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Science Communication

What will chemists do if Twitter goes down?

Volatility has prompted some chemists to migrate to Mastodon and other social media sites

by Laurel Oldach
November 22, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 42


An illustration shows the Twitter logo, a bird, tweeting about beakers and flasks.

Changes to Twitter made by the social media site’s new owner, Elon Musk, have led some members of the robust community of chemists who use the platform to edge toward the exits, while others wait to see what will happen next.

Twitter, launched in 2006, has never boasted as high an active-user count as competitors like Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram. Still, over the past 2 decades, it has become a watercooler for the scientific community. Past studies have estimated that hundreds of thousands of scientists use the site (PLOS One 2017, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0175368; arXiv 2017, DOI: 10.48550/arXiv.1712.05667). But since October, the new ownership and massive layoffs have led to uncertainty about whether the platform will continue to operate.

“I don’t think that many people necessarily grasp the power that Twitter has had in building community,” says Stuart Cantrill, editorial director for the physics and chemistry group of Nature journals. Cantrill has been a proponent of Twitter for scientists since joining in 2009.

The chemistry community uses hashtags such as #RealTimeChem and #ChemTwitter to discover and discuss new papers, keep up with colleagues, and swap tips about mentoring, reaction conditions, grant applications, and more. Papers posted on Twitter tend to see slightly higher citations, studies have shown. Lab heads, chemistry departments, and companies recruit job candidates via tweets.

The platform has democratized the chemistry discourse, some Twitter users tell C&EN; a scientist need not be well established in their career to attract a large following. Users say that visibility on Twitter has led them to new career opportunities. Twitter-based movements like #BlackInChem have challenged the scientific community’s culture, and interactions on the platform have given people a sense of belonging.

Paulette Vincent-Ruz of New Mexico State University, who has studied both scientific identity and the networks that scientists form on Twitter, says, “One of the strongest sources of my chemistry identity is the fact that I’m seen as a chemist by chemistry Twitter.” Vincent-Ruz recently began to archive tweets with chemistry-related hashtags to preserve a record in case the site goes down.

In addition to site function, users have raised concerns about Twitter’s future culture as high-profile impersonations and harassment have increased. Amid those concerns, questions about how to preserve the community that Twitter hosts have become more urgent. Saint Louis University’s Paul Bracher, who tweets as @ChemBark, says, “You’d hope everyone reconvenes at a common location—and it seems like everyone’s talking about Mastodon.”

Mastodon, an open-source social media site distributed between independently operated servers, reminds some chemists of days gone by on Twitter. “It was small, and we knew each other, and there was a lot more interaction,” says Nadine Borduas-Dedekind, who has stopped using her Twitter account and instead focuses on a cozier Mastodon community. Still, the site has a learning curve, and she thinks many users are still “trying to figure out how to find each other.” Others criticize Mastodon’s user interface, more insular conversations, and the difficulty of finding other users.

Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and head of the Center for Open Science, says, “People want to be where everybody else is. In the context of volatility, people that have platforms that get a lot of attention . . . play a big role in shaping those norms.” Cantrill has been compiling a list of chemists who have started Mastodon accounts; it has about 500 names.

A few chemists tell C&EN that they’re spending more time on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or other sites. “It’s basically just the early adopters and activist types who are making this first move,” Philip Mai says about the Mastodon migration. Mai studies social media at Toronto Metropolitan University. Many users are hedging their bets, keeping a presence on Twitter while also starting a Mastodon account. He says that if Twitter remains functional, it will take 3–6 months before social media researchers can tell for sure whether the Mastodon movement “will fizzle out.”

“I’m planning to hang around as long as it lasts and hope the other members of #ChemTwitter will do the same,” Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals, says in a statement. “We have a part to play in speaking up for evidence-based science and communicating that science with clarity, perhaps now more than ever.”



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