The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Simple Principles for Tweeting Well

Twitter doesn't need to be a "planetary-scale hate machine" for everybody.


I've read several guides recently on how academics -- especially law professors -- ought to use Twitter, such as this law review essay by Carissa Hessick, this set of thoughtful self-imposed rules by Josh Blackman, and these dour posts by Eric Posner proclaiming Twitter a "a black hole of value-destroying technology for all concerned" and "a planetary-scale hate machine."

As Eric points out, the structure and incentives of Twitter make it hard to have thoughtful or persuasive exchanges, and easy to validate one's own beliefs or get a thrill out of being mean to others. As Carissa's and Josh's principles wrestle with, that can make it a difficult medium for those of us committed to academic ideals.

But I still use Twitter, and while I don't have anything nearly as thoughtful to say as Carissa and Josh, I do have three basic thoughts on how law professors can do so without getting sucked into the black hole:

1. Aspire to inform, not to convince.

For all of the reasons Eric canvasses, Twitter is not a good medium for substantive argument, especially argument conducted by scholars or with academic rigor. But it is a great place to learn about things that are obscure or outside of your own expertise. The marginal cost of following somebody interesting but very different from you is low. So in my view it is better to focus on providing links and information than trying to pack much argument into a tweet or even a thread.

2. Promote the kinds of things you'd like to see more of.

If one thinks of tweeting as informational, and one considers the universe of tweets as a whole, what is the point of your Twitter feed? To elevate out of the chaos whatever you think your followers ought to see. The consequence is simple: Tweet things you think people ought to see. Those who want to see more snark or wit in the world should be tweeting more of that. For my own tastes and values, I tend to link to both legal obscurities and interesting scholarship, especially if it is at risk of escaping widespread notice. (I am more likely to tweet something interesting and new on SSRN than the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review.) Of course this also justifies promoting one's own work, though not to the point of parody.

3. Don't promote the kinds of things you'd like to see less of.

A simple corollary to the previous point, but surprisingly controversial. I only rarely link to things that I think make a net negative contribution to the literature. I don't retweet, even to condemn, people who I think are arguing unhelpfully or in bad faith. If I have a substantive argument, I will try to find time to make it in an email or blog post or article. But I try to do my small part to make the universe of tweets better rather than worse.

I will put aside questions of time management, which I have not yet mastered in my own life, though I don't spend much time on Twitter. Time management aside, I have thoughtful friends who have quit posting on Twitter or who lament doing so. This is understandable but unfortunate. It can be a modest tool for good.

BTW, you can follow Carissa @CBHessick and Josh @JoshMBlackman. Eric used to be on Twitter, but alas he took his own advice and quit.