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What’s the Future of Science Twitter?

In the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover, many researchers are exploring their options with the open-source platform Mastodon.

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Katherine Irving

Katherine Irving is an intern at The Scientist. She studied creative writing, biology, and geology at Macalester College, where she honed her skills in journalism and podcast production and conducted research on dinosaur bones in Montana. Her work has previously been featured in Science.

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Two weeks after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, many people who’ve used the platform to participate in conversations around science and academia have publicly contemplated setting off for new social media territories. But many are unsure where to go, and when.

Even prior to the takeover, scientists had voiced concerns about the spread of misinformation and hate speech on the platform, Science reports. Musk himself has previously tweeted information about the pandemic and health science that experts have deemed dangerous and false, Forbes reports. Then, on November 4, Musk-initiated firings dissolved Twitter’s curation team, which had aimed to tamp down the dissemination of misinformation, Science reports. Musk also began implementing rapid changes to Twitter’s so-called blue check program, including allowing users to buy the badges once exclusive to verified accounts of note. The chaos that ensued, including a flurry of fake brand and celebrity accounts, has further undermined trust in the platform’s utility to scientists and other experts.

See “Twitter’s Science Stars Fight Misinformation

Discourse around Mastodon, a free and open-source platform created by German developer Eugen Rochko in 2016, has shot up in the past couple weeks. Nearly 500,000 new users have joined the platform since Musk’s takeover of Twitter on October 27, Nature reports. Mastodon, unlike Twitter, is decentralized, meaning that it exists on many different servers centered around different locations and interests. Users aren’t limited to following and interacting with only other users on that server.

“Coming into Mastodon is a bit like going for drinks after a conference,” Catherine Flick, a computing and social responsibility researcher at De Montfort University in the UK, tells Nature. “You get to chat to everybody; people who understand academia and the ground rules for academic conversations.” Mastodon does not employ algorithms to recommend content; the posts a user sees depend on the people they follow and the server they chose for their account.

Although some scientists tell outlets that they like the more niche and selective space on Mastodon, others wish the platform had a wider reach. “When I tweet, I’m talking to my neighbor and the person in the grocery store and the teenager who is thinking about studying science in college,” Casey Fiesler, an information researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells Science. “That’s the beauty of scientists on social media.”

See “New NAS Awards Honor Science Communication in ‘Post-Truth World’

Those with large Twitter followings will have to completely rebuild their community on Mastodon or any other social media platform they choose to migrate to; for some, that’s not worth the effort, Science reports. “If I do leave, I’m not sure I’d move to Mastodon immediately or just use this as a reason to do less social media,” University of Saskatchewan virologist Angie Rasmussen tells the magazine.

For the time being, many scientists are planning on staying put, Science reports. “I’m hedging my bets with a Mastodon account but not planning to leave in the short term,” biologist Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington tells the magazine. Forbes notes that Mastodon may not be the only alternative: A platform such as one under development by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and other former Twitter executives could become the next social media hub. For now, Nature reports that most scientists on Twitter are waiting for new developments before migrating entirely to Mastodon.

“At the very least, they might still use both services,” Ian Brown, a cybersecurity researcher at Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, tells Nature.

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