In a recent interview, Andrew Sullivan said his one piece of advice to young writers is to avoid Twitter. “Twitter is the enemy of thought,” he declared.
In the span of fifteen minutes on Twitter, the morning before I listened to the Sullivan interview in the afternoon, I encountered two sources I would later fold into the book manuscript I would be sending to my editor the very next day. This has not been an unusual phenomenon. Many of the scholars and sources I’ve utilized in the book have been first introduced to me via Twitter, in many cases an initial thread sending me down a path winding through the Internet, into the library, and back.
The problems of Twitter are manifest, but I have found Twitter not only not the enemy of thought, but absolutely vital to my thinking. The vast majority of the topics I write about in this space are spawned from things I’ve encountered on Twitter.
I think it’s worth examining the differences between someone like me and Sullivan as to why I find Twitter vital to help my thinking and he sees it as the enemy of thought, the way our different privileges intersect and diverge.
I am a largely independent and unaffiliated scholar, often writing in areas which have required self-study and personally driven inquiry. Prior to Twitter, I had no access to a broad-based community of scholars and learners who shared my concerns. In real ways, Twitter has allowed me to establish a way of having “colleagues” which never would have been possible otherwise. Many of these colleagues may not even realize their importance because I may never have interacted with them, and yet, they help my thinking.
In contrast, Sullivan has a PhD from Oxford, where he was even privileged to have an audience with the subject of his dissertation, conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott. From there, he edited the New Republic, and ultimately started The Daily Dish, a blog which was known not only for Sullivan’s own rapid-fire thinking, but the degree with which he interacted with his audience in real-time. In a way, The Daily Dish was a personally curated social media feed designed to help Andrew Sullivan think and write. At the time, Sullivan would talk about how vital readers were to the enterprise, not just as supporters, but as participants.
Sullivan no longer blogs, and now writes monthly for New York Magazine. The nature of his work has changed, and the type of writing he engages in and the pace at which he’s asked to produce makes exposure to a public feed less necessary, perhaps even detrimental. If I can be critical, his thinking has also largely ossified. Like many prominent political commentators (Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Maureen Dowd, etc…) he’s reached a career phase where you can predict his argument before it’s even written. He has not quite reached the level of Brooks-ian self-parody, but one gets the feeling Sullivan has lost the ability to surprise himself, let alone anyone else.
On the other hand, I’ve been experiencing a logarithmic growth in my thinking, largely spurred by exposure to others on Twitter. An initial interest six years ago in the issues I blog about – teaching, writing, teaching writing, academic labor – has developed into a portfolio of issues where I can experience and express my own growing expertise with increasing confidence. In comparing the work I was doing in those early days to now, I can see my own growth while also recognizing there’s some miles to go before I’ve exhausted my potential to explore these interests.
In 2018, I’m going to try to be purposeful about changing my orientation to these issues. Over time I’ve gone from curious onlooker, to participant, and am now aiming for becoming something more like a “leading” voice. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable, and even scary thought, but it is because of feedback and encouragement from this community of scholars which exists for me on Twitter that I can even consider such a move.
I think it is the difference in relative positions which may account for the different views of Twitter between me and Andrew Sullivan. He is something like famous, wholly established, and whatever he might say on Twitter is likely to stir up a storm no matter what. Even though he only posts links to his writing and interviews, he has over 120,000 followers.
I’m in something like a sweet spot, just enough followers, (under 5000), and just the right followers to get the word out about my work among some of the people who might be interested without attracting a lot of free-floating hate and bile that is undeniably common on the platform. The criticism I get challenges my thinking, without seeking to diminish or dismiss it. Twitter is not known for this, but it does happen.
Because I’m white, and male, I also don’t have to deal with the kinds of vicious and violent threats which are routinely visited on women and scholars of color who express their opinions in social spaces. I get the occasional hate email, or snarky reply tweet, but I have never had my life or family threatened.
There’s no doubt that writ large, Twitter is a toxic place far too accommodating to, for one example, Nazis.
At the same time, I find it vital for my work, which is one of the reasons I try to do my part to make Twitter a little less toxic.
Sullivan’s advice to “young” writers is bad. They shouldn’t be avoiding Twitter anymore than they should be avoiding the New York Times or National Review. But they should be mindful and purposeful about how and why they use Twitter. Exposure to others regardless of the medium can make you a better thinker if you’re willing to do the thinking.
I’ve been lucky to stumble upon a community which really works for me the vast majority of the time. There’s too many of these people to name, but if you want to see who they are, check out who I follow.