On Public Thinking (i.e., Tweeting?)

A year ago, Christopher Long gave a talk at St. Lawrence, arguing in favor of integrating contemporary social media (and in particular, Twitter) into the classroom. During the talk, the audience was encouraged to tweet, and I hit my yearly twitter quota in an hour and a half. By the end, I tweeted out that I was convinced to tweet more by an argument based on Aristotle (what better illustration of what it is to be an academic could one ask for?). My recall of the details of the argument is fuzzy, but the crucial consideration was this: social media is becoming one of the primary platforms through which we engage with the world. If we care about being responsible citizens in the political, ethical, and cultural conversations of our age, then we should care about using social media.

I was moved by this argument; at least, I was moved enough to agree with it without doing anything differently. In looking back at my twitter feed, I can't help but notice a total of 11 original tweets since then. This is by far my most active social media account. What happened, and, should I be moved by arguments in favor of greater digital engagement?

Before turning to prescription, it's worth starting with the diagnosis. Part of my reluctance to engage with social media is simply habitual - I rarely have the thought "I should tweet about this!" Habits, however, are changeable if one cares to. Were there other considerations, ones which might weigh against arguments in favor of an increased digital presence? I suspect that there are two operating in my own case.

The first is a wariness of the placating effect of online posting (slacktivism). That is, social media posting may make one less likely to act on the expressed sentiments. The second is a worry about thinking in public in a medium which lasts essentially forever. I change my mind often, and if I have learned anything from spending my adult life among academics, it is that just about every topic is more complex than it first appears.

Neither of these concerns is compelling; upon reflection, they sound more like excuses than justifying reasons. Two considerations mitigate against the first worry. The most obvious reply is that the possibility of this happening does not thereby diminish the value of doing both. More substantively, however, digital engagement is a type of action. What's more, as an academic, it is likely the type of public contribution to discourse for which I am best suited to make. If anything, I should be more inclined to use these new platforms, for it is in working through ideas that I am best prepared to contribute to the world.

The second concern is more interesting. We are often encouraged not to share underdeveloped ideas for a few reasons. One is that we may be wrong, and be made to look foolish. Another is that, especially for an academic, our ideas might be "scooped" and developed by someone else. Or, one might be worried that expressing in process ideas shows too much process, and the muddy work that goes into developing ideas might reflect poorly on you as a scholar.

There is something to this second concern. Ideas on the internet are long lived, and never truly lost. Further, the rapidity and ease with which we castigate people for ideas speaks to a real discomfort with people changing their minds or growing in their views.

It is this attitude, however, that speaks in favor of developing our ideas in public. Showing our students, and showing the public, what it looks like to develop an idea has a range of benefits. It shows that ideas do not fall fully formed into the laps of geniuses, a pernicious conception of intellectual labor that suggests good thinking is the province of those with a gift, one that you either have or don't. It also shows the public that good ideas require false steps. Without recognizing this, it is too easy to see public discussion as a matter of choosing sides - a model where advocates of different positions try only to get the undecided onto their "team," without engaging each other. Further, it demonstrates that we come to our ideas by taking the evidence for, and against them, seriously. We are not born into our political positions and identity, we come to them through an honest and, at times, arduous search for the truth.

In reflecting on this, it strikes me as resting on a fairly obvious point, one Long made forcefully - the arguments in favor of public thinking through social media are the same arguments in favor of engaging the world as a public intellectual. It is the platforms that have changed, not the underlying arguments.

A year ago, I made the judgment that I should better engage using the digital tools of modern social media and the like. Today, I find these arguments, if anything, even more persuasive than I did then. This post then, is a public commitment to public writing.