it tends to be more bottom-up, user generated rather than a platform you could adopt successfully, but some projects do. Also, like Twitter, lots of people have abandoned Facebook so you’re going to lose a lot of the audience.
Don’t blame it on the good times, Blame it on the boogie

Mastodon – in many ways, this should be the best choice for academia. It is open, has the functionality you want, community driven and not subject to the whim of megalomaniacs. And for those who use it exclusively, there is a vibrant community. And yet… the fediverse concept is hard to grasp, and it hasn’t had the mainstream breakthrough we saw with Threads. Funding it and relying on people to provide the labour of administration remains an issue, but your project could always consider settig up their own server. But it feels rather niche still and I’m not sure it will ever break out of that. I also have a suspicion, rather like the fans of a band who don’t want them to go mainstream, the fediverse advocates may not really want it to. It is quite hip to have your own server though.
Le freak, c’est chic.

TikTok – even before Musk’s gutting of Twitter, younger audiences were ignoring it in favour of TikTok. So it will depend on who your audience is, but I suspect most academics are probably not going to be adept at creating wicked tiktoks.
Young hearts run free, never be hung up

Blog – there is a good argument (well, I like to make it anyway) that all this disintegration and fragmentation of corporate owned social media reinforces the case for owning your own domain. It at least makes sense to have a central base you control and view other services and platforms as complementary avenues. This is probably going to be true of your project regardless of what other tools you adopt.
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’, And we’re stayin’ alive

Discord/Slack/WhatsApp – related to the above, some communities and projects have found favour in more focused apps, avoiding the noise and traffic of other discussions. This works well if your project is going to be engaging with lots of people and communities as part of its other activities, and those people are motivated enough to make a separate space sufficiently active. WhatsApp groups are something lost of people are in anyway, and the closed nature of the space makes it feel safe. The disadvantage is they are not as open, and there is a much reduced chance of serendipity because you’re not bumping into other conversations and chats the way you are in the big melting pot of Twitter. It can also be difficult to get people to come to a new space (eg Discord) if it isn’t part of their everyday digital suite.
We are family

YouTube/Podcast/Instagram – these are all probably add-ons to the main dissemination and engagement channels, but they can be enormously effective and also allow for fun and experimentation. To really work though you have to commit to regular production and build an audience over time. Podcasts for instance will work if you have a topic that can be explored from different angles and you can bring in guests over a prolonged period and can have someone as an engaging host. But when it works, it works really well.
I find romance when I start to dance in Boogie Wonderland

Newsletter – again, this is likely to be an additional channel, but newsletters can also be seen as a replacement for the fragmenting social media space. There are some great tools out there for these, and as with podcasts and the like, you can build a good audience and develop a unique voice over time. They can also integrate well with the blog and really create an identity over time. But with so much competition it is difficult for people to find you so you might want to choose platforms like Substack or Ghost to help boost some discovery.
Won’t you take me to Funkytown?

The Metaverse – LOL, only joking.
burn that mother down, (burn baby burn) disco inferno

Abc Dancing GIF by Sesame Street - Find & Share on GIPHY

The problem you face is knowing which of these will be the most effective. Want to try all of them? Congratulations, you are now a full time social media manager. That might not be in the budget line. The key will be to digging in to that vagueness I highlighted at the start. Why exactly do you want to use social media? Who are the key people you want to engage with? How much do you know about their social media use? What activities in the project will bring people into contact with you? Just setting up a Twitter account isn’t going to hack it any more. You’re going to have to keep searchin, searchin (for so long). Sorry.

If I was in the scenario I set out at the start, and pondering these choices for a new project (this is distinct from a legacy one, where other factors come in to play), I think my choices would be:

  • Main site/blog
  • LinkedIn account
  • Newsletter
  • One other of podcast/YouTube/Instagram/radio show etc that we really devote resource to making distinct.

This gives the project scope for identity and reach. There would need to be a requisite budget allocation to these and commitment to make them work and generate content. This is probably more the case now whereas a Twitter account with some decent activity was often sufficient in the past. With the audience fragmented you have to establish a bigger pull factor and that requires a greater centre of gravity.

Anyway, here’s the playlist to help you ponder:

(Featured image created in Da Vinci with prompt "70s disco glitterball")


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