How is Twitter disrupting academia?

Kris on Twitter asks that question.  I have a few hypotheses, none confirmed by any hard data, other than my “lyin’ eyes”:

1. Twitter exists as a kind of parallel truth/falsehood mechanism, and it is encroaching on traditional academic processes, for better or worse.

2. Hypotheses blaming people or institutions for failures and misdeeds will be more popular on Twitter than in academia, but over time they are spreading in academia too, in part because of their popularity on Twitter.  Blame makes for a more popular tweet.

3. Often the number of Twitter followers resembles a Power law, and thus Twitter raises the influence of very well known contributors.  Twitter also raises the influence of the relatively busy, compared to say the 2009 world where blogs held more of that influence.  Writing blog posts required more time than does issuing tweets.

4. I believe Twitter raises the relative influence of women.  For one thing, women can coordinate with each other on Twitter more easily than they can in academic life across different universities.

5. Twitter can damage the career prospects of some of the more impulsive tweeting white males.

6. On Twitter is is easier to judge people by their (supposed) intentions than in academia, so many more people will be accused of acting and writing in bad faith.

7. On Twitter more people do in fact act in bad faith.

8. Hardly anyone looks better on Twitter, so that contributes to the polarization of many professions, especially economics and those professions linked to political issues.  Top economists don’t seem so glamorous any more, not even in their areas of specialization.

9. Academic fields related to current events will rise in status and attention, and those topics will garner the Power law retweets.  Right now that means political science most of all but of course this will vary over time.

10. Twitter lowers the power of institutions more broadly, as institutions typically are bad at Twitter.

What else?


The most obvious thing that Twitter has done is expose how bad so many professors are at reasoning and argument -- they seem to me trained to produce both formal and informal fallacies, and the seem incapable of recognizing or admitting direct counter examples to claims made. It's been stunning to learn this about the professors. Also stunning to see how many professors straight up lie and behave dishonestly, or who make sure that dead-to-rights counter examples to their false claims get blocked. The dialectical competence and ethics norms of the professors has been a shocking thing to witness.

Maybe, there is a selection effect of who tweets?

Poor mental health (extreme left wing/right wing not so different from mental illness really...), need for validation...

Sometimes I get the sense that a lecturer is so used to arguing from authority that they are caught a bit flat footed in any venue where they are "just a name."

Peer to peer argumentation is just different.

Very true. And they're just not used to the pushback as the audience is no longer just their students.

Ya think?

The medium is the message!

[Marsh McLuhan had a course with, and lived next door to, Harald Innis, grandfather of Canadian economists. Innis' specialty was international trade. ]

Following Marsh, and the law of comparative advantage, Twitter is bad at everything, but it's relatively best at broadcasting garbage. :-)

Since McLuhan's day, media no longer carry messages.

Today, the medium is the medium, and the medium is concerned only or chiefly to message itself.

Those in charge of the medium are always concerned with profit. Everything else is secondary.

Warhol understood that - McLuhan didn't.

Yeah... so, basically what you're saying is: the medium is the message.

You're simultaneously missing the point and making the point.

McLuhan's message bears freshening after five or six decades, since our graduates in post-secondary Mass Communications and Media Studies programs seem no longer capable of reflecting critically upon McLuhan's original formulation.

Probably to achieve any kind of practicality: every device sold today with a screen or a monitor should come packaged with a hammer whose head or handle (both) could be engraved with McLuhan's formula.

"the medium is the message" -- what does that even mean? that there is ESP going on here? twitter is just a kind of megaphone, the reach of which depends entirely on who is bothering to listen. it's easy not to, in which case there is no message. the sender does not determine the effect of a tweet, the recpients do. what's that to do with "medium is the message meme?

Back when I used to write academic papers, I did so assuming that my paper would be read years later, and my reputation would be affected by any mistakes, misstatements, etc. What I wrote would be part of the permanent record, and future readers would evaluate it with the benefit of hindsight that I did not have. That imposed a certain discipline and care in trying to make statements that would stand the test of time and scrutiny.

I don't tweet myself, but perhaps people that do mentally treat their tweets like conversation --- ephemeral. In fact, though, tweets are quasi-permanent and reach audiences that the tweeter may not be aware of at time of tweet. That mismatch between tweeter's mental state of mind and audience may be why "hardly anyone looks better on Twitter" and why Twitter seems to lower the status of serious or "glamorous" economists and other scholars.

If (perhaps possibly maybe) we still have access to authentic hopes, then one day (--but how soon?) Twitter will fall out of tech fashion the way other ephemeral networks and platforms have fallen away over the past quarter-century.

Twitter is seemingly a black hole from which its users cannot escape.

Users who almost universally believe that Twitter represents something greater than a set of people staring at screens while maintaining the illusion that this is a group activity.

We just had a few world leaders argue on Twitter, and escalate to missile attacks.

For better or worse, it isn't just passive addicts.

Don’t be silly. Basically tweets are nothing more than short press releases. The conflict is predominantly Iran’s fault. It has spanned decades and has involved multiple non ideological American presidents (Bush had no animus towards Iran; Obama tried placating the regime). And the conflict wouldn’t have been much different if blogs rather than twitter ruled.

In a better world, perhaps.

But when a leader operates on a more visceral, personal, level, Twitter can both amplify and accelerate interactions.

When two "spontaneous" leaders interact, it now takes seconds, rather than days for communiques to move through the diplomatic machine.

And of course you have millions of nobodies and bots jumping on.

There is some status redistribution going on. Anyone can reply to a senior politician, or engage in a discussion with a Nobel-prize winner, or a famous journalist.

Andy Warhol: "You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

The same is literally true for Twitter. A Russian porn-bot has the same Twitter as the President of the United States.

All this lowers, rather than increases, the status of academics. A publication in a top journal can get you tenure, but it will not count much during the shouting match with @AngryWhatever196X.

Overall, Twitter has been great at democratizing shouting, whispering, and ranting. But it has not been great at democratizing reason, truth, facts, scientific evidence. Almost the contrary. I would estimate the effect on the relative status of academia as somewhat negative. The overall benefit to the world, probably at zero.

There are accounts that hew to "reason, truth, facts, scientific evidence" but it is on the user to find them.

They certainly don't bubble to the top of general recommendations.

Yeah, Twitter is great for people that can intelligently curate their feed, and not so great for most people. I actually feel kind of guilty about it.

Not exactly an answer to your question but seeing as someone just tweeted it, here's my Law of Twitter:

"I believe Twitter raises the relative influence of women."

Go on: women are better at gossiping? You genderist!

Counterfactuals are hard, but the Reproducibility Movement (including calling out the Reproducible Crisis) seems to get a boost from Twitter.

The downfall of Wansink started with Twitter discussions:

Here's a recent episode of "Twitter disrupting traditional science". The initial issues were brought up on PubPeer, but without the major signal boost of Twitter, it may have stayed quiet:

It shares some dynamics with call-out/cancel culture, so twitter may be ideal for this.

Do people join academia for feedback loops from smart people in a search for truth? How many people provide that feedback for any average journal article? Compare that to the feedback from self-selected twitter circles.

VGR cited that influence in his EconTalk with Russ Roberts.

After a 36 year business career and another 18 years in academia I wonder whether academics welcome feedback.

5. Twitter can damage the career prospects of some of the more impulsive tweeting white males.

Is impulsive tweeting worse any different to impulsive talking or impulsive alcohol drinking? Impulsive people will end up attacking others, getting shot for getting into an idiotic argument, overdose, crash at 100+ mph...the path to self-destruction is there with or without twitter.

PS. I also feel bad for Mr. Krugman, I truly hope he's not into that.

I wonder if 5. was directed at "white males" (which doesnt make a lot of sense) or just to Mr. Krugman...

It's different in that your impulsive action is public and available to the entire world instead of just, perhaps, a roomful of people.

Yes, the roomful of people is more dangerous. If people get mad they can physically hurt you. On twitter the worst can happen is being deemed a "bad guy". twitter may have saved the life of impulsive big-mouthed guys.

In the old days it might just be a good story. Today you might not ever get a job in your field again.

7. Does Twitter cause more people to act in bad faith? Or is there a selection bias toward bad faith individuals? Or does it just increase the visibility of (or create the appearance of) bad faith--as 6 and 8 might suggest.

I have only rarely come away from, say, a talk by an academic with a distinctly lower opinion of the person than I had before hand, but in the majority of cases when I have read other academic's twitter feeds, my opinion of them has been lowered. This is among the top two or three reasons why I don't join twitter myself.

Disruption: underrated or overrated? There was a time when Cowen believed social media was a positive influence for the disruption it caused, Cowen being a fan of disruption. Cowen's friend Peter Thiel supported Trump for president in large part for the likely disruption he would cause, Trump's twitter finger being like no other. I don't use social media, but I sometimes read tweets, including those linked by Cowen. Tweets by academics are not the typical twitter vitriol, but they expose the ignorance that one could only suspect before twitter. "If you can't write your idea on twitter, you don't have a clear idea." Is that true? It's true that long-form journalism and thoughtful essays have passed into the night. Indeed, prose has become passe. Should we blame twitter for the awful writing style of academic papers? Or was it power point? "We are what we eat." I'd revised that to read: we are what we write.


You "don't use social media"? Does this mean you do not consider Marginal Revolution to be a part of "social media"?

rayward is mostly harmless and best ignored

#2. If Twitter tweets have managed to infect academics and their discourses with blame for academic excesses and overreaches, failures and shortcomings, why have academics themselves failed to police their own segregated jurisdictions (and on their own terms)?

If anything, Feyerabend's calls for institutional science and technology to be overseen politically by informed non-scientists and non-technophiles can be extended safely to include all post-secondary academic enterprise, if these privileged intellectual elites are so poor at managing their own affairs (and the rest of ours, too).

Or: have academics REALLY fooled themselves into thinking that it's their hallowed task to "democratize" intellectual elitism?

Students can be better able to conform their work product to the professor's passions of the moment, and they can often get a sense of the professor's likely tolerance for dissenting points of view.

Ahem... Paul Krugman. Recently tweeted that his IP address had been compromised, so don't be surprised if it appears he has been surfing child porn.

The only way to compromise an IP address is for the ISP to reassign it from you to the child-porn-surfer and then back to you again. And they will have logs of these transactions, mapping IP to MAC addresses.

Sorry, Mr Krugman. You appear to be a self-admitted child-porn-surfer. Unless your tweet was intentionally false.

"The only way to compromise an IP address is for the ISP to reassign it"

Have you ever heard of an exotic piece of hacker equipment called a home router?

I have absolutely no idea (nor care, as undoubtedly law enforcement will do an investigation) about Krugman's claims, but compromising a home router is one of the easiest man in the middle attacks to pull off these days. Maybe you can read here, and then see if your router is up to date, or impossible to update -

This is only in regards to an IP compromise - Krugman may certainly have been involved in illegal activities, but there is at least a more than semi-plausible way to have someone's IP address show up in server logs without the computer behind the router being involved at all.

(Spoofing MAC addresses is not hard, assuming that the router is not the one with the MAC address being logged in the first place - or that the PC MAC address is not being blocked from access already.)

I suspect it is one fo two things:

Old man browsing regular porn who has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to computers, but saw one of the scary phishing pages that will lock your browser and claims IP stolen (sounds computery to an old man, right?).


Old man not familiar with computers WAS downloading kiddie porn who got caught or saw a similar phishing page and is trying to get in front of the issue.

Personally, I suspect the former, but one does NOT normally deny downloading kiddie porn unprompted, and generally the types who deny kiddie porn, are in fact users.

Very odd situation all around.

Both are quite possible, but you don't need to be browsing porn sites to get a spam e-mail demanding bitcoin. One I actually received yesterday (the first in maybe a year - the basic scam will never go away), starting its threats with how the e-mail was sent from my computer - it used the same e-mail address, as I could see, proving that my computer had been hacked.

Yes, lots of people are clueless about such things, but it was even funnier to read how my camera had been used to create a video showing me in half of the video, and what I was viewing in the other half. Which shows just how far technology has advanced, since I don't have a camera.

It is always hard to judge just how clueless economists on the Internet can be, even when using this place as a baseline.

Personally, I won't speculate, but yes, your second alternative is sadly proven to be true much of the time.

I will also note that American law in this regard is truly absurd - technically, simply receiving an unprompted e-mail with an attachment can make you technically guilty of possessing child pornography. "Federal law prohibits the production, distribution, reception, and possession of an image of child pornography using or affecting any means or facility of interstate or foreign commerce (See 18 U.S.C. § 2251; 18 U.S.C. § 2252; 18 U.S.C. § 2252A)."

Most countries go with a slightly more tolerant standard, which involves the storing such images, in any sense. In other words, opening such an unprompted e-mail, then deleting it immediately is not prosecutable.

Detective Dale, it appears Krugman was the target of a phishing/social engineering scam. The person who called him up claiming his IP address had been compromised was a scammer.

If they eventually roll out the blocking functionality they are testing, it will change the whole dynamic, in an unpredictable way.

Can't say that I've got anything to add to the list. From my point of view what's important is that Twitter, like blogs, and even Facebook, allows you to communicate with other thinkers without having that communication governed by the gate-keepers who control journal publication and conference participation. That's enormously important in a world of rapid change where institutional inertia makes it impossible for the academy to follow the future.

I note, as well, that it is possible to have civil, interesting, and fruitful conversations on Twitter, though that seems to require a trusted circle of interlocutors, which is easy enough to arrange if you're so-minded.

This is indeed part of why I stay away from the twittersphere. I lower my glamor quite enough on the econoblogosphere as it is, :-).

Twitter permits anyone to say anything they want (if they want to), and avoid any consequences (if they want to). Whether that's good or bad, I don't know but I personally don't use twitter or read tweets.

A counter-example is not yelling. When I pointed out to Tyler Cowen years ago that Hayek's version of the ABCT had no central bank and involved endogenous expansion of the money and credit supply by private banks, I was very polite in pointing out that this was a counter-example to Tyler's claim that the ABCT dependent on a central bank expanding credit. Philosophers are in the business of providing counter-examples. It's what we do. The rest of academia needs to get a thick enough skin to handle having their pet conceptions tested against examples, of their conceptions can't stand up examination, they need skin thick enough to handle it and enough ethics and character to deal honestly with what they have learned. And whining about "being yelled at" when all that has happened is that you have learned that you contention has counter-examples does not cut it.

A few things I've noted – I consider these to be positives for society, but not for siloed disciplines and the priestly class which dominates them:

1) Twitter is a low power-distance based weak network, something a lot of senior/ successful academics are not used to navigating. Hence the shock (& often subsequent withdrawal) when they find that many are not impressed by h-indexes and Ivy-league pedigrees.

2) Relatedly, Twitter especially exposes what Taleb calls the IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiot) types: overly confident in their own rationality + credentials. Not surprisingly, these IYI types are most often found in fields with the lowest replication levels.

3) As mentioned by a commenter above, the replication crisis was exposed largely on Twitter. Gelman has written extensively about this on his blog. Plus, retraction watch is also active on Twitter.

These are all fantastic developments of academia long-term.

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