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The perils — and potential — of the Twitter professoriate

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

It’s no secret that Princeton professors are the cream of the crop. Their teaching is routinely lauded as some of the best in the world; they have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes for their artistic collections, MacArthur Grants for their groundbreaking research, and even Nobel Prizes for their contributions to the public knowledge. And these patterns are hardly new — scholars have been producing important work from within the Orange Bubble for generations. 

But a new, coveted form of validation has emerged for the American professoriate: the verified badge on Twitter. 

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Although the virtual platform has emerged as an effective means of sharing their research beyond Princeton’s walls, it has also presented professors with a new challenge: resisting the draw of social media dynamics that encourage the sort of empty arguments and sardonic diatribes that feed Twitter’s algorithm while doing little to advance the public knowledge.

Whether for their scholarship, personal achievements, or activism, several professors have amassed impressive Twitter followings, including Kevin Kruse (~450,000 followers), Joyce Carol Oates (>210,000 followers), and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (>100,000 followers). Some professors emeriti have emerged as even more prominent voices on the platform — Cornel West GS ’80 broadcasts to over a million followers, while Paul Krugman has racked up an almost unfathomable 4.5 million.

By these metrics, the 21st century has gifted academics with a historically unparalleled platform through which to educate the public. The benefit runs both ways: Academics can promote their own scholarship efficiently, and the public can access their wisdom — albeit in fragments — without breaking the bank on Princeton’s tuition.

In lieu of his traditional course, HIS 383: The United States, 1920–1974, for example, Professor Kruse has chronologically arranged a set of tweet threads discussing American political history and debunking false or misleading claims by other prominent Twitter users, Dinesh D’Souza and Kanye West included. That thread alone has reached thousands of people. 

 

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Notably, Twitter has also allowed academics to inject their expertise into public political dialogue as it unfolds. In late May, at the very beginning of the protests that followed George Floyd’s killing, politics professor Omar Wasow posted a string of 34 tweets explaining (with the aid of figures and graphs) the social impact of violent and nonviolent protests and state responses. As of this month his original tweet has been shared almost 2,000 times.


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In a social media landscape where misinformation and conspiracy theories run rampant, these sorts of informal but grounded checks and balances often play an invaluable role. Unfortunately, though, professors are not immune to the more insidious dynamics of social media — and their reactions can sometimes dilute and distort their laudable efforts to educate.

As they build their digital reputations, academics are increasingly targeted by trolls, bot accounts, and — perhaps most dauntingly — real people who fundamentally disagree with them. Of course, Princeton professors are well-equipped to enter into meaningful debate; but in an overwhelmingly polarized online space, people are seldom looking to have their worldviews challenged. Many are, in fact, looking to pick a fight (and hoping to go viral in the process). 

Mediated through controversial posts and snarky comments, these sorts of traps can suck anyone in. When our professors fall victim to these forces, though, they abandon the rigorous standards of intellectual interrogation that we practice every day in the classroom — and influence us to do so as well.

Scroll through some of the more prominent professors’ feeds and it’s not hard to find zingers, one-liners, and casual jabs at other users. This is the type of rhetoric one would rarely hear in a classroom environment. But, emboldened by growing numbers of followers and fans, some professors choose to leave their caps and gowns at the door, opting instead for intermittent mudslinging and mockery.

Consider the tweets below from October and November 2020, in which several professors across departments found ways to ridicule the President without reference to specific programs or policies. While hardly vulgar, they also fail to push public dialogue forward.  


 





As a general phenomenon, Brown University psychiatry professor Judson Brewer writes that angrily tweeting at or about people with whom we disagree ultimately reflects our psychological vulnerabilities. While usually denying us genuine resolutions to our disputes, the inclination to scream into the void affords us “self-righteous vindication” and validation from our followers, leading to fleeting but appreciable hits of dopamine for our brain.

Writer Jesse Singal similarly links the draw of Twitter arguments to a psychological mechanism — our “ancient self-preservation structures.” Beyond the baseline addictive characteristics of social media, he writes, we are quick to pick up on social cues that set off alarm bells and compel us to engage.

In the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma,” humane technology activist Tristan Harris puts the issue in perspective: “We evolved to care about whether other people in our tribe think well of us or not, because it matters,” he says. “But were we evolved to be aware of what 10,000 people think of us? … That was not at all what we were built to experience.” 

Indeed, an overload of judgement from all corners can compel professors to draw attention to strangers who lack comparable bases of support. On Nov. 19, for instance, Professor Eddie Glaude entertained a tweet from Andrea Tucker, a self-described “politics and news junkie” with 346 followers (to Glaude’s 290,000). 



Of course, Tucker seemed eager to air out her grievances in the public medium, inviting commentary from all sides; but Professor Glaude’s response led dozens of his fans to flock to Tucker’s tweet and question her, some folding in jabs along the way.



Practically anyone can implant themselves on a renowned professor’s tweet and attach their opinion to an open conversation or isolated thought. Lack of control over who can participate and when they can do so sets Twitter apart from a traditional classroom, in which presence and participation are heavily regulated. That disorder is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it seems to level the playing field, allowing engagement between people who might not otherwise have come into contact. On the other, however, it lowers the threshold for provocative interjection designed primarily to irritate or exasperate some target audience (usually original posters and their followers).

Professor Robert George’s Oct. 27 tweet made explicit the bizarre power dynamics at play in the Twitter political world, seemingly attempting to ward off the masses who might jump to disagree with his political commentary. But the tweet still demonstrated an admission that this “Twitter mob” had been successful in diverting Professor George’s attention from substance — that their comments had left an impression, and that they’d been worthy of this public acknowledgement.



In many ways, “business as usual” in the Twittersphere is antithetical to the metered, nuanced thought and debate the University encourages. News breaks just seconds after newsworthy events actually happen; millions of people pitch in to offer their thoughts within minutes. When everyone is competing for likes and retweets, it is difficult to pierce through to the core of the debates at hand. Sometimes, rather than engage in dialogue, it’s easier to sit back and watch the world burn. (And then, of course, to tweet about it.) 

Princeton professors have fallen into this position of sneering spectatorship before. In November, Professor George poked fun at public outcry that had prompted Eva Longoria to clarify her comments about Latina women’s role in the 2020 election; days later, Professor Kruse and Professor Sam Wang both gave snide remarks about South Dakota’s rising coronavirus cases. In both cases, the professors offered little in the way of substantive critique. 







Regardless of their intentions, at the end of the day, expressions of frustration and judgement in these forms only reinforce the isolation of social media echo chambers, which serve Twitter by driving user engagement but ultimately harm our society by disincentivizing interpersonal engagement on consequential issues.

The President’s public presence on Twitter has undoubtedly exacerbated this trend. The decline of civility in political dialogue, especially on social media, has led to what one political commentator has called “the unwinding of decades of decorum and deference.” Journalists, pundits, and even politicians seem to have given up on maintaining standards of discourse on the platform, giving way to a “near-constant stream of virulent incivility.” And, of course, some professors have found fame in making sport of the President’s tweets.



There are few, if any, instances of truly crass public commentary on the most widely followed Princeton professors’ well-curated Twitter accounts. But they could easily allow their wit to devolve into full-fledged deprecation. So why shouldn’t they?

The answer lies precisely in the power of knowledge they possess to defuse the misconceptions at the heart of seemingly intractable online polarization — to really move the public conversation forward.

Academics should not let the paucity of debate on the platform pull them into a void of empty virality, driven by “gotchas” and name-calling. On the contrary: as online exchanges have become increasingly vitriolic and emotionally charged, the need for informed intervention in otherwise unproductive dialogue has never been greater.

The growing popularity of some professors’ more “academic” tweets during culturally relevant moments has shown that the public has a thirst for the thorough and thoughtful commentary that professors have to offer. Even pointing out the perils of the platform itself as a medium for dialogue might shift the focus of an accusatory exchange. And professors have managed to walk the line between snark and punditry in an educational way before. 

In the weeks following the 2020 general election, Professor Kruse offered an entertaining snippet of history in response to a post deriding a recently elected U.S. senator, while Julian Zelizer, a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, put forward a sharp but thoughtfully contextualized critique of the President’s term in office. Both tweets contributed to the public dialogue through information and analysis, functioning more like ellipses than exclamation points at the end of sharp statements. Evidently, there is a sweet spot to be found in political commentary that draws people in without shutting down the conversation.





Even as the “Twitter Presidency” comes to an end, it seems undeniable that Twitter will remain an essential tool for academics. Not every thesis demands a full-length book; not every counterargument needs a published article. And many well-refined conceptions of the world merit consideration in even the most trivial online debates. 

When our professors are able to lean into their pedagogical missions more intentionally on platforms like Twitter, it does us all better — and reminds us that the democratizing power of scholarship and critical thought, even squeezed into 280 characters, is not to be underestimated.

Remy Reya is a senior in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at jreya@princeton.edu, or you can angrily tweet at him @RemyReya.

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