This week, the Supreme Court held that there is a First Amendment right to access websites like Twitter. The state of North Carolina is not permitted, therefore, to ban those on the sex offender registry from posting on sites like Facebook and Twitter. This is a victory for free speech rights, especially in an era in which, as the Court notes, cyberspace is the locus of so many important conversations. But how has Twitter shaped these conversations?
Like the comments section of websites (where society’s mantra has become “don’t read the comments”), many Twitter users respond reflexively, angrily, and simplistically to the weighty, complex issues of the day. Even politicians at the highest levels condense nuanced issues into a small number of characters and appeal to the lowest common denominator to garner likes and retweets. Some of the worst effects of Twitter, however, are on those whose norms and pursuits should run exactly opposite to what Twitter encourages. I want to briefly catalogue the ways that Twitter creates perverse incentives for academics.
Twitter rewards those who propound the most popular ideas. Academics, by contrast, are charged with questioning paradigms, challenging orthodoxy, and daring to say something unpopular yet thought provoking. These ideas change society over time, after great reflection and dialog. The medium of Twitter not only precludes the space to establish these ideas, but instils fear of offending those who shame others into silence.
In addition to the negative “stick” of intellectual shaming is Twitter’s unfortunate “carrot” – Twitter caters to our basest instinct to be liked. The best way to “go viral” on Twitter is to say something that immediately resonates with people in a clear and simple way. Immediate likes and retweets are the best gauge of a good idea, not norms of sophistication, thoughtfulness, and thoroughness (these can converge in some academic circles, but do not always). Going viral is necessary to gain followers to read one’s actual scholarship, but, in this age of instant gratification, going viral has become more of a goal than a means to an end.
One of the ways academics distinguish themselves from others is that their main goal should be exploration of ideas and the pursuit of dissemination of knowledge, not dedication to political causes. Yet, so many academics devote a great deal of their time on Twitter not to critical analysis, but to motivated reasoning that supports their political ideologies. The political views of many academics on Twitter are predictable, easily identifiable, and unfaltering. Their students can see that their main motives are political, not academic, and that they are taking time away from critical scholarship, teaching, or writing rec letters for students to yell at the President, or stereotype all liberals.
Partisanship combines with pandering to produce a great deal of hackish tweets, where the snidest tweets with the worst claim to good reasoning and perspective are rewarded.
3. Bad Modeling
Academics should be modeling good behavior for their students. By good, I mean behavior that allows students to engage civilly in academic discourse and participate as respected members of our society. Instead, they routinely engage angrily with strangers, give little respect or deference to those who have earned high positions, and tweet out memes instead of thoughts. Sarcasm is no longer a tool of the petty or disaffected but a way to delight one’s followers, especially in a partisan way. Anger demonstrates commitment instead of irrationality.
Because of the instantaneous, constantly evolving nature of Twitter, academics also model poor critical thinking. Today, I read an article on North Korea’s statements about Otto Warmbier. My initial thought was that we cannot trust the DPRK, but nor can we trust the previous administration’s hyperbole that bringing Otto home was the utmost priority. I used this as a way to bolster my own somewhat libertarian distrust of government. Other commenters used the article to affirm their own views – that Trump was similar to Kim Jong Un, or that Trump is needed to fight Kim Jong Un. I deleted my initial-response tweet because I want more time to think about this issue – which speaks to how much our own government has the capacity (and desire) to mislead, the critical differences between America and North Korea, and the ways in which the media shapes our understanding of politicians. I’m still not sure what I think about all of it, but by the time I wrap my head around it, Twitter will have moved on. Those who respond in time usually have the least thoughtful takes, with the worst analogical reasoning, and the most dire messages. Academics should not model that modus operandi.
One of the most offensive things about Twitter, which I thought the academic community would be smart enough to rise above, is the shameless self promotion and self congratulatory nature of Twitter. Retweeting praise of one’s work is common, as is the mutual praising that erupts when two academics are working together. Norms of humility and academic purity have been replaced with unabashed bragging and sycophantic complimenting (often in the hopes of ingratiating oneself to someone more powerful or receiving a reciprocal compliment).
Twitter is a great resource for finding longer articles and conversing with those we wouldn’t otherwise meet. It’s also a fantastically democratic way to establish oneself outside of traditional power structures. But, like any outside, unestablished platform, its norms may be destructive. At this point, I am beginning to think Twitter is causing more harm than good- especially in communities whose already excellent, well-established norms run counter to Twitter’s model.