What happened to EconTwitter?

EconTwitter might be dead. Might be. Maybe. Regardless of it’s status, I thought it would be interesting to think about what EconTwitter was, what happened to it, and where (if anywhere) it might be going.

What was/is EconTwitter?

EconTwitter was a sub-network of (mostly) economists, policy professionals, and journalists that produced an unusually tidy amount of useful content and mutual support. The culture was largely positive, even amidst the occasional spats and political aggression. Research was promoted and discussed, expertise valued (especially in applied metrics), and policy ramifications argued over. The discourse was, by both the standards of Twitter and economics, broadly civil. Perhaps most importantly, voices often marginalized in more traditional academics institution attained prominence, most notably women and faculty in less famous institutions. Wit could carry you a long way, being helpful farther still.

What happened?

Elon happened is too simple of an answer, but it’s not a trivial component. I mean, Donald Trump used to have overwhelming gravity on the site, but EconTwitter persisted nonetheless. The negative impact of Elon Musk’s attempts to curtail criticism from journalists, failed changes to verification, and general ability to troll his way into being the main character of seemingly every Twitter sub-network all had negative effects on the discourse everywhere, but it seemed to hit EconTwitter particularly hard. Why? To get into this without careening off into a 6,000 word thinkpiece, let’s revisit the three sub-groups that make up the consituents of any collective action: privleged, intermediate, and latent members.

Privleged members are those who benefit so much from the public good being collectively produced that they would independently produce the good absent contribution from any other member types. For EconTwitter, you can imagine the 15-20 people with sufficient followings or fame that they can run profitable substacks or blogs, produce leading textbooks, or write a regular column for a major publication. These are the people with the most gravity on EconTwitter, who create the most within-cluster connections. Were any of us more than two degrees from Paul Krugman?

Privleged members could probably produce a club good that re-produces a lot of the EconTwitter discourse, but it would be unlikely to ever have the same reach outside of the academic and wonk bubble. The reach of EconTwitter only happened because of intermediate members, without whom the net benefit of the collective good meaningfully declines, but standard collective action obstacles would typically undermine the public good in question. These are the people who produced the research grist for EconTwitter mill, connected it to other clusters of journalists and policy influencers outside of the economist core, and consistently stirred the conversational pot.

Finally, there were the latent members, those whose contributions were negligible or even negative to the collective good. What EconTwitter seemed to be especially good at was keeping these people safely on the periphery, rarely taking the bait from trolls and “reply-guys”. There were a handful of economists who attracted thousands of followers from outside of EconTwitter simply by trolling and generally being a jerk, making wild accusations or throwing political wildfire seemingly at random, but EconTwitter was pretty good at rendering them irrelevant at best, annoying at worst.

So what happened? If we think of EconTwitter as a collective network good, the damage done to Twitter by Elon seemed to hit the intermediate members of EconTwitter especially hard. Journalists saw their peers attacked and became both less attached to the site and, when there, less concerned with content produced by non-journalists or less directly relevant to journalism as a protected enterprise. People promoting their newest research felt less urgency to take the conversation to Twitter. Perhaps most importantly, the urbane wits that ignited and maintained our conversations simply found less joy in holding a conversation on a platform being actively debased by it’s new owner. Less importantly, but perhaps non-trivially, those net-negative latent members became more prominent in threads, choking off conversations before they could get started. EconTwitter became less fun, a fact that left privleged member contributions largely unchanged, but dipped intermediate contributions sufficiently that the broader network good suffered to the point of flirting with a line it long ago surpassed: critical mass. It was worth taking time out of your day to curate a thread explaining your research or walk a stranger through the vagaries of standard error clustering because you knew there was an audience ready to both pay it back (by further sharing your work) and pay it forward (by helping the next person with a useful question).

The conversation slowed down just enough, combined with the usual holiday lull, that EconTwitter fell to the back of our minds. Some of the most frustrated tried to move to Mastodon, taking their contributions with them, pushing EconTwitter further below the critical mass threshold while simultanesouly producing nowhere near a criticial mass of discourse at Mastodon. Every day below the critical mass is another day of EconTwitter decay, making a revival that much harder save a massive shift in the platform.

What’s next?

I see a couple possibilities.

  1. Nothing. EconTwitter heals.
  2. Nothing. EconTwitter dies.
  3. Re-creation on a private, invite-only server run by the NBER or the AEA. I think this would be an enormous failure because the goods produced would be almost entirely redundant with the club goods already produced. Re-creating an exclusive club good in the current climate would also be fraught with a liability risk that these institutions would be wise to avoid.
  4. A moderated sub-Reddit or Discord. This would be potentially extremely useful, but success would come down to the quality and commitment of what would have to be nearly full-time moderators, otherwise risking being hijacked by the troll legions on the site-that-shall-not-be-named (no, I’m not going to link to it).
  5. A collaboration of previously privleged substack writers, bloggers, and columnists to start a Discord or Mastodon Server. This would do the most to recreate the economic discourse. It would be fabulous for metrics conversations and other technical concerns. It would be good for getting feedback on working papers. But could it ever have the same reach to policy influencers and the lay public?

It’s the last one I find most intriguing. That attempt to collectively create a mini-Twitter on Mastodon. The interface is clunkier, the server less reliable, a critical mass discouragingly far in the distance. And yet.

I can’t help but think that if we built it they would come. If a converstaion amongst academics and wonks were to start and persist for a couple years, then those beloved intermediate members, journalists, wonks, lay enthusiasts, meme geniuses, and, yes, even the joyful sh*tposters might find their way over. It sucks to have to start over, and maybe EconTwitter will recover, but if there is one thing I believe about society, it is this: once you’ve achieved proof of concept on a large-scale collective good, you should never give up on it, not matter how much water it’s taken on. These things are hard, but necessary for the broader social project. We made it work before, we can make it work begin.

You can find me on Mastodon at: https://econtwitter.net/@mikemakowsky I’m going to try to start contributing to the conversation there while not entirely abandoning Twitter quite yet.

(Thanks to Paul-Goldsmith Pinkham for administering the Mastodon server!)

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