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Twitter as the public sphere or a daytime talk show?

Randall F. Clemens

Is Twitter a new version of the public sphere? That is the question I posed last week.

Let me revisit the three basic criteria for the public sphere:

  •     First, participants treat others as equal;  
  •     Second, participants agree to discuss and question issues related to the common good;
  •     And third, everyone participates.

Considering the criteria, how are academics actually using Twitter?

I follow hundreds of professors from around the country. The users I most appreciate are the ones who post new articles and blogs as well as mention events and conferences. The social media provides a great venue to link content. It also changes the pace of academia. No longer do we have to wait days for feedback or years for articles to go through the publication process.

Twitter also presents opportunities to connect and converse with academics across the country. These exchanges most closely resemble Twitter as a public sphere even if they do not fulfill all of the criteria.

But, sometimes the tweeting habits of individuals, including professors and teachers, assume less professional tones. I have read long, heated, and scandalous exchanges of 140 characters or less between esteemed professors. A few weeks ago, during an organized conversation when participants all used the same hashtag, I viewed an academic conversation about school choice degenerate to a personal attack about the professional associations of one of the well-known participants. These are not only issues of etiquette but also the ultimate goals of social media use as they pertain to education. 

Current uses of Twitter do not seem to indicate it is an emerging public sphere. So, after two blogs, what is the point? 

Academia is changing and so is technology. My goal is not to tell you how to use social media. At one level, because the line between the personal and professional is blurred, I think we could all benefit from a few more conversations about standards and practices. At another level, from fomenting revolutions in Egypt to spreading the latest Internet memes, the value of Twitter to discuss and diffuse ideas is clear. I wonder if using the social media to take potshots at colleagues is a missed opportunity to spread innovative ideas and genuinely improve education.