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A recent post by Gina Sipley on the excellent Impact of Social Sciences blog laments the decline of Twitter since it was acquired by Elon Musk, and talks about the value of lurking. It’s certainly true that lurking is a beneficial activity: I don’t know why people complain about it. After all, it’s what you do in a bookshop, when you browse through books; or, for that matter, in a clothes shop. When you walk out of the shop, the retailer has learned very little; nothing about you, only, perhaps an indication of where you looked. If only the publisher could capture your response to each book that you look at! But that doesn’t happen, and for a good reason: if you had to respond to every item in a bookshop you would never enter.

Unfortunately, however, Sipley’s post damns as well as praises. While ostensibly approving lurking (“Lurking plays a vital role in building, maintaining and scaling online communities”) she also reveals some of the habits of social media that don’t appeal to me, including the use of a shared vocabulary that is acquired around it.

Gina Sipley is an academic, and no doubt is acutely aware of the split in academic between users and rejectors of social media. Some researchers love social media and swear by it; others resist it because they see it as introducing unwanted pressures and behaviour into the academic community. Sipley, as a thoughtful social media user, describes Twitter as nothing less than an invisible college: a community of academics sharing ideas with one another. While such a community is highly necessary, it seems a shame to me that it should require Twitter to exist. There must be a better way to maintain such a community than by using Twitter.

I’m no academic, so who knows? Perhaps academics are able in a way that I cannot to separate sensible suggestions from what I find on Twitter to be an unacceptably high intrusion of irrelevant or unhelpful comments. That hasn’t changed. While Sipley complains quite rightly about the monetisation of Twitter, let’s not get too sentimental about this social media service. I didn’t find Twitter, and I don’t find X, or other social media, an example of an invisible college, because at the same time as providing links, they provide a heavy-handed push towards a specific kind of behaviour:

  1. Keep posting, even if the topic has changed from the original idea – the flow of tweets steadily takes over from the subject matter
  2. Keep the posts entertaining, which leads in the end to serious topics dissolving into facile comments
  3. Follow an implied correct behaviour, in a rather facile way (for example, retweeting).
  4. Use the social media slang and abbreviations, such as “AFK”, away from keyboard, as a sign that you belong to the group (just like group slang shared with teenage gang members). Such terminology acts to exclude as much to include.

It is a strange kind of invisible college where the ground rules push you away from the topic and away from the very community you want to be involved with.

All these objections to social media existed before the latest changes to Twitter/X that reduce its value for users. To be honest, the very term “lurking” implies criticism. If lurking is acceptable behaviour in a shop, why use such a derogatory term for social media? Before I commit to getting involved, I want to see what kind of conversation is going on. If that is lurking, give me more of it.