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Twitter, Science, Power & Cal Newport

Normally I would be all over this new Cal Newport piece in WIRED about how Expert Twitter could be so much more helpful about the pandemic if only it were supplemented by blogging.

In the new piece, Newport (author of the bestseller “Deep Work” and high priest of social media renunciation) begrudgingly admits that Twitter has introduced us to all sorts of crucial expert voices and angles — such virologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. But Twitter, Newport complains, is lousy at “complex discussions or nuanced analyses,” isn’t easily searchable, can’t be edited and (outside of a sole pinned tweet) can’t feature content. So let’s bring back long-form blogs nested in websites that can give us all those things. I like this paragraph a lot:

In this first stage of the crisis, a lot of energy has been devoted to building out the supply chains for medical equipment, therapeutics, and testing materials. As we come to realize that the free flow of expert information can play an equally important role in our response, it’s time that we build out the best possible content supply chains as well.

Unfortunately, Newport thinks these websites should be run by universities and other “reputable institutions” that have the social capital required to “filter out cranks, but hopefully not so stringent that important dissenting voices would be excluded.”

But that last point is precisely why Science Twitter became a thing in the first place, as Alex Danco (late of the VC firm Social Capital and a former Ph.D. student in neuroscience) reminds us in his quite wonderful recent blog post (!), “Can Twitter Save Science?

As Danco brilliantly outlines, research has two gluts, which he calls “positional scarcity”: a) a glut of postdocs (some 50,000 in the US alone) chasing permanent research jobs; b) a glut of research chasing after publication in the “most impactful” journal possible, while journals can all charge outlandish subscription fees because universities need to subscribe to them for their faculty to keep up with the literature.

Two gluts, creating a branding moat: To advance in science and relieve their positional scarcity, young PhDs postdocs must publish in high-impact journals. Traditionally, that has been the only way to build a personal brand in science. Not coincidentally, it has also served to solidify power in the hands of journals, institutions and PIs. Postdocs pay this “brand tax” in money, time and influence — “regressively taxed from the young scientists, to the old ones, in exchange for nothing but brand access,” writes Danco. “It’s bad for science, and by extension, bad for all of us.”

Twitter is beginning to break all that, Danco argues. It gives young scientists “a way to build brand directly, and eventually acquire peer review directly” as they share preprint results and publications on Twitter and (as we’ve seen in the pandemic) sharing working papers before peer review. Because Twitter is the new peer review. And the media are reporting on these papers as if they are “real science.”

Danco calls this dynamic “real-time Wikipedia, for research that’s happening now.” I’ll write more about the potential downsides of this on Friday. But it bears noting that, while research-driven content aspires to present the best possible information, applied expertise and insight for problems in the world, it very often has to circumvent power to do that, and very often fails.

Seen through Danco’s insights, Newport’s solution — put curation power back in the hands of the very institutions that stifle full discussion — seems anything but benign.