Twitter is the internet’s public square. A town crier drowns out a knot of gossipers. The buzz from the local newsstand mixes with nearby vendors hawking their wares. I remember being there when all of this was still a novelty, but after a while the noise and bustle kept giving me headaches. So I packed up my things and left. As a millennial, Instagram is more my vibe. Post a picture of an attractive buffalo cauliflower wrap or my golden retriever, Albus, parading the latest stick he found — that sort of thing.
But similar to the bird-like Sirens from Greek mythology, Twitter keeps luring me toward its jagged shoals. Friends send me links to tweets. My partner always knows things about the world slightly sooner than me. News breaks on Twitter; academics are on Twitter; conversation happens on Twitter in a way that it doesn’t happen anywhere else. So, finally, hesitantly, I gave it another chance.
As a history PhD and news addict, the draw for me is seeing scholars, journalists and other intellectuals talk about and react to current events. But, let’s be honest, I come for the hot takes and stay for the snark. It feels like these strangers get me in some weird, disembodied way. I can effortlessly float between debates among historians, policy wonks, lawyers and countless other groups whenever I want. The Sirens, it seems, are doing their job.
After a while, I noticed something in my feed. People take pictures or post screenshots of books, documents, speeches, laws or supreme court opinions and quote them to provide insight or context to current issues. The savvier folks link these snippets together into threaded arguments, sometimes using the spool emoji to kindly alert their followers of an incoming deep take (or mega-dunk). Kevin Kruse, a noted #twitterstorian, has even made his pinned tweet a “thread of threads” that, in effect, serves as a primer on modern American political history.
Sourced threading is definitely the exception on Twitter, not the rule. Back in 2007, while I was busy ordering my top eight friends on MySpace, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, had an idea for a new social platform. He imagined a tweet as a type of status update. Twitter was meant to be a networked platform where people could publicly post versions of those old AIM away messages. Remember those? Twitter was supposed to be how you let your friends know when you were getting a haircut, not a tool to close read Proust.
So what’s with all the threads? Pictures of physical books, snaps of hand-written annotations, emoji spools — these are all hacks by a specific community of users on Twitter to get the platform to do something it wasn’t originally designed to do. The more I see these things in my feed, the more I think about who those users are, what they are trying to do, and how Threadable, the social reading platform I’m developing, can help them do it better.
What Are Intellectual Influencers?
Intellectual Influencers in the Wild
For those who may not know, the academic job market is a dumpster fire, and has been for some time with very few job openings and hundreds of highly qualified applicants, competition is fierce. And the pandemic is only making things worse. As each year passes, there are more and more smart, talented people who graduate with PhDs but can’t find stable, well-paid academic employment, let alone a living wage.
Many are turning to monetization platforms like Twitter, Substack, Medium, podcasting and Patreon to continue doing what they love. Fully tenured, social media savvy professors like Kruse also understand the power of these platforms to engage with broader audiences to promote and sell their work.
With the rise of the creator economy, monetization options for social media influencers have expanded on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. This new path is also open to intellectual influencers, or as they were known in the past: public intellectuals. If you’re scoffing at the idea of making a living by blogging, consider that it only takes around 500 paying subscribers on Substack to make as much (probably more) money than you would in a year as an adjunct. And that’s just one platform.
Intellectual influencers are sharing their expertise and helping people think critically about the world, while providing context, perspective and analysis on important topics. Simply put, they’re creating value. But these influencers are running up against the limitations of existing platforms. Twitter conversation is decontextualized and fleeting. Substack’s dated message board format is unsatisfying and most comment sections are crickets. This is where Threadable can be useful.
By allowing people to create their own private reading Circles where readers can discuss with others inside the margins of books and documents, Threadable offers a new way for intellectual influencers to build and engage with their audiences.
For example, podcast hosts can use Threadable to get into a book or document with their listeners before the hosts record an episode and later incorporate parts of this discussion into the podcast. Co-creation is a powerful form of engagement.
We’re also thinking about ways we can design the platform so leaders of reading Circles can receive tips or charge subscription fees, or at least provide access as an additional perk into their paid-tier offering. There are a lot of different and novel ways this can go.
If Twitter is the public square, then Threadable is the nearby coffeehouse: cozier, quieter, though no less vibrant. “The overwhelming new fact of our time,” writes Jonathan Marks for Inside Higher Ed, “is the explosion in demand for and supply of intellectual content, and the ability of seekers of nearly any kind of content to find it.” It’s time our social media platforms reflect this new reality.