Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Quick post: No, academic Twitter is not worth saving

Search your feelings.  You know it’s true.  Twitter has never been a good platform for information or discussion.

I had a job that I absolutely loved in government law prior to coming back to do my PhD at the intersection of political science and empirical legal research.  There has been recent public discussion about the role of juries, and most of this discussion has been absolutely horrific.  Columnists and journos have made sweeping assertions that are not supported by evidence or good theory… but academics themselves have not been much better.  I bang this gong a lot: the role of the expert should not be to tell the public what the correct answer is, but to help the public form their own views within the borders of reasonable opinions.

Of particular interest was a media company publishing an opinion piece calling for the end of juries.  What was fascinating was that, during defamation law reform, Australian media companies were firmly of the view that juries should remain.  Indeed, those who were following the Barilaro v Shanks defamation case tended to have extremely strong opinions about Barilaro opposing Shanks’ motion for a jury–a topic I tried to explain here in a YouTube video.  And when the same opinion piece said that juries in defamation law were virtually unheard of, this seemed something of a surprise given that some of our biggest cases of the last few years were jury cases.

Silly me for raising this on Twitter where I then had people with significantly less experience wade in to disagree with me, although exactly what they were trying to argue remains something of a mystery.  Fundamentally, I value my time more than to argue with people who just don’t know what they’re talking about, and yet that is the vast majority of experiences on Twitter.  Indeed, one of my interlocutors ended with ‘See Mark we don’t care about data’.  Twitter is an absolute waste of time for serious discussion because you routinely are not being exposed to intellectually serious people.

If you value your time as an academic, there is no point trying to correct misinformation on Twitter.  Indeed, there is a real risk that you will contribute to misinformation instead.  I wrote a book review for a law journal, and wrote a review that engaged with the methodological points of the book (reflecting a lot about my own interests in good research methods).  The authors have very sensibly tried to engage the wider public with the research because it’s genuinely fascinating… but the book contains all of the caveats and cautionary notes, and the public engagement is significantly blunter in its approach.  So I was quite surprised to see one high profile Twitter account–one which has regularly decried the state of public discussion and its lack of facts–use the public engagement material to make a factually inaccurate political claim about the conclusions of the research.  This happens more regularly than you’d expect, especially when journalists only read the abstract of an article and then write a searing hot take about politicians that fundamentally misrepresents the research.

And we’re not even a third of the way up peak crazy.  A very high profile left wing Twitter account attacked me for correcting their basic factual errors about a piece of legislation.  I had to inform my workplace shortly afterwards about a very credible threat of serious harm I received from one of their fans.  And, no, it wasn’t Jordan Shanks’ followers–I just get shitty comments about my accent from that segment of Twitter society.

Remember: as a white guy, I’m playing life on easy mode.  Female colleagues have had high profile left wing Twitter accounts call up the Dean of my College seeking disciplinary action against them… only for trying to correct misinformation or provide alternative perspectives on issues.  And, no, I’m not talking about gender issues or sexuality issues where this sort of rhetoric ordinarily hides ‘My academic colleague just wanted to say something grotesquely transphobic!’: I’m talking about social and legal policy issues that are significantly less heated where this kind of crap just escalates out of control over shockingly little.

Don’t get me wrong.  My PhD thesis began from the perspective of ‘How do we take non-experts seriously in reforming complex areas of law?’  I think exchanges of information are really important.  I just don’t think Twitter is achieving that.  Personally, I think more academics should be getting on Twitch.

I also don’t think the non-experts have a monopoly on grotesque behaviour.  I’ve written in the past about how our mainstream media gives a voice to some utterly reprehensible views (yes, even outside of News Corp).  Academics themselves also behave disgracefully on Twitter.  Any other person would face disciplinary action for comments about colleagues that some academics do frequently.  ‘Expert’ discussion about the pandemic response was notorious for this, with OzSage members especially being extraordinarily gross towards colleagues on social media.

And the topics that you want to have a serious, intellectually fun disagreement about something with other people who are intellectually serious?  Twitter isn’t for that either.  ‘This is an unpopular opinion that I think is correct and I think I can argue it this way, but it’s an argument in draft.’  Good luck, buddy.  That shit is getting screen capped and shared amongst bad faith readers whose sole reason for going on Twitter is to have a miserable time.  A lot of my academic discussions are done in DMs for precisely this reason: people have ideas that they want to flesh out into a paper, but drafting out loud in public just makes you a target for the shittiest people alive.

The reason why we think that Twitter is good for academics (especially junior academics) is that our institutions have underfunded in information exchange.  I find out about papers that I need through people promoting them on Twitter; the old digests that were produced a decade or so ago were decommissioned because people told academic information units that social media was providing a better source of information.  Fine, but it has meant that we have this critical piece of infrastructure that we don’t control.

Academic Twitter is not worth saving.  We should have concerns that academic Twitter is something that we created, and what other information networks wilted as a result of academic Twitter thriving.

On a final note, I don’t think the future of social media is ‘Broadcast to the entire world’.  I think most of us have fatigue at being exposed to random, bad faith readers who just want everybody to be miserable.  I think the future is curated enclaves: platforms where we share with our smaller communities with people who have the same reason to build constructive discussions and disagreements.

I’m absolutely tired of hearing from random fuckwits and chucklefucks who would rightly decide not to tell me their opinion if I were passing them in the street.  I have no idea why they think I want to hear their awful opinion while I’m sitting on the couch half watching a movie.  Enclaves solve that, and enclaves would give us what we value from academic Twitter without the awful 98% of other Twitter experience.


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