Do Scientists Still Love 'X'? Exploring the Platform’s Modest But Dedicated User Base

As one of the oldest social media platforms in existence, X, formerly known as Twitter, has found itself a niche: hosting a relatively small but dedicated user base of scientists. However, as the digital landscape evolves with shifting user preferences and new platforms like TikTok and Threads, the question arises: Is X still a viable platform for them, or have they moved on to more popular or more specialized platforms? Here, I’ll explore.

The Rise of X in Science

X’s early years saw a surge in its popularity among scientists. Its succinct nature and conversational platform made it ideal for disseminating links to research and sharing insights that could circulate through the community with hashtags like #SciComm and #AcademicTwitter.

Researchers recognized the potential to connect with peers, engage in interdisciplinary discussions, and stay updated on the latest trends and breakthroughs across various fields. X’s ability to bridge the gap between academia and the public was unprecedented – it became a transformative disrupter for scientific communication, collaboration, and knowledge dissemination. Through it, scientists also found a way to communicate their work to a broader audience, fostering more science communication and public engagement.

<split-lines>"X’s ability to bridge the gap between academia and the public was unprecedented – it became a transformative disrupter for scientific communication, collaboration, and knowledge dissemination."<split-lines>

The Changing Landscape

While X’s initial allure for scientists was undeniable, the landscape has evolved, and challenges have surfaced, including increasing “noise.” The platform steadily became saturated with memes and political squabbles, making it harder for scientific voices to stand out. Researchers often found themselves in a precarious situation of competing for attention against viral pop culture tweets.

Another challenge has historically been the lack of nuance and depth that can be conveyed, given the platform's character limit. Scientific discussions are often complex and multifaceted, requiring a far larger “canvas.” Despite X’s thread feature, its inherent brevity can hinder comprehensive exchanges.

The rise of misinformation has only exacerbated the platform’s shortcomings. The ease of information-sharing on X created an environment where unsubstantiated claims, pseudoscience, and sensationalized findings can gain traction quickly. Echo chambers of anti-science, often led by influential figures, are stoking the fires of contentious conversations.

A recent X feud between prominent vaccine researcher Dr. Peter Hotez and controversial podcast host Joe Rogan appeared in an Axios piece suggesting that platform changes are actually driving the scientific community away. For scientists, this poses a dilemma: Should they stay on the platform to combat misinformation and continue leveraging its communication perks? Or, should they abandon ship in favor of other platforms where they can make a difference, and perhaps be happier?

Competitors to X and specialized platforms catering to the scientific community certainly hold some appeal. Platforms like ResearchGate, Mendeley, Academia.edu, and even LinkedIn offer a more tailored environment for sharing research, networking and collaborating.

These platforms allow favorable features like longer-form content and networking. Science-focused social media platforms also offer unique functionalities, like reference management and data organization.

Growing dissatisfaction with X has led to growth on decentralized social media platforms like Mastodon and Bluesky (the latter was founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey). Meta recently launched its own direct X rival, Threads, which saw over 100 million users sign up in less than five days after its launch but a sharp decline in daily users since.

<split-lines>"Echo chambers of anti-science, often led by influential figures, are stoking the fires of contentious conversations."<split-lines>

X Persists

While alternatives are emerging and there is growing dissatisfaction with platform changes made under Elon Musk, we must acknowledge that X has not become entirely obsolete for scientists.

X continues to offer the community important functionality. X’s power lies in its ability to connect people from diverse fields, fostering unique, interdisciplinary discussions, as well as its user experience and algorithm that easily surfaces news and trends. X’s openness can lead to unexpected collaborations and novel insights, thus advancing knowledge.

Even when users are dissatisfied with the experience, and presented with alternatives like Threads, they are falling back into familiarity. 

Ideally, scientists should consider using a variety of platforms on a case-by-case basis – depending on their individual preferences, communication goals, and the nature of their research.

<split-lines>"Even when users are dissatisfied with the experience, and presented with alternatives like Threads, they are falling back into familiarity."<split-lines>

Is X Right For You?

X is a news-driven platform and because it moves fast, it demands significant attention. Hootsuite recommends posting to X two to three times per day. Most scientific breakthroughs do not move this fast, however, which makes frequent posting a sizable challenge, particularly with limited “news.”

Nevertheless, brands and individuals can repost evergreen content, share posts and insights from others in the community, and engage and react to external conversations. For a brand, having employees and partners in its network engage on social media can go a long way in boosting visibility. Mission North client Ginkgo Bioworks does this very well for a life science brand. If they aren’t posting their own content (in its unique, authentic voice), they are resharing others’. As a result, the community often engages back.

If maintaining a close to constant vigilance on X seems daunting, simply keeping an active presence on X without the high frequency can also be beneficial for brands, especially since younger users are turning to social media for brand research as opposed to search engines. Having something may be better than nothing in these cases, especially for startups that need to establish a presence.

<split-lines>"Brands and individuals can repost evergreen content, share posts and insights from others in the community, and engage and react to external conversations."<split-lines>

Among Mission North’s Life Sciences practice, LinkedIn is arguably the most common platform, largely because its feeds rely on updates from a user’s professional network (so, less “noise”). LinkedIn’s lack of character count and article feature also provide more opportunity to discuss complex, nuanced topics. Because it isn’t limited to an isolated user base, shared content can also reach key audiences (researchers, investors, C-suite decision makers, event organizers, and more).

Overall, while challenges exist, X's unique strengths and position still ensure its relevance in the scientific community. In considering a variety of other options, however, scientists should base their decisions on personal preferences, communication goals, and the nature of their research.

Any questions or comments on our unique take on X? Let us know through that platform or via LinkedIn!

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