Actually, Twitter is Real Life
In praise of social media as a force for egalitarian debate
While Philippe Lemoine was in Austin last week, we recorded a podcast on his talk for the Salem Center.
While much of the discussion covers things we’ve talked about before, near the end we got into the art of public communication, and particularly the role that Twitter has played in helping amplify our work. Someone recently complimented me by saying that the overlap between people who have substantive analysis and those who are good on Twitter is really small. I agree with that, and think Philippe is another rare individual who is a giant in the worlds of both writing and trolling. Looking at traffic to this Substack and the CSPI website, it’s pretty much impossible to exaggerate the influence of social media. A citation in The New York Times or The Washington Post draws very few compared to a viral tweet thread (although a Marginal Revolution link can be in the same ballpark). I don’t think most trolls have it in them to be good writers, but I think a lot of people who are good writers can become better Tweeters. Or maybe not, and the two skills are associated with completely different personality profiles.
Anyway, if you’re on the fence on whether to tweet more, this conversation might be of some use. The part of our discussion focusing on social media is transcribed below. It touches on the influence of Twitter on “real life” and how it helps hold experts accountable.
You can listen to the whole conversation at the Salem Center podcast, or watch the video embedded at the end of this post.
Regarding the news of the day, last night we learned that the Supreme Court is probably going to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s a good time to revisit a thread I put together last year on why the pro-life movement has been an exception to the rule that conservatives lose everything, or at least everything having to do with culture war issues. I’ve posted some of my other takes on the news since yesterday, on Twitter of course.
These include why I’m pretty sure they’ll actually go through with the decision; the question of how many black pills liberalism can take and survive; the silliness of “Common Good” jurisprudence; how bad the reasoning in Roe was; what this means for affirmative action; and how increasingly absurd liberal bellows about “democracy” are. Finally, I posted a thread on why I think the direct short-term effects on our national politics will be minimal, though I probably exaggerated a bit when I said the coming decision would be no more than a “48 hour Current Thing.” It might be the main news story for a few weeks and shift the midterm elections by a point or two, but that’s quite a small political fallout given what will be the revolutionary societal impacts of overturning Roe.
Richard: When you talk about social media, people will often dismiss it. They’ll say Twitter is not real life when they mean that opinion on Twitter is not representative of the general public. We’re recording this on April 29th, 2022. Elon Musk has agreed to buy Twitter. According to the stock market the deal is not a certainty, but people are treating it as something of a certainty that is going to happen. The debate becomes like, are we thinking about this too much? On Twitter it’s the biggest thing; it’s Twitter and it’s Elon Musk.
I’m on Twitter and I’m also in the public domain. I’m paying attention to politics and I’m paying attention to newspapers. My conclusion is that Twitter is real life. Me or you, we have some influence on serious people. It wouldn’t be anything close to what it is without Twitter. You just gave one example there, making predictions that turn out to be true. There’s risk sometimes when predictions are false, but promoting your work, putting a face on it, getting it out there, participating in that conversation where a lot of other people who are influential and who are the most prominent people in politics, that’s where they are too, there’s no replacement for that. Social media presence is almost a prerequisite to being influential in the marketplace of ideas now. Do you have thoughts on that?
Philippe: Yeah, yeah. I think people may underestimate the extent to which Twitter has a sort of egalitarian effect. What I mean by this is that, especially when you’re not properly credentialed about something that you’re talking about, having a social media presence, being on Twitter, if you don’t say nonsense, if what you’re saying despite your lack of proper credentials is actually interesting and relevant, some people are going to notice it. Some people who are credentialed in those fields and on those issues, they are going to notice it. They’re going to start following you, they’re going to start talking and sharing your work, retweeting your threads and articles.
Even if they don’t recommend you to anyone, you know on Twitter when you go on someone’s profile you can see who among the people you follow follow that person? My guess is that a lot of people, they don’t know you, but they see that a lot of the people they follow and take seriously follow you. It’s going to make it much more likely that they’re like, okay, maybe if all of those people follow this guy, then maybe something, maybe it’s…
Richard: Yeah. And what people focus on is usually amplification of…a lot of trolls, a lot of stupid people are good at self-promotion. They can get ahead on Twitter. Yeah, that’s true. That’s unquestionably true. But they don’t focus on the egalitarian effect. It’s much less noticed.
Philippe: Talking about the egalitarian effect, to me it was kind of extraordinary. I remember joining Twitter, and there were all those people whose books I was reading. I never imagined, ever, I would end up having discussions with those people, being on an equal footing. It’s kind of weird. Now I’ve gotten used to it, but sometimes I think about it and I’m like, huh, it’s so weird I’m having this discussion with this guy whose book I was reading three years ago. I never would have imagined at the time this guy would end up sharing my work or I would end up having debates with this guy. It’s weird because, I mean, I’m just a nobody.
But sure, as you were saying, there’s a bunch of trolls and people who get a lot of followers on Twitter just by being trolls. But if you do stuff that’s serious work, you can get important people and influential people to take you seriously and engage with you. Even if they disagree, I have some really interesting conversations with people who disagree with me. You can have real debates on Twitter. You can actually get noticed even when you’re talking about something way outside your area of specialty. This is something I think is very important.
If you don’t have a lot of institutional resources, you can to some extent make up for that thanks to social media. So I think you’re right, that’s how I think about it. Social media and Twitter are a lot of things, but I think one thing they are is a way for people who don’t have a lot of institutional resources to make up for a lack of institutional resources. It’s a way of multiplying your influence when you lack those resources. If you do it right, if you produce content that’s actually interesting, you can actually use it that way. You can actually get influence that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You can also get influence by doing stupid stuff, by being a troll and stuff. But this shouldn’t make us forget the other side.
Richard: Yeah. It seems like there’s a multiplication effect where it can make the stupid people stupider and make the smart people smarter, right? I think there’s a good case to be made that the ‘Great Awokening’ was from social media. It starts around 2010, 2011. You look at when Twitter takes it off, it’s about that time. The timing lines up pretty much perfectly. So I think that’s a nice example of social media making us stupider.
At the same time, there’s all the things that we’re talking about. About epidemiology, talking back to experts, really discrediting… The idea of expertise, three or four years ago, the concept of expertise was not up for debate. You could say some expert was wrong or someone was wrong, but the idea that an entire group of people has no idea what they’re talking about, I don’t think you could assume that as a prior. Like there’s a new field you’ve never heard of, they’re just talking nonsense to each other, they’re politicized and disconnected from the real world. I think people were considered kooks if they believed that three or four years ago. While if you think like that now, it’s like a mainstream center right position. Even on the Left you see criticism of experts. It’s encouraging.
Philippe: I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s mainstream, but it’s certainly taken much more seriously by way more people than it was three years ago.
Richard: It’s the mainstream of the Right, at least in the US.
Philippe: Yeah. But also, to be fair, it can go too far. There is such a thing as expertise. And in fact, you can argue that experts spreading nonsense are really doing a disservice. Because we need experts. We need expertise. Everybody can’t be an expert about everything.
Richard: Yeah, yeah. There has to be trust. There has to be ways for establishing trust.
Philippe: And we need to have trust for these signals. That’s why credentials, you can’t do without credentials I don’t think. You need some way of knowing who to listen to. Even if it’s not going to be foolproof, there’s no way around this because we have a limited amount of time and you can’t know about everything.
The way I see it is that a lot of people, especially in the mainstream media, take this too far and have this really naïve view of expertise where we should blindly trust people who have the proper credentials and completely ignore people who don’t. Something like Twitter and social media allows for a more nuanced role of expertise. Because it allows for people who don’t have the proper credentials to get some kind of recognition and to contribute to the conversation despite their lack of credentials, provided people who do have the right credentials are willing to give them a shot and then recommend their work to other people. It sends the right signal for people like journalists, for instance. So I think it’s incredibly important.
You talked about the ‘Great Awokening,’ I’d say it’s a good example. Assuming this was a result of social media, which I agree is kind of plausible – I’m not sure it’s true, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t play a significant role at least – it’s a good example of a bad consequence of social media. But I think it’s important to think about all the good effects it has, because it has some. This is just one example, there are others.
I mean, think about what it’s like to be a scientist today compared to 60 years ago in terms of, for instance, knowing what’s out there, papers and stuff. 60 years ago, your department would be subscribing to a few journals, who would produce the journals you’d receive every other month, and you’d see a few papers. Sometimes you’d run into a colleague at a conference who would tell you about this article you didn’t know about. It could take years before people knew about some important paper. Very often some paper would get ignored even though it was actually objectively very important, just because the transmission of information was so inefficient.
Something like Twitter is kind of amazing. For instance, you write something, you post it. You get immediate feedback from people who are experts about this thing. Immediately people will give you references of other papers that are relevant to what you’re discussing. Whenever a new paper comes out it’s going to be instantly discussed and you’re much more likely to know about it right away. The speed at which relevant information is being transmitted has been increased by a lot by this stuff.
I have to believe that this is going to have some effect on the production of knowledge in the long run. Just because of something like Twitter, we’re in a completely different environment with respect to this. It doesn’t just help with stuff like making it easier for people from outside of a given field to make contributions to that field. This is really an underappreciated aspect of that stuff, because people only think about the dumb stuff.