I will miss science Twitter.
It’s hard to overstate the social network’s influence on science during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the pandemic’s influence on science Twitter. A rich community of researchers and science journalists existed there before COVID-19, but seemed to grow exponentially during the first months of the pandemic.
Twitter has become an invaluable tool for finding, sharing and debating emerging science about the virus. The researchers made connections and collaborations through the platform, published data in near real time, and often explained these results (and their limitations) in layman’s terms so that journalists and the general public could understand them.
Of course, there were downsides. Healthy debate could be misinterpreted by the public as uncertainty rather than a natural part of scientific progress. Follower numbers could be mistaken for expertise, amplifying hot takes that have served to make people overly anxious or jaded about the disease.
Then there were the internal fights. By year three, Twitter science had gone from largely united against a common enemy – COVID-19 – to divided on the right response to that enemy. What was once a useful public verification of information has instead become an opportunity for each faction to reaffirm its particular position. The nuanced discussion was lost. Some arguments escalated into verbal abuse. And yet, the optimist in me was certain that if a new virus appeared, Twitter science would pull itself together.
That optimism evaporated after Elon Musk took over Twitter. Even if the last two months of chaos prove to be a momentary wrinkle, I can’t imagine the community will ever function like it used to. Agents of misinformation and disinformation have always been a problem, especially when it comes to COVID-19, but they are increasingly indistinguishable from trusted sources – and sometimes seem to be algorithmically preferred over them.
Some prominent members of the Twitter science community understandably recalled their use or left the site altogether. Even though there are good conversations, they have become very hard to find.
This scientific community, of course, has always been much more than COVID-19. The platform has played an important role in verifying new discoveries. The rise of science Twitter—which I use here as a catch-all for all corners of the biotech, medical, and scientific universe—has coincided with the rise of preprint servers. These allow data to be shared quickly and openly, but before it is peer reviewed. Researchers could be observed in real time digesting new papers, pointing out their limitations, or pointing out where work might be important.
Twitter has also helped create a place of public accountability in science. People like Dutch microbiologist Elizabeth Bik have used the forum to shed light on research irregularities at universities and biotech companies.
Even with its warts – and we all know there are plenty of them – these things aren’t just worth keeping alive, but are important for maintaining a healthy science ecosystem.
Still, most people I’ve spoken to seem to agree that Twitter isn’t the place anymore. And as long as Musk is the owner, he seems unlikely to get over it.
As Derek Lowe, a well-regarded pharma blogger, told me the week after announcing he was quitting Twitter for good, “He might be able to put himself back together, much like gravity gradually bringing the pieces of an asteroid back together. broken.” Then again, he added, “that may not be the case.”
The two main destinations for the wider Twitter science community appear to be Mastodon and Post. Both, for now at least, feel half-baked. Communities take time to grow, but they also need the right format to thrive. Whatever comes next should be able to facilitate a discussion that is easy to find and join, and allow all stakeholders to be heard. From what I’ve seen so far from Mastodon and Post, I’m not sure that’s quite it.
The lack of a viable alternative likely means the community will split. As one researcher pointed out (on Twitter, of course), they’ve noticed journalists migrating to Post and scientists migrating to Mastodon. It would mean losing the best part of Twitter, which was having so many people in the same room. Over the past 13 years, I have been able to participate in conversations between biotechnology CEOs, academic researchers, venture capitalists and patients – really anyone who has an interest in a technology or a new policy in medicine or health care.
So yes, I will miss Twitter Science – and in fact, I already do.