Finding the Community after Twitter

Posted in: digital humanities  writing projects  social media 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

For years and like many in DH, Twitter was my main connection to the larger DH community, both to share my own work and to see what was going on in the field. I never felt that I was consistently active on the platform, but I had accumulated a modest following over the course of the last decade more by virtue of consistency than anything else. I was always convinced most of those were bots, but I did come to cherish the little cohort of DH regulars that interacted in that space. It was how I learned about the field, found jobs for students, and generally stayed connected.

The platform has long been fraught, a wildly different experience depending on your identity and work. But things feel different now. This summer’s writing sprint coincided neatly with Twitter’s ongoing implosion due to Musk’s mismanagement (the platform became X since this post was first drafted). I’ve largely refrained from posting there for a few months as the ties between the app and far-right politics felt increasingly difficult to ignore. The platform’s continued decline has caused an identity crisis for a number of DH folks. Even for those that remain, it’s clear that the collection of DH users there is not what it once was. Where has our DH community gone since Twitter? How would I find them? Quinn Dombrowski has posted about their experiments building community on Mastodon, and I’ve been exploring that space slowly and haphazardly. My colleague Will Rourk has found some exciting success posting about his 3D scanning with his students on LinkedIn. Bluesky seems most promising to me, as a growing cluster of DH folks seems to be making their way there (more on Bluesky at the end of the post). I now am juggling half a dozen social media apps for work, where I used to have just one. Which of these platforms would work for me? Is it possible to just work in one?

The writing sprint gave me an opportunity to test my own network and try to answer some of these questions. In the before times, I would have tweeted each blog entry with a couple ICYMI posts to make sure I got coverage. I might occasionally post to Facebook. But I didn’t think more of it than that. The audience was on Twitter, and it was all I had. Now I had a range of apps to test. I signed up for TinyAnalytics, a free and privacy-conscious alternative to Google. Each time I posted, I shared the link using the same language to the same set of platforms:

  • the #community channel shared by the UVA Library and the Scholars’ Lab slack teams
  • Mastodon
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn

There are all sorts of issues with this “study” of mine. I was fairly new to Mastodon when I started this series. I’ve been on Facebook for years, but my community there consists mostly of friends along with the occasional DH colleague. I’ve largely just had a placeholder LinkedIn profile. I could have added Instagram, but I tend to leave that exclusively for music content. And I only started using Bluesky towards the end of the summer. While there is nothing rigorous about the analytics work I’m doing here, I still found the results interesting.

Mastodon and Slack combined for 70% of the referrers to my site over the summer (my analytics lumps both under “direct links” and can’t differentiate between the two). I assume that figure mostly comes from Mastodon given the difference in engagement I noticed in each space. Even though the platform is newer and my community smaller, the people there seem more likely to engage than folks ever were on Twitter. Smaller audience, higher impact. Interestingly, it also seems to be largely a different audience, perhaps because I’m on the Humanities Commons server and not on anything specific to digital humanities. Not everyone from Twitter made the move over. I had expected it to feel like I was posting into a void, but I wound up with the sense that I could still get writing out there.

My old habit of sharing exclusively to Twitter made some assumptions about my audience that this experiment made clear. As folks spread to different platforms, I also found myself reaching communities that I never would have expected. I had a local artist come up to me at a recent music gig and talk to me about the blogging I had been doing - a first! Grad school friends who I never would have expected to take an interest in this particular work pinged me to talk about the writing. Our union organizer appreciated a post Ronda Grizzle and I co-wrote about facilitating meetings. I started to think of my work less as specific to a DH public audience and more as an overlapping set of publics with different interests and priorities.

Students regularly ask whether you need to be on Twitter to participate in digital humanities. My answer has always been complicated. Up until a year ago, I would have said you certainly don’t have to, but the platform, for all its risks, could connect you to communities you never would have imagined. At present, I would discourage anyone from joining it for the first time given its politics, mismanagement, and the fragmentation of the digital humanities community in that space. Instead, I would encourage folks to explore alternative platforms. For now, I’m bullish on a combination of Mastodon and Bluesky as a viable path forward. I’ve found that each of these two spaces has their uses. Bluesky, especially, has seen a growing number of DH folks join and participate in it in the weeks since I drafted this post (I am one of those latecomers!). You need an invite code to join, but there is a small handful of folks soliciting the community on a regular basis for codes to give to DH folks looking for access. Quinn Dombrowski and I put together a google form for soliciting invite codes and sharing them out if you have them. So far we’ve connected about 60 folks to the platform, so please join and engage! Quinn also noted that ACH is developing a working group aimed at reconnecting the DH community on the platform and building into a positive one for us. So watch that space for further developments. If you’re joining for the first time, check out Mark Sample’s DH feed and add yourself to it (currently has about 125 people in it). I’m hopeful Bluesky will continue to grow into a workable alternative, particularly in conjunction with Mastodon for a broader, less DH-focused reach.

I’ve always felt social media was what you made of it. If you never posted, your network would never grow. If you regularly engaged, you would find an audience for your work overtime. The platforms also offered clear diminishing returns at a certain point: harassment, mental health anguish, a time sink, and more. All the same, this summer has made it clear to me that I need start engaging intentionally again. The DH world is still figuring out where to land, but it’s clear to me after this summer’s experiment that social media can still be a viable way to reach an audience. Even though it feels like I’m starting over, I was pleasantly surprised at the engagement I’ve found this past summer. The process has reminded me of something I had forgotten: blogging feels worth it to me even if you get only a handful of engaged readers. You can still find those even in the fragmented social media ecosystem.