My Rules for Twitter

January 15th, 2018

Last week, I spoke with Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal about norms for law professors on Twitter. The piece was occasioned, in part, by Carrisa Byne Hessick’s new essay, Towards a Series of Academic Norms for #Lawprof Twitter. During the interview, I made clear that I was not lecturing others on how they should behave on Twitter. As a matter of academic freedom–to say nothing about my personal commitment to libertarian principles of free speech–it is not my place to judge how other scholars communicate their ideas.

Rather, as I told Sloan, my comments were premised on how I manage my own Twitter account. This post will articulate some of those principles. At the outset, I stress that I am far from perfect or consistent. I’m sure that by scrolling through ~50,000 tweets, an enterprising sleuth could find some tweets where I contradict the rules in this post. Guilty as charged. Indeed, my approach to Twitter has evolved over the years, as has the academic climate in general. My hope is that as time progresses, I can hew closer to these principles. Indeed, by laying down these markers, I can now better self-regulate my own social media. And to reiterate an important point, I am not lecturing others of how to manage their online presences. I only speak for myself.

  1. Never forget you are tweeting as a law professor– I do not take lightly the fact that my Twitter biography states that I am a law professor. Whenever I tweet, or write an Op-Ed, or appear on TV or radio, I do so as a law professor. That position projects a certain gravitas that a run-of-the-mill pundit lacks. People find law professors more credible simply because of their station. (This fact is why when I sign a brief as counsel, I do not state that I am a law professor.) But with that power, comes responsibility. My general rule is that I would not put something in a Tweet, an Op-Ed, or anywhere else, unless I would also put it in a law review article. Granted, tweets are not bluebooked, and by necessity, the ideas are shorter. But that can be dealt with. If I want to cite some sort of fact, I include a link or a screen shot. If I am expressing an opinion, I make clear that it is an opinion with words like “I think” or “it appears” or something to that effect. (As a general rule, law reviews should not be so stringent about requiring footnotes for opinions.) If you make a mistake on Twitter (it happens), deal with it: either delete the error and note the deletion, or reply to the tweet in a thread and explain what the error was. (My preference is generally for the latter.) To make this rule even more real, I never forget that my students follow me on Twitter. I would not put something on Twitter unless I’m willing to explain it to my students the next day in class. If the topic is not suitable for classroom discussion, it is not suitable for my Twitter feed.
  2. Answer genuine questions, but don’t take argumentative bait– 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.
  3. Avoid the Tu Quoque Fallacy – As Richard Re described it, through the Tu Quoque logical fallacy, one argues “that a proposition is wrong because it’s advocated by someone who previously said the opposite.” The “you’re a hypocrite” argument is one of the weakest, and most popular lines of attack on Twitter. While the prawfarazzi rejoice in calling someone a hypocrite as a way to diminish a scholar’s argument, I try to avoid it for three reasons. First, it is often the case that there is in fact a principled difference between what someone said in the past, and what that person says today. Seldom is the case where two situations are precisely on point, such that deviation can only be a mark of hypocrisy. Second, it is entirely possible that a scholar’s thinking has evolved, and he or she no longer stands by that old position. Our profession should reward reflection, not entrenchment. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the tu quoque fallacy almost always bleeds into an ad hominem attack, with a common label: “hack.” I always try to engage the argument, rather than attacking the person who made it.
  4. On Twitter, Patience is a Virtue – Perhaps the greatest act of self-control on Twitter is not hitting the “tweet” button, right away at least. Before Twitter became the monolith it is today, I developed this restraint on WordPress. I would often think long and hard before publishing a blog post. There were many draft posts that I deleted because I got a bad feeling about it. Likewise, when my spider-senses start tingling while writing an email, I hit the “delete” button rather than the “send” button. When someone attacks me on Twitter, I think long and hard before replying. More often than not, I simply ignore it–even if that silence let’s the person who attacked me feel victorious. With a thick skin, I couldn’t care less. In any event, as illustrated by my well-timed response in the Emoluments Clauses litigation, and decision not to prematurely reply, patience is a virtue. And it will more often than not lead to a stronger position.
  5. Never respond with “Yes, But.” – If I do decide to respond on Twitter, I do not use the “Yes, but …” frame. As I noted in a January 2017 post:

    Without any coordination, countless Twitter replies have spontaneously adopted a very similar format. First, the reply notes that a person’s tweet is correct, or at least partially correct. This foray gives the responder some credibility, and sensibility–he is after all attempting to find some common ground. That sentiment is immediately followed by a conjunction, such as “but” or “however.” Following the conjunction, the responder states what is really correct. To state it differently: “Yes X is partially correct, but Y is more correct.”

    I don’t do it, and try to find another way to make my point. Also, I never begin a tweet, or any sentence for that matter, with “So.” That beginning is simply setting up a poorly framed argument.

  6. Use nouns, not adjectives, and never the word “Interesting.” – This is a longstanding pet-peeve of mine that is in no way limited to Twitter, but applies with special force on a medium that rewards pithy responses. Using adjectives as a way to praise or criticize something, in general, is imprecise. If you can describe a concept with several nouns, your reader will have a much better sense of what you are talking about. If you read through Unraveled, you will see very few adjectives and adverbs. Granted, it takes a lot of time to craft sentences that avoid such descriptors, but the reader benefits in many ways. I try to carry this principle onto Twitter. In particular, I never use the word “interesting,” which on Twitter, has several meanings, most not positive: hypocritical, incomplete, or incomprehensible. “Interesting” is often little more a euphemism academics use to passively aggressive criticize something, which cannot do so openly.
  7. Be very careful with humor – A recent experience drilled home this lesson. Last week, I tweeted in jest, “The 4th Circuit may order supplemental briefing on which countries affected by the travel ban are ‘shithole.'” I wasn’t serious. It was a joke. But today, where we are reflecting through the looking glass, several members of the media failed to see the humor. This tweet was quoted by the Washington Post and the Associated Press, for the proposition that Blackman–as someone who supported the travel ban–has concluded that additional briefing is warranted to consider the implications of the “shithole” comment. I was able to get the WaPo article fixed, but the AP piece was gone off the wire. In April 1, 2017 I abandoned my long-standing tradition of writing an April Fool prank, because we were living in something of a surreality. I will now carry this rule onto Twitter, and avoid all sarcastic, humorous tweets. To reiterate a point I made earlier, no one (present company included) is as funny as he or she thinks she is.
  8. Retweets are endorsements – No matter what my Twitter biography says, when I retweet or favorite another Tweet, I am endorsing it. I may not agree with it, but I am placing my imprimatur on that information as if it had scholarly integrity. I am very careful to avoid retweeting something unless I can verify it independently. This rule is really important during a breaking news story. One of the easiest lessons is not to retweet someone else’s characterization of a judicial decision unless (a) that is a person I’ve learned to trust or (b) I’ve obtained the opinion myself. As a scholar, it is no answer to say “I was trying to share information” or “I found this interesting.” (Another reason to avoid the word interesting.) At times, I have un-retweeted and un-favorited tweets that I did not want to be seen as endorsing.

If you’ve managed to read this far, you no doubt have concluded that I am entirely wrong because you do things differently, and you can’t possibly be wrong, so I must be wrong. I agree. These are my own rules, which I would not extend to anyone else. You are entitled to Tweet as you please. But when I do not respond, or respond in an unsatisfactory fashion, you will know why.