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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Twitter and the Lawprof

This past August, while attending the IP Scholars Conference in Berkeley, I decided to start a work-related Twitter account (I already had a personal Twitter account but kept it locked and very separate from my professional life).  I imagined that it would be a useful way to keep in touch with colleagues, post brief comments about issues related to my work, provide quick updates about work I was doing and conferences I was attending, and communicate with students about class.  It’s been about one full school year since I started operating the account, and below the fold I explore how my experience with Twitter has been so far, and proffer a few thoughts for how this social media platform might be used effectively by lawprofs.

My first thought in starting a Twitter account was that it would be a helpful, although not exclusive, way to provide students with information about class, and I’ve found this to be the case.  I often post last-minute changes to office hours, reminders about assignments and events, and quick notes about updates to the syllabus, and to the extent that students are following my Twitter feed (about which more below), I think this has been a Paret0-optimal move, as the L&E folks are fond of saying.  To give just one example, last semester, I ended up coming in on a Sunday during reading period, and tweeted that I’d be in the office for a few hours in case students wanted to come by to ask questions, and several students did. 

I could have achieved this with an email, of course, but the advantage of Twitter is that it’s less invasive.  I don’t want to crowd already-jammed student inboxes with the kind of quick notes and reminders that I often tweet about.

Interestingly (to me, at least), I did get some skepticism from students about the Twitter account.  While many students are on Twitter, not all of them are, and the ones that weren’t seemed worried that they could miss crucial information about class if they didn’t start an account and follow me.  One student even made his first tweet, “I’m only doing this because my professor said I had to follow him on Twitter.”  This would be concerning if it were not just a misunderstanding.  Of course, I never said any such thing, and explained very carefully that I left my account public because I wanted to make sure people could follow it without having to start a Twitter account themselves merely by going to twitter.com/dave_fagundes.  So I think the objection that not all students actively operate Twitter accounts is unconcerning, all in all, though it has caused me to be careful not to post any crucial information exclusively on Twitter (but also to, e.g., TWEN) in order to make sure there’s no disparity in who receives it.

Also interestingly (again, to me, obv), many students seemed to find it hilarious that a law professor would be on Twitter.  On a number of occasions in class, I mentioned that I posted something to Twitter, and they’d titter (and yeah, that-there rhyme was intentional), and this would amuse me.  I asked a few students about this, and they explained that they perceived Twitter as un-serious, so that having an account seemed incongruous with the gravitas of the legal profession (my re-phrasing, of course).  One student even mentioned this in an eval, saying “Twitter is for athletes and rappers, not law professors!”  This objection also seems to me insubstantial.  Twitter is clearly not just for celebrities, as its multiplicity of users attests.  This kind of formal objection often arises in the context of new media.  Back in the 90s, many people thought the entire internet was just for nerds who wanted to talk about Star Trek.  My sense is that categorical objections about who should use any new medium typically reflect the objector’s lack of vision and understanding rather than a meaningful substantive concern.

I also thought Twitter would be a good way to stay in dialogue with colleagues, and this has turned out to be true as well, at least to the extent that these colleagues are on Twitter.  Twitter has proved a good way to post a quick update saying, for example, “I’m at thus-and-such conference.”  I used Twitter to thank Ann Bartow for her comments on my roller derby IP norms paper at JSIP, and to thank Chris Sprigman for writing a feature (with Kal Raustiala) about that paper on Freakonomics

All of these functions can, of course, be achieved on Facebook via status updates, but I have a slight preference for Twitter, which may be more a result of path dependence than anything else.  Also, I tend to post slightly longer, more involved status updates on Facebook rather than quick notes and updates (probably a personal idiosyncrasy, since many other people seem to use Facebook status updates for just that purpose).  And of course, Twitter reaches a different audience—it’s anyone who chooses to follow you, as opposed to just those you allow to follow you on Facebook.

I’ve also found Twitter to be a great source of quick updates on current news items related to my field, since I follow relevant feeds like SCOTUSblog and StanfordCIS.  Twitter is how I found out that the U.S. had killed Osama Bin Laden (and where I heard the first hundred people say “Donald Trump isn’t going to believe it until he sees Bin Laden’s long-form death certificate”).  It’s also where I first saw that certiorari had been granted in Golan v. Holder.

I’ve been more reluctant to use Twitter as a platform for expressing substantive opinions, simply because it’s hard to say anything of substance in 140 characters.  Some lawprofs make a valiant effort at tweeting substantively (and yes I'm aware that "tweeting substantively" may be an oxymoron, and in any event certainly sounds like it should be one), such as Larry Lessig and Adam Winkler.  Even so, I think the best one can do on Twitter is to express a simple idea (“I dis/agree with this case”), and that attempts to actually explain or substantiate that opinion are impossible in the allowed space.  So while I’ve seen people try to get into substantive debates on Twitter, I’m usually underwhelmed by this, and they seem more like simplified sniping matches rather than anything of real substance or value.

So at the end of my first year using a professional Twitter account, I’d rate the experience a qualified success, and I’ll conclude with five thoughts for lawprofs who may be interested in starting a Twitter account of their own:

1.  Maintaining a good Twitter feed requires constant, though not incessant, attention.  If you want the account to be taken seriously as a source of information, it’s probably necessary to post at least every several days, and probably more often.  But it’s possible to overdo it by posting so many tweets that they tend to overwhelm your followers’ feeds.

2.  It may be a good idea to operate separate accounts, one for colleagues and one for students (or just one or the other accounts).  I’m planning on doing this next year, largely so my colleagues don’t have to be subjected to countless tweets about changes to assignments and additional office hours.

3.  At least until Twitter becomes ubiquitous (if it ever does), it’s probably necessary to have the account unlocked, at least if you want it to be a source of information for students.  Not every student has a Twitter account, and if yours is locked, they’ll have to start an account themselves to follow your feed.  By contrast, if you leave it open, they can just go to your publicly available Twitter page website, and this is no more onerous (and in fact easier) than visiting TWEN.

4.  Related, Twitter can be a nice complement to course websites such as TWEN.  I often post tweets to notify my students that new information (recent .ppt slides, revised syllabus) is available on TWEN.  This is not something I’d want to send an email about, but does seem appropriate in the relatively less invasive context of a tweet.

5.  Use conventions are fascinating and tricky.  Negotiating the 140 character limit while still making a coherent point is challenging, and I realize style is not substance, but I still can’t quite bring myself to post in full-on Twitterspeak (e.g., “u” for “you,” etc.).  I’m all for trying to use new media in creative ways, but in this respect, anyway, I’m old-fashioned.  

Those are the results of my (still ongoing) Twitter experiment.  What are others’ thoughts on how lawprofs might use Twitter to productive scholarly or pedagogical ends?

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on May 4, 2011 at 09:00 AM in Web/Tech | Permalink


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Thanks for the post. I just began using Twitter a few months ago, and all I can say is I wish I had begun sooner. As you note, it is an excellent source of information from government agencies, scientific (and in my case environmental) organizations, as well as the academy. On numerous occasions I have been looking at my feed just before heading to class - a class in which we were to discuss groundwater (aquifer) depletion, for example - when I run across a story about how scientists are linking groundwater pumping with exacerbated rates of sea level rise. It has been an infinitely useful source for providing breaking reports, data and other material to students. I also find it a great way to promote substantive posts on our blog, Environmental Law Prof Blog. Overall, I wish more of the academy would enter the Twitter universe. I resisted for quite some time, but I am glad to be doing it now (and for those interested, you can find me at Blake_Hudson23 :-) ).


Posted by: Blake Hudson | Sep 27, 2011 5:54:05 PM

One issue with Twitter is that if the average user is following a very large crowd or even a few prolific people, I would bet the odds are that despite the brevity, not every tweet will cross everyone's radar. If that's true, it's sort of ironic that a channel dedicated to hyperbrief utterances reaches a familiar equilibrium. (It would be interesting to see some data on usage like that -- I'm sure someone is collecting it.)

Posted by: greglas | May 19, 2011 1:59:12 AM

Hi Jake & Randy. Thanks for the comments. In terms of whether Twitter is better used via smartphone, I don't think so. The twitter.com interface works well for me, and there are some very swift apps that work as well on a laptop as a mobile device. I do like the ease with which tweets can be sent via mobile, though, and this may be an advantage Twitter has over email.

Randy's mentioning his Twitter account prompted me to check it out as well as those of others, and I now am increasingly convinced that "tweeting substantively" is not an oxymoron. The couple profs I mention in the main post (as well as Randy, Lior Strahilevitz, and some others I've seen since looking around a bit more in the past day or so) manage to effectively convey meaningful info via Twitter. These instances may be the exception to the rule, but that only means that tweeting substantively is, like many things, a learned skill requiring practice; and that one has to be careful and selective about which feeds to follow. Finally in terms of substance, a student mentioned that one obviously effective way to communicate substance in a tweet is to send a link, which obviates having to make a complex point in 140 characters.

Posted by: Dave | May 5, 2011 2:28:19 PM

I do have a Twitter account, which I use for mainly substance, with reasonable success (I think).

I also used Twitter in my antitrust class to conduct an online antitrust market simulation. Twitter was the platform for students to make offers back and forth.

The technology worked well. Getting the students to take it seriously in a way that the data generated would be meaningful--and there was a lot of data produced--less obviously successful.

More info at http://picker.uchicago.edu/antitrust/AntitrustMarketSimulation.htm

Posted by: Randy Picker | May 4, 2011 10:40:31 AM


All this is very interesting. I've resisted getting a Twitter account for several reasons, including the perception of gravitas, the limited space for substantive commentary, and the necessity of constant updating. For some reason, Twitter has also struck me as more effective when accessed through a smart device, and my phone is tragically dumb.

I find that the Blackboard program we run here at FSU is an easy location from which to send short emails to students regarding class materials, changes in the syllabus, etc. I understand the desire not to "flood the inbox" with one more email, but I don't have a better source from which to convey relevant information about the class. Like you, I doubt that Twitter is ubiquitous enough to rely on.

Posted by: Jake Linford | May 4, 2011 9:27:08 AM

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