Academic Subtweeting

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

This week, I co-authored two essays with Seth Barrett Tillman on somewhat obscure legal questions. First, what happens if the Chief Justice is unable to preside at the presidential impeachment trial? Second, can the Speaker of the House be elevated to the Presidency? The former piece was occasioned by the spurious claim that Chief Justice Roberts might have to recuse given his comments about President Trump. The latter piece was based on the increasing likelihood that Vice President Pence may also face an impeachment inquiry.

This post won't rehash our admittedly unorthodox position on offices and officers. Rather, this post will opine on yet another way that Twitter degrades academic discourse: the subtweet. Merriam-Webster defines the term as "a usually mocking or critical tweet that alludes to another Twitter user without including a link to the user's account and often without directly mentioning the user's name."

Subtweets are very common on Twitter. Often, a person will criticize someone's writing, but not "tag" him or her. (Twitter only notifies you if you are tagged in the tweet.) The subtweeter may include the person's name, but not his username. Or, the subtweeter may add a screenshot of the offending person's tweet.

Why subtweet? Some people on Twitter are prone to block critics. A subtweet avoids the blockage. In other cases, the subtweeter may want to avoid getting into a lengthy Twitter fight with the person. A subtweet preserves social-media sanity. In any event, subtweets are designed to avoid notifying the person who is being criticized. Subtweeting provides a small degree of anonymity, even when posting from a public account. That is, you can avoid confronting the accused. (My research assistant wrote her law review note on whether a subtweet could give rise to Title IX liability.)

In short, subtweeting promotes a one-sided attack that avoids an open exchange. This purpose is inconsistent with academic discourse. Professors should not subtweet as a means to criticize other professors. If they wish to critique a fellow scholar they can do so publicly, by tagging them. Let the chips fall where they may. Or critique them privately in an email. I always prefer to contact someone directly if I have a question about their work. You can even send them a link to the tweet!

The best way to criticize another scholar is the old-fashioned way: write a substantive response. Indeed, we chose to post on Balkinzation as a means to respond to Gerard Magliocca, who wrote only the Chief Justice could preside. After reading our post, Gerard changed his opinion, and said we were right.

In January 2018, I posted my own rules for Twitter. At the time, I wrote:

In my experiences there are two general categories of @replies. First, there are people who are asking genuine questions: Perhaps my post wasn't clear, or there is a logical followup question, or maybe there is an issue I hadn't considered. I don't mind replying to those queries in a thread. The second category are people who are not asking genuine question (even if they preface their tweet with "I have an honest question"). Instead, they are baiting you into making a point, which they will then turn against you (perhaps by setting you up for a hypocrisy charge, see #3), or are simply baiting you into an argument that has no end, because they enjoy public debate. More power to them, but it's not for me. Most arguments on Twitter consist of two or more people trying to prove that he/she is (1) smarter, (2) wittier, and (3) and more persuasive. Present company included, most people are not nearly as smart, witty, or persuasive as they think they are. Especially on Twitter, when debates become emotional. To avoid this trap altogether, I only respond to questions I see as falling into the first category. I'll simply ignore the latter category. If you ask a question on Twitter, and I don't respond, please send the same question to me by email. I promise, I will reply quickly. (My response rate is rapid.) That so few people ever follow up with an email suggests that more often than not, the goal is not to exchange ideas, but to occasion a public Twitter fight.

Since 2018, I have significantly scaled back my Twitter usage. I no longer reply to anyone. It is not a good use of anyone's time. I will be happy to respond to questions by email.

I do acknowledge one irony of this post. So far, I did not identify the subtweeters! You can read the thread here. This was not the first time I was subtweeted by people I know well, and engage with frequently. I welcome emails from any or all of them if they have questions about my work. Or a substantive response.

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  1. This entire post can be summed up as “oh yeah, say it to my face” – a common complaint about backstabbers and gossipers since 4 million bc (at least according to radio carbon dating of graffiti on cave paintings gossiping about other tribes without their knowledge). Proverbs has some choice words for those who whisper gossip and spread discord, evidence that people have been doing this for eons.

    Modern humans simply do it at the speed of light.

    1. oh, and we gave it a new modern fancy name, “subtweeting”

    2. Someone needs to take away Josh’s Volokh keys. This isn’t his personal blog.

    3. Say it to a person’s face- or more properly, “don’t say stuff that you wouldn’t be willing to say to someone in person”- is a good ethic to live by.

  2. Can you point us to that note?

    My prior says No, a subtweet can’t (normally) trigger Title IX, but might in some narrow circumstances (ex: a bot targeting everyone the subject knows directly with nefarious content, but then it’s the pervasiveness of interference wit association that matters) but I’d never really thought about it since Title IX gets abused in all sorts of other ways.

  3. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call reTweet

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHqF9FYp5UE

  4. So, this is something like a sub-woofer, only higher pitched?

  5. Does the Volokh Conspiracy notify everyone it criticizes with respect to the criticism? Failure to do so would seems similar, if not identical, to that which is disparaged with respect to Twitter.

  6. She didn’t @ you, but she did link the blog post. Does Balkinization give you access to linkbacks? If so, I don’t know that this is really a subtweet. Maybe by the letter, but not the spirit.

    1. I had the same thought as Leo: I think of a subtweet as one that doesn’t link to the original writing or directly reference it.

  7. Is someone who subtweets a sub-twit?

    Twitter, the most aptly named social media service on the face of the earth. The vast majority of their users are twits.

  8. Holy navel-gazery

    1. I don’t think so. I think we all have various feelings that arise from social media that we have to deal with. I think it is worth talking about, even though my point of view is that ultimately, this isn’t worth worrying about.

  9. This belongs on your personal Twitter page, not Volokh.com, my dude.

  10. If Blackman says he never responds to tweets. Then what objection is there to subtweets? The point of avoiding avoiding a subtweet would be to give the person the “opportunity” to respond.

    It sounds like whoever is subtweeting him may be doing him a favor by saving him time.

    Just another perspective and not a criticism: but I think Blackman’s time (and everyone’s time) is much more valuable than worrying about this.

    1. No, the way to avoid subtweets is to stay the fuck off twitter.

      Friends don’t let friends tweet.

      Only twits tweet.

      1. Well, there is always that option.

      2. But academics need likes, followers, and retweets to show the tenure committee that they are actively engaged in public discourse with a broad audience, and have a national or international following.

  11. there are two general categories of @replies. First, there are people who are asking genuine questions: Perhaps my post wasn’t clear, or there is a logical followup question, or maybe there is an issue I hadn’t considered. I don’t mind replying to those queries in a thread. The second category are people who are not asking genuine question

    So it’s impossible that someone might respond with a serious counterargument?

    1. “ maybe there is an issue I hadn’t considered. ”

      You even quoted it. A counter argument falls nearly into “an issue I hadn’t considered.”

      1. Not quite the same thing.

        For example, a counterargument might be based on pointing out a factual error, or an error of logic.

  12. Josh, given your penchant for repetitive self-promotion and willingness to inundate VC readers with posts like this, I am far more sympathetic for the “academic subtweeters” than I am for you. I totally get why they would not want to engage with you.

    Academic inquiry is predicated on open exchange, but that doesn’t mean that the person making an argument is entitled to a notification every time someone wants to disagree with something he’s said or written. It is entirely possible (and in my view, likely) that people who disagree with you just don’t think your argument is good enough to merit a full-out back-and-forth.

    I mean, what’s next? If you present a counter-counter-argument, are they then obliged to either concede the point or respond substantially? What do you think others owe you, exactly?

  13. “In short, subtweeting promotes a one-sided attack that avoids an open exchange. This purpose is inconsistent with academic discourse. ”

    Publishing in a journal provides no mechanism to notify a person that they have been mentioned in the text. Therefore, it promotes one-sided attacks, rather than open exchange. Therefore, publishing in a journal is inconsistent with academic discourse.

    ” they enjoy public debate. More power to them, but it’s not for me.”

    Then why would you care if you are subtweeted?

    “Since 2018, I have significantly scaled back my Twitter usage. I no longer reply to anyone. It is not a good use of anyone’s time.”

    This accords with the position I’ve held all along. Twitter is not a good use of anyone’s time.

  14. I stopped reading after the first 280 characters. Revise, shorten, and resubmit.

    1. Complete sentences? Way too long.

  15. I have my own rules for twitter:

    don’t.

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