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X marks the spot, or does it mark the end?

Updated: Jan 26

Building a nest

For well over a decade, a cheery little blue bird has been a staple tool for anyone marketing online. In our sector, anyone promoting new journals, sharing opportunities to submit papers, or building up awareness of their brand and expertise has considered "Twitter" (now "X") as a key part of their plans. Live tweeting quickly became a normal and valuable part of events, fostering dialogue between attendees and connecting with those who can’t attend.

The platform has opened up new ways to promote scholarly publishing activities, not least opening up ways for researchers to promote their own work to a wider audience more easily. And publishers have helped with this by encouraging authors to produce “tweetable abstracts” (discover, for example, this article explaining the idea written more than a decade ago). With the possibility for a wealth of connections and surprisingly in-depth conversations for a 280-character limit, Twitter's central role in our sector was well established.

But all this started to change on 27 October 2022 when Elon Musk purchased the platform and arrived at Twitter HQ with, literally, a kitchen sink.

Almost immediately changes began to creep in. Users previously banned for hate speech began to reappear and algorithms shifted and appeared to prioritize less relevant and more toxic content. Many Twitter staff, including those involved in fact-checking, resigned or were pushed from their jobs after an ultimatum from their new boss.

Perhaps most concerning for users, especially those in industries like ours with a high awareness of the importance of credibility, was the decision to allow people to pay for a blue tick. Previously, this mark was reserved for those people whose identity and authority had been independently verified but now it can be obtained by anyone with an opinion and a bit of cash. There was also a move to remove ticks from previously verified users who didn’t pay, although the platform has since back-tracked on this.

Taking flight

The response from the user community was swift. Long-established Twitter users began to engage less or delete their accounts. Just explore the hashtags on X of #GoodbyeTwitter, #TwitterMigration for example. Every "Twitter" account I looked after at the time, in a range of different sectors, saw the statistics for follower numbers and engagement levels plummet in October and November last year (although activity levels have since crept back up again).

And people began to look elsewhere. Mastodon saw a surge of new users - something that the federated collection of volunteer-led platforms initially struggled to cope with. Some people moved the conversations they would previously have had on "Twitter" onto LinkedIn. And, in July 2023, we saw the launch of Threads, the latest offering from the Meta stable.

But still, the little blue bird carried on. As the roundup of views from Scholarly Kitchen Chefs highlights, many people have been continuing to wait and see, setting up accounts on other channels but still valuing the interactions on X. The little blue bird brand remained.

X for extinction?

Until late July, that is, when Elon Musk announced he was renaming and rebranding the platform. Twitter became X, a letter so loved that he used it not just for his space rockets but also in his own child’s name. And the highly recognizable, cheery blue bird logo was replaced with a white X on a black background that would look more at home in an adults-only shop than on a social media platform. It seems a strange decision, to say the least, and Marketing Week provides 12 good reasons why the rebranding was a mistake.

Dan Slott X post says that changing to X is like when you want to close something on your computer

As we begin to get to grips with the new terminology, the question is: is this finally the end for the platform’s usefulness to marketers? That remains to be seen, perhaps because there is no one answer to where next, for the scholarly publishing sector or for social media users more generally, with little agreement on an alternative to X.

Gareth Jones poll which platform to go to. X wins

Phoenix from the ashes

It seems inevitable, at least for now, that audiences are spreading their choice of platform and fragmenting, still using X but also exploring other options. And the publishing sector needs to do the same. This also makes sense given the demographic spread of the audience and potential audience.

It’s no secret that many Gen Zs only really use Facebook to interact with their grandparents. However, in some lower-income countries, this dynamic is turned on its head because Facebook provides free access to a version of the internet. In the huge market of China the social media landscape is different again.

The scholarly publishing sector has yet to really embrace platforms like TikTok that attract a younger base. But, with the oldest of Gen Zs now at an age to not only be reading but also authoring academic papers, publishers will need to embrace ways to engage them. Generation Alpha is not far behind; it will be sending its first students to university in the next five years.

So, Musk or not, perhaps change was inevitable. Perhaps there is an opportunity to learn from what has worked well with Twitter/X. Encouraging researchers to create short, lay-friendly summaries of their work has been a positive step towards making research more accessible. Similarly, the opportunity for hybrid conversations, where people can get a sense of hot topics for discussion at conferences even when they are not there, has been very valuable in our sector. These kinds of benefits could be replicated elsewhere. There is an opportunity for existing platforms to extend what they offer (see, for example, this discussion about opportunities for LinkedIn to fill some of the gaps that X is leaving as it slowly sinks).

For now, it seems sensible, as many publishers are already doing, to be on multiple channels and explore what works best to engage with different audiences. This is especially the case in light of news that Elon Musk may soon introduce subscription fees to use the X platform. And it’s important to watch this space. We certainly will be!

I’ll leave you with a reminder that marketing opportunities can spring up in all sorts of different ways. Here’s the brilliant way that the wildlife charity WWF used the shift from Twitter to X to make an important marketing point.

WWF UK statement acknowledging the loss of the Twitter bird with a timeline of the logo through the years. Also making a statement that 38 million birds has gone from our skies in 50 years

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