The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Academic Subtweeting


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.