Tweeting Dangerously

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David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric

David Gooblar, Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric, is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth (Continuum, 2011). He writes a column on teaching at chroniclevitae.com.  His twitter handle is @dgooblar.

It is impossible to talk about Twitter, it seems, without talking about danger. In the first minutes of Ivan Kreilkamp’s “flipped lecture” on Twitter and the academy on Tuesday, the following subjects were broached: the lack of control one has after a tweet makes its way into the world; the “context collapse” that can allow viral tweets to be easily misinterpreted; the tendency of some graduate students to maintain two twitter accounts (one professional, one personal) to be on the safe side; and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and the case of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke before boarding a plane, flew to South Africa, and disembarked to find herself a newly jobless pariah. Tweeting, it would seem, is a dangerous activity, best practiced with an abundance of caution.

I think this sense of danger arises from something particular to Twitter’s design: it feels private, but it definitely is not. Kreilkamp mentioned a number of times the “conversational” appeal of Twitter, how the medium is filled with what Walter Ong called “secondary orality.” We type tweets quickly, often on our phones, and use the informal vocabulary and syntax of texting. As well, the only people reading our tweets, the vast majority of the time, are the people who have elected to follow us. For most of us, this is a small number of people. This can fool us into acting as if we are at a cocktail party, speaking freely to people we can trust. Even if we can’t trust them—they’re just a handful of people.

But if using Twitter is like conversing at a cocktail party, it’s like conversing at a cocktail party on a reality show. We are free to confess our most shameful secrets to our fellow contestants, but we’d be wise to remember the cameras recording us, all the time.

Every tweet you compose and send out into the ether remains inscribed on your profile page, searchable for as long as the service remains online. In addition, the Library of Congress wants to archive every tweet ever sent (although, with more than 500 million tweets a day being added to the archive, it is by no means certain that the project will succeed). So even if you delete that embarrassing joke you made back before you had any followers, you can’t be sure someone won’t find it someday and use it against you.

This built-in confusion—the way Twitter masks its publicness—leads directly to the cautionary tales that make us want to warn graduate students to be careful. Of course we have no such fear of scholarly articles, say, or other kinds of public writing. We don’t warn our graduate students about the necessity of maintaining professional personae when they give conference papers—there’s no need to. When any of us speak or write publicly, we accept that there are certain risks we take. We are free to express whatever dubious personal opinions we have, but we understand that someone out there might be listening, and they might not like those opinions.

For those who are on or will soon be on the job market, caution seems wise. But this caution is medium-independent: it wasn’t Twitter that caused the University of Illinois to rescind its job offer to Steven Salaita; it was that the university’s chancellor objected to what Salaita said publicly.

Whatever else Twitter is—promotional megaphone, generative writing lab, networking tool, community space—it is, first and foremost, a public medium. If we are to help graduate students, or indeed anyone in the academy, navigate the world of social media, we could do a lot worse than to underline this fact: Twitter is public, Twitter is public, Twitter is public.

If we say it enough, maybe we’ll remember.