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Eric Posner Thinks It’s a “Serious Mistake” for Law Professors to Use Twitter

September 16th, 2020 · 28 comments

Eric Posner is arguably one of the most influential and prolific law professors in the country at the moment. Which is why I paid attention when around the 39 minute mark of a recent interview, Posner was asked his thoughts on law professors using Twitter.

“I’ve thought about this a lot because it now seems like every law professor wants to have this public presence,” Posner replied. “And I increasingly think this is a serious mistake.”

As he elaborates, becoming a “good” academic who is “serious” about research is a hard job:

“It requires a huge amount of work, especially at the beginning, to absorb the literature, to absorb the norms…I think a lot of junior people who are on Twitter…should be educating themselves.”

As he then clarifies, most of what transpires on Twitter is people “ranting” and reading other peoples’ “rants.” Participating in that culture, he says, doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to the public debate.

The interviewer then presents Posner with another standard argument for why academics should engage with social media: it’s a way to “establish prominence in a field or establish name recognition.”

Posner doesn’t buy it:

“They’re wrong. You see. It’s a classic mistake. They don’t realize that everyone else is thinking that as well…you think you’re going to get name recognition, and you’ll get known, because you’re sending out these really clever and incisive tweets that are going to get the attention of the world. But you’ve forgotten that a thousand other people are doing exactly the same thing.”

As Posner elaborates with acid precision, his experience with Twitter taught him that what it’s really good at is “tricking” you into thinking that “the whole world is waiting for you to pronounce on some important issue.” This sense of importance is intoxicating. But as he argues, with the exception of a very small number of outliers, the audience for most users doesn’t extend far beyond bots and some friends.

Even I don’t fully escape Posner’s derision, as he also briefly mentions blog posting as a similar waste of time. (The irony!) But I think it’s his take on Twitter that rings particularly true. I wrote some about this “illusion of influence” concept in Deep Work. These services don’t hook you because they’re interesting; they hook you because they make you feel like you’re interesting.

Which is all well and good, until you look up five years later at your tenure review and lament about all the high impact papers you could have written instead.

28 thoughts on “Eric Posner Thinks It’s a “Serious Mistake” for Law Professors to Use Twitter

  1. Andres says:

    This is a great post. I’ve read Posner when i was in law school and despite i don’t agree with everything he claims, he is a profound thinker. To get to that level takes hard but rewarding work.

  2. Brad says:

    I must admit, I love it when I hear people of this status go against the grain. It gives me a sense that the anti social media movement is taking a better hold. Great stuff!

  3. Andrew Dunning says:

    I thought your reflections on social media in ‘Deep Work’ are spot-on: Twitter can be used as a tool to keep abreast of specific people and promote one’s work, but this is a bit of a hack rather than how they want you to use it.

    I’d be keen to hear reflections if digital public engagement with research can be done without platforms such as Twitter.

  4. Ranting yes. But the academic logrolling echo chambers have led to massive ignorance on scales heretofore unimaginable

  5. Sonia says:

    I love hearing from well-versed and respected professors for their take on social media. He’s the real deal and if you’re serious about your brain power then you’ve got to see Twitter, etc for what it is—a waste of your intellectual energy and time. Prof. Posner has got quite the impressive CV to back up what he’s telling us here.

  6. Paul M Bauer says:

    I agree pretty much with Posner; I closed my Twitter, Facebook and WordPress accounts years ago. I thrive on email and RSS feeds. But there is one area where I’d challenge what Posner says. Not all social media users are just in it for the potential fame and fortune. In my experience there is a group of “youngsters” who seem to be driven by ideas about how to help others find (build) better worlds and freely share those ideas. I’m thinking of people like Cal Newport, Scott Young, Scott Aaronson, Sabine Hossenfelder, Marie Forleo, Chris Guillebeau, Eric Barker and more.

    1. Abhishek Sachan says:

      Second that. For example there is a math, physics and a space science community of educational content creators, students, learners and enthusiasts (who share somewhat the same view of twitter being a distracting, full-of-rant place with not much focus on depth) who really have fruitful, most often technical discussions on twitter instead of just unpurposefully participating in logistical and political rants. But if we go by percentage, it is very less as compared to the ones doing ‘shallow’ activities something he describes in the video.

  7. Kenia says:

    Cal, I’d love to see a post from you about Netflix’s documentary “The Social Dilemma.”

    1. Jared Wyllys says:

      Seconded!

    2. Ankur says:

      I would second that as well!

    3. Study Hacks says:

      Haven’t watched it yet! I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV these days, and I spent so much time in that world researching chapter 1 of digital minimalism I feel like I know what they’re going to say. But, I know I need to!

      1. M says:

        Cal, how do you spend your not-work time?

  8. Geoff says:

    I think there is an a clear distinction between blogging and twitter that Posner may be underappreciating, which is that to garner a significant following as a content producer, is *significantly* more difficult, and impactful, compared to generating a following on twitter.

    Generating subscribers on a blog is extremely difficult, and it’s only getting more difficult with time. But the payoff is far better too.

    When people subscribe to blogs, it’s because they care enough about your opinion to devote signifant time and energy to listening to what you have to say.

    This is completely different to twitter (and Facebook really), where as I’m sure I’ve heard you mention somewhere before Cal, it has a lot to do with the level of friction involved in the communication.

    Anyone can follow you on twitter and Facebook, and it takes no effort to do so. At best this employs a significantly large following of people who are interested enough to have a certain percentage of your posts (determined by the algorithm) appear in their feed, which can be absorbed in a few seconds.

    to subscribe to a blog (or rather, to take an active interest in blog content) employs a following of people who consider your opinion important, and worth their time.

    Which is why, I suspect, many of the major pro bloggers continue to advocate for substantial blog posts which provide useful information. Because that what people want blogs to provide.

    1. James says:

      There’s also the effort put into a blog post vs. a twitter tweet. 240 characters (I think, I ignore most social media) simply isn’t sufficient room to discuss complex ideas. Blogs don’t have that limit. You can delve into issues and explore the complexity of ideas in a blog post.

      The way I think of it is this: done well, blogging is the modern equivalent of essays. There’s a long, rich history of essay writing, including folks like Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Paine, G. K. Chesterton, even Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” fit under this heading (Epictetus’ Golden Sayings is often more like Twitter, oddly enough). Obviously it can be done badly, but done well, the only difference between “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls” and a blog post is that one’s electronic and one was written with a pen. I don’t see that as a significant difference.

      1. Kathryn says:

        James, that is a very good point! I had never really thought about it that way before, but it makes perfect sense! Thanks!

    2. Joe says:

      He’s probably thinking of the “method” of many pro blogging sites where it’s just listicles and other nonsense that aren’t worth any thinking person’s time. If you’re not actively looking for good stuff from people like Cal, Harold Jarche, or Ben Thompson, then you’re probably going to run into things like Life Hacker where the 3 featured articles right now include “How to Poop in Nature” and “Foods That Are Unexpectedly Improved by a Little Hot Sauce.”

      I wonder how much time Posner has spent perusing high quality blogs?

      1. EA says:

        In all fairness, how to poop is very important…:)

        1. James says:

          How to poop in nature was actually taught as part of a class I once took. Geologists go through what’s called Field Camp, which is partially a way to teach field methods for mapping, and partially a trial by fire. You take a bunch of college kids, toss them out with a map and a compass and a box of colored pencils, and say “Come back by 5 because that’s when the vans are leaving.” And you do this every day for a few months. (Okay, there are more precautions taken, but that’s how it feels!) Knowing how to poop so that you don’t damage yourself or the environment, and so that predators don’t decide to investigate, is actually a significant concern when you’re in such circumstances.

          That said, yeah, the listicle concept is fairly low-quality blogging. Sometimes it’s fun–quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore are, let’s face it, an entertaining way to kill 15 minutes–but it can’t be your main source of information.

      2. JSM says:

        Ironically, Posner’s dad, famed jurist Richard Posner, together with economist Gary Becker, was one of the most prominent legal bloggers of the early 2000s. The Becker-Posner Blog was fantastic and I would bet dollars to donuts that Posner, Jr. was not thinking about that level of writing when saying blogs were a waste of time.

        1. Study Hacks says:

          I can imagine the scene now…

          A young Eric Posner enters the room. “Dad, can we go play catch?”

          “Not now,” the elder Posner replies. “I’m blogging!”

          Eric Posner leaves dejected, muttering: “damn you blogs…damn you to hell.”

  9. JH says:

    I think Robert Miles, an AI security researcher, has a good approach to public-facing social platforms. His main medium of choice is Youtube, in which he posts educational videos once every couple of months on relevant aspects of AI security. He also occassionally appears on Computerphile. He has social media presence, but only as a tool to notify followers that a new Youtube video has been posted.

    The important thing about his not unsignificant following is that he earned it entirely through his authority on his day job as an AI researcher. He really shouldn’t have any followers at all, considering he posts niche videos very rarely without too much concerns for appeasing the Youtube algorithm. Yet his presence as an expert has allowed him to voice important issues in popular channels like Computerphile, which is enough for people to listen to him when he does (rarely).

  10. AML says:

    Would be interesting to list all the recent National Academy of Sciences inductees (last two years) or recent HHMI-awarded professors and present their average number of Twitter posts per week over the last 5 years. This should give us a good idea of how important Twitter is to the heavy hitters in science.

  11. M says:

    It’s a mistake to think that you control your Twitter use. You cannot control who sees your posts. If your posts do not lead to addictive behavior, you do not make Twitter money, and you are not worth promoting. Your posts will probably only reach the circle of people who already agree with you, because Twitter runs on every individual’s vanity to be proven right.

    Twitter is a distraction in the same way slot machines are a distraction. The feed was specifically designed to be that way. It will help very few careers, but hurt many more.

  12. Todd Class says:

    Hey Cal, sorry this is unrelated to the post, but have you thought about categorizing your more recent posts? I was looking for one of your deep work case studies (historical figures), and it was difficult to locate it — and it would be really convenient if your blog had that as one category so these posts would be easy to find. There is really a lot of great stuff on here, but hard to dig up.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Yes! I used to do this when I was still at MIT and had more time. Would like to continue to categorize posts, but haven’t had the free cycles.

  13. Aggie says:

    Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    Alright, Cal & co. I am putting your theory to the test.

    I quit Twitter last week. I was never a big user, but I had an account “just in case” since I had been a journalist, and am now a novelist, and everyone told me I had to have one.

    My debut novel is coming out next spring, and I thought it was better to quit now, when there are no expectations of me on Twitter, than later, when there might be. I thought no one would notice, since I have so little engagement there. But right away my editor asked — where dd my account go? I told her I quit and she did not press it.

    Now for the moment of truth — am I so good they can’t ignore me? Gulp.

    Much enjoy your books & blog.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Report back in a few weeks! I will be interested to hear how it goes for you…

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