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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Law Professors on Twitter

Like many law professors, I am on Twitter. And like many law professors, I often question whether being on Twitter is a particularly good idea.  Among other things, I enjoy Twitter because it allows me to read the tweets of other law professors and to engage with law professors about their tweets and mine.  But while reading those tweets and having that engagement can be quite enjoyable, it can also be quite the opposite.

In the past few months I have had several conversations with other law professors in which they expressed surprise and disappointment in how other professors have used the Twitter platform.  There are a variety of complaints—some professors use the platform to tweet intemperately about political views, some use it for over-the-top self-promotion, some use it to express legal views far outside of their areas of expertise. One common complaint I have heard—and one that I share—is that law professors use the platform to engage in increasingly confrontational and rude ways with one another.  Professors should always be willing to engage with those who don’t agree with them. And we should always expect our opinions to be challenged.  But Twitter appears to have made the tone of those disagreements much coarser and their occurrence more frequent.

I don’t know how to fix the many problems that Twitter causes in legal discourse. But I’ve drafted a short essay on the topic—which can be found here—and I’d be very grateful for feedback on how to improve the essay.  In the meantime, let’s try to be kinder to each other in 2018.

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on December 31, 2017 at 05:41 PM in Carissa Byrne Hessick, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


1. I enjoyed this essay, and think it adds a lot
2. Thanks for reading (and citing!) my "study"
3. I think one area for exploration is what law professors are supposed to do if they want to use Twitter as an "ordinary citizen." Open a second account? But then how do you separate personas? I tend to follow your norms, and as a result I fight the urge to post about whatever sport I'm watching or sharing some silly web story I read. So, I wind up doing it on Facebook, where I also have a professional persona, but also a "personal" one, with photos of my kids, shares of Onion stories, etc. So, am I doing Facebook wrong as well? I know one colleague who has not only unfollowed me, but I think even blocked me, because I shared one to many poop stories about my kids (something I haven't done in many, many years, I might add). Or is Facebook somehow different? I've seen plenty of the same statements, behavior, comment threads, etc., there, but a) it doesn't seem as bad, b) I don't consider Facebook to be the useless wasteland that I consider Twitter, and c) I would like to keep using Facebook the way I do.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Dec 31, 2017 6:47:09 PM

When I had my wisdom teeth pulled, they gave some sort of opiate pills for the pain. I took one and found that the nausea and later on intestinal problems far outweighed the analgesic value. After the one I switched to over the counter pain relievers and never looked back.

I tell this story because like Twitter, I can intellectually know that opiates are extremely addictive, but as a visceral matter I find both so repulsive that it is hard to really understand.

Posted by: Brad | Dec 31, 2017 7:06:46 PM

i thought i'd use twitter to reply to carissa's essay & post about twitter: https://twitter.com/lexlanham/status/947914925686521862

Posted by: alex roberts | Jan 1, 2018 3:18:27 PM

As an older JD student interested in legal academia, I can say that regretfully, and despite myself, I have definitely lost some respect for some of my professors upon observing their behavior on Twitter. This almost necessarily dovetails with the professors' effectiveness as a teacher in the classroom: It is very difficult to separate a teacher's views on, say, Administrative Law (or, more commonly, Con Law), from his/her incredibly snarky (and sustained) conduct on Twitter, whether the tweets are about Admin law or (partially) unrelated political events.

Some of the most prominent and well-respected law professors in the country also (merely happen to?) come across as some of the most condescending law professors on Twitter -- and this is not based on a one-off or just a few posts. (And, especially for these professors in particular, is self-promotion of the kind they engage in on Twitter really necessary? Re-tweeting every mention of your most recent interview, or general-audience publication? At this point on the "ladder", where else can you possibly go, and where else could you possibly publish? You've already "made it"!)

Of course, I understand law professors will not change their behavior just because some of their students happen to find it off-putting. In fact, I bet at least some of the professors I have in mind may even find it amusing that their students can be so "precious." And maybe it's not any of our business what professors say to their colleagues on the internet. But *how* they say it matters, if we're to take seriously the notion that our professors are, to whatever extent, role models in addition to exam-graders and letter-writers.

Posted by: Former Editor | Jan 1, 2018 7:52:13 PM

Although I am on Twitter, a little, I can’t help but sympathize with Brad’s view. Fans of Twitter insist that it has value, the more so the more selective you are in what or who you read. Maybe so. But I find that more than very brief exposure to it induces a state of nausea. Sometimes it feels like the nausea that might be the first stage in taking an addictive and pleasure-enhancing drug, but it’s nausea nonetheless. The question is, at a minimum, not whether it has value but whether its downsides outweigh its upsides, and beyond that whether the addictive nature of the medium, its incentives, and its capacity to change the user of Twitter are factors to be considered themselves.

As another comment on the comments, I can’t stress enough the importance of academics, legal and otherwise, recognizing the importance of engaging in the world of politics and public argument, at least some of the time, as *citizens,* not as academics. It’s noy just that many issues on which they opine on Twitter and elsewhere are beyond their actual academic expertise, or involve questions or types of argument to which even their ostensible expertise is not especially helpful. Engaging as a citizen is a good in itself; not asserting one’s “authority” in every public debate is respectful of both democratic equality and the limits of the academic function; it may staunch the erosion of public trust in institutions, including universities, and in expertise itself; and it may change one’s perspective, perhaps for the better. Academics who want to be “engaged,” active, or committed to various political issues ought to consider doing so more often stripped of their titles and affiliations and strictly in their civic capacities. (Many do on a local level, to be sure: They may do volunteer work or get involved in local political issues without invoking their status every few seconds. I’m referring specifically to the world of public discussion and argument about current issues.) The worst that might happen is that their pronouncements and arguments will be treated by readers as less persuasive and paid less attention, and thus be less “effective.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

If they persist in both being “engaged” and trying to intervene in public discussion AND doing so in a way that invokes their titles and affiliations and ostensible academic and/or expert status, then yes, even if the medium is not academic and the discussion is public and not limited to the academic sphere, it makes sense to think about norms or practices that should guide and constrain them when they do so. They might be different from the norms and practices of scholarship, for example, but they will still be constraining norms reflecting their academic status and function.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 2, 2018 9:35:45 AM

Given the nuanced and subtle nature of most legal issues, I find it remarkable (in a negative way) that any thoughtful law professor would willingly be constrained to 140 characters. It is akin to a heart surgeon limiting his work to 5 minutes.

Posted by: Phil | Jan 2, 2018 1:32:13 PM

If you've just found this post, I recommend you also read Paul's new post on the topic: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2018/01/on-passion-an-addendum-on-law-professors-and-twitter.html

Posted by: CBHessick | Jan 2, 2018 5:15:30 PM

I think Professors may want to consider the degree to which repeated political posts don't just alienate people they disagree with, they serve as noise on their friends' feeds. I personally unfollow people in my field if the majority of their tweets are political and not related to their expertise, just so I can see tweets I'm actually interested in seeing.

This goes back to expertise as well as clutter. If I can see the same tweet from a political tweeter then it's not clear what the value-added is of my colleague's tweet. On the other hand, if there's actual analysis to my colleague's tweets (as in, not just visceral reactions), I'm less likely to unfollow.

Also, and for what it's worth, the shift from 140 to 280 characters is fairly significant to lawprof tweeting - there are a lot of ideas that don't fit into 140 characters that can be squeezed into 280.

Posted by: AnonForever | Jan 2, 2018 5:38:30 PM

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