speaking truth to Twitter


To be clear, Twitter has many possible uses, its primary one probably being making money, but, of course, its users, including me, put it to work in a variety of ways. It seems in the last year or two many academics have discovered Twitter (in much the same way that Columbus discovered America). And among academics one can also find Twitter being put to a wide range of uses, both personal and professional. Much of this is benign, but increasingly the public face of academics in social media is being defined around a fairly narrow class of tweets.

Perhaps it would be useful for someone to do a current analysis of the academic uses of Twitter and maybe even identify some subgenres among tweets. I haven’t done that analysis, so this is more like a sketch, but I am writing here about a particular tweet subgenre. In this subgenre, one essentially is making an appeal to pathos that energizes those who agree and incites those who do not. The emotion that is expressed is something like the righteous indignation that arises from an absolute certainty in the justness of one’s view and cause. It would appear as if it is often tweeted in anger, though one can only guess at the mind of another. Though such utterances can occur across media, Twitter is an excellent place to see it because the 140-character limit serves to focus the message. And clearly academics are far from the only people who engage in such expressions, but academics are an interesting case because of the relationship of these expressions to academic freedom and tenure protections.

I am not interested in adjudicating the righteousness of any particular academic’s cause, let alone weighing in on their job status. I am interested though in the rhetorical decisions behind these compositions.

It’s reasonable to propose that some of these tweets are simply posted in anger. People get angry all the time. Typically, when they are in public or professional settings, they manage to control their anger. However, this phenomenon is not simply about users who post without thinking, as a kind of spontaneous outburst. It is also about a perceived obligation to anger, a way of inhabiting online spaces, which makes these tweets a more deliberative act.

As James Poulos notes,

On Twitter, we’re not screaming at each other because we want to put different identities on cyber-display. We’re doing it because we’re all succumbing to what philosophers call “comprehensive doctrines.” Translated into plain language, comprehensive doctrines are grandiose, all-inclusive accounts of how the world is and should be.

But it’s more than that. Often the rhetorical strategy employed here is one of ad hominem attacks. When it isn’t a personal attack, it is often an emotional appeal. I suppose there’s no space for evidence in a tweet. One can only express a viewpoint. Combined with this tendency toward “comprehensive doctrines,” we get a series of increasingly extreme and divergent irreconcilable views.

I understand, in some respects, why everyday people get involved in such rhetorical warfare. I’ve written about this quite a bit recently. Academics, of course, are everyday people, so maybe that’s explanation enough for why they do what they do. However as professionals communicating in a professional capacity, I find this rhetorical strategy simply odd. To raise this question is typically to get one of two responses. First, “I have academic freedom; I can do whatever I want.” Or second, “Are you trying to silence me? Then you most be (insert ad hominem attack here).”

All of this has made me realize that I have been mistaken about the underlying ethics of academia on two crucial accounts.

1. I thought that academia was based on a fundamental pluralism, where we are obligated to be open to multiple possibilities and viewpoints. This doesn’t mean that we cannot hold a particular view or argue for it, but, at least in my view, it would obligate us to participate in forums where different views are heard and considered. Twitter can work that way, but it isn’t easy.

2. We can’t be “true believers” in relation to our subjects. Even in a first-year composition class, a typical piece of advice on a research paper assignment is to say “don’t ask a research question that you think you already know the answer to.” As scholars if we are not open to changing our minds and views on the subject we study, then what’s the point?

But, as I said, I was mistaken about this. Academia is often about espousing a single viewpoint with little or no consideration for alternatives, except for the purposes of developing strategies to attack them. Social media did not create this condition.You can blame postmodernism or cultural studies for creating conditions where we look at all scholarship as ideologically overdetermined, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. If anything, such methods should create greater skepticism and uncertainty. Maybe academia has always been this way, only ever pretending to the open consideration of alternative viewpoints that we insist from our students. But I don’t think that’s true. I think, at least in the humanities where I mostly dwell, we have become increasingly entrenched in our views. Maybe that’s in response to perceived threats to our disciplines; maybe it’s evidence of disciplinary fossilization. I don’t know. However it is fair to say that social media has intensified this condition.

Regardless, this practice of speaking truth to Twitter, which would almost seem to require revising the old refrain, “The people, retweeted, can never be defeated” (see, it even rhymes better now), points once again to our continuing struggles to develop digital scholarly practices. Is the future of digital scholarship really going to be clickbait and sloganeering?