On the Public Humanities and the Reign of Opinion

Public Opinion

“Within a philosophical frame of reference, Opinion is the lowest form of knowledge, something like prejudice, a mental state which tends to agreement to something represented. It is quite the contrary to Conviction, which is not a question of agreement, but of existence. […] We no longer know what the exterior world is because, in effect, opinion reigns.”

-Régis Debrais, in conversation with Jacques Julliard, Le Monde, 1 June 2008

It’s been a while since I wrote a post like this. I’m not unaware of a potential irony here, writing an opinion piece about the “reign of opinion”. I can perhaps justify it by saying that Twitter has had a negative effect on long-form blogging. It’s always technically easier, and way faster, to sharpshoot a series of quick opinions under 140 characters than sit down and type something slightly coherent as a longer blog post.  I know, this is a post that does not fit well in our tl;dr days…

I am not new to Twitter. Those who read me (and those who hang out with me) know I am very much into it. I have written a little bit about it, here and elsewhere, on its role as a scholarly platform. My presence or activity on Twitter throughout these years has been one of constant negotiation and renegotiation; the Network, like its users, never stays fixed; it keeps changing and so do its effects on us and the rest of society.

In the field known as digital humanities, Twitter is an important platform for colleagues to interact, share ideas and work. My own work tracking and archiving academic hashtags reveals substantial growth in academic Twitter adoption since at least 2010. Twitter is no longer an obscure, underground network, but one of the most important media outlets in the world in its own right. For higher education or for anyone else, Twitter is, more than the semi-private spaces of Facebook, increasingly becoming the main way in which many people inform themselves online. Twitter is news, and Twitter is the news. At the same time, there are millions of people who don’t use Twitter. You already know this, so why am I tell you this again?

As it often happens after you’ve been on Twitter for a while, there comes a point of saturation. No sophisticated, educated filtering or curating strategy can help avoid it, because Twitter works through or in spite of or within the limits of saturation. It is meant to reach that point, in which seemingly everybody’s thoughts are being broadcasted and available for further re-broadcasting, annotation, critique, ‘favouriting’, collection, editing, reuse. Increasingly, Twitter can be experienced like a dystopian collective stream of consciousness, unfiltered and largely uncensored, where a multiplicity of voices express their opinions at once, often over-writing each other, bumping into each other, complementing each other, adding up each other, and sometimes, perhaps unavoidably, becoming an unbearable cacophony, as if a department store had a thousand TV sets on, each on a different channel, volume cranked up.

I understand Twitter as both a means to an end as an an end in itself. I prefer it as a means: a springboard to disseminate links to other platforms that allow for longer texts where ideas can be articulated in a way that the shorter word-count of Twitter does not allow. I prefer Twitter as a means to share links to posts, journal articles, other pieces of information available on other places of the Web. Twitter as a passageway and distribution channel for what lies beyond Twitter itself. This does not mean I don’t see the potential value of Tweets that do not link anywhere but themselves or other Tweets– that is, Tweets as texts as ends in themselves, as discrete textual units that do not refer to information available on different locations or addresses (URLs, DOIs) elsewhere outside Twitter. The issue with this kind of Tweet is that it is meant to be received on its own, potentially at different times and in different contexts, and even when part of a series of other Tweets it will be decontextualised, a discrete unit on its own, and therefore always-already subject to mis- or re-interpretation.

Tweets-as-Ends-in-Themselves are often the expression of a personal opinion. Many take the form of clever aphorisms; other of jokes or turns-of-phrase; other of maxims, judgements or mandates. Often they resemble the short messages I first saw as a young man on the then-fully-analogue streets of Mexico City, during political demonstrations, the same phrases that were chanted repeatedly, again and again and again, in the hope that through numbing repetition some demand for justice or truth would be heard, like thousands of drops of water over millions of years finally opening a hole or creating a woderful natural sculpture.

Because Twitter allows the expression of ideas to many who have felt or do feel they don’t or have not had a voice; because, as it was common to say a few years ago, it gives the impression of “levelling the playing field”, Tweets-as-Ends-in-Themselves are often used to tackle grievances, to shout back, to face an establishment perceived to be opaque, non-horizontal, unfair, violent, etc. One does not have to go back to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ to think of Twitter as a platform perceived o be as giving voice to the ‘oppressed’. As many activists of endless causes have experienced (particularly feminists), Twitter is also a platform that can host verbal and physical aggression. Twitter is hence not a neutral platform (you know this already too), but it seems to be defined by its ability to broadcast dissatisfaction, grievance, and injustice, and yes, also hate, resentment, ignorance, etc.

Lately, perhaps because I follow a considerable number of colleagues based in the United States, my Twitter feed has seen a continuous flow of Tweets expressing political opinions of all sorts about very important “real life” events. [I particularly refer to the US because this post is partly inspired by Tweets by fellow scholars about the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and events that followed]. This is not surprising, as that’s what Twitter, in a way, does: it enables the broadcasting of opinions. The platform itself depends on the speed and easiness with which opinions can be published. A Tweet is a Tweet is a Tweet: it is done quickly and often without thinking too much about it. Once one is within Twitter, it can be easy to forget “there is a world out there”. Believe me, I am not a technophobe and neither do I believe that what happens online does not happen “in real life”.

But because Twitter is, in a way, all about discourse, it can be easy to forget the dimensions of things. Suddenly a Twitter “issue” becomes “larger than life”. Paradoxically, it can also, through repetition, erode its rightful relevance and gravity. Sometimes standing away from Twitter for a few minutes can be enough to realise that that “issue” (say, an argument between tweeters) was not as important as it seemed. And there are many, many issues which, undoubtedly, are of the highest order of importance, politically, economically, socially, for Twitter and for those who don’t use Twitter. Issues affecting the world around us. But this does not mean that if it’s not on Twitter it’s not important. Likewise, if someone you follow on Twitter does not tweet about a certain issue considered important it does not mean that person or organisation does not care about said issue.

Some of the issues concerning colleagues in the United States (as are issues concerning colleagues in other countries) are expressions of larger problems shared around the world. In my perception, sometimes it looks like some colleagues in the United States forget they are being read by colleagues in other countries, and appear to demand from all their followers a kind of engagement with local events they themselves do not practice for issues outside their own country. Every important situation in the world deserves attention, from Ferguson to the Ebola outbreak to the ISIS conflict and Gaza, from the post-conflict in Colombia to the drug war in Mexico and the situation in Ukraine. There are lots of important issues happening in the world, at both international and hyper-local level, both privately and publicly, at all scales. Twitter cannot be the ruler with which some want to measure their colleagues’ degree of political engagement with the issues that matter in the world. If I were to tweet about every issue that matters to me, everyone I know would surely, and with reason, stop following me right away. (Not necessarily because of the quality of the causes, but their quantity!).

All the paragraphs above are a long introduction for me to attempt to say that though I am and have been a great promoter of Twitter for scholarly use, I have found “the reign of opinion” on Twitter very upsetting. This “reign of opinion” for me is expressed by a politics of s/he who shouts the loudest (or does the most RTs) about a certain issue. I think it is time we admit that there are thousands of important causes in the world, and that though what we tweet about might say things about who we are, what we don’t tweet about does not necessarily say things about who we are or we are not, or about what causes we support or not. Particularly as academics using Twitter for mostly scholarly purposes, how would our feeds look like if we incessantly tweeted about all the important issues we believe it is important to speak of? Would we have time to do anything else? Is that something we would really want to do? How successful or effective would it be? Who would be able to do it?

When colleagues tweet quick generalisations about groups of people (paradoxically, often with the intention of denouncing unfair generalisations about other groups of people), the effects can be divisive. There are ways of expressing opinions that can be divisive and counterproductive. You may think that a certain issue is of the uttermost importance, and you may think that the best way to act politically is  to create awareness about that issue is by tweeting your opinions about it. Fair enough. However, tweeting that colleagues should either

a) tweet about a particular issue as you do about it or else or

b) don’t tweet at all about it because in your opinion they are not entitled to tweet about it as you are

then the contribution of that tweet is a negative one, creating further divisions and passing subjective summary judgments on potentially large groups of real people you might or not know (well or not) in real life.

Twitter is, indeed, an important channel for academics to perform public intellectual work. As Edward Said put it in one of his 1993 BBC Reith Lectures,

“the intellectual is supposed to be heard from, and in practice ought to be stirring up debate and, if possible, controversy. But the alternatives are not total quiescence or total rebelliousness.”


If to you it does not seem like I am tweeting enough about an issue, that does not mean I am being politically inactive about that issue. It is very strange this would have to be pointed out, but there are still several ways in which one can be politically active without having to tweet about it. It is particularly troublesome that academics concerned with the exclusion of others would also, I’d like to think inadvertently, become vocal advocates of exclusionary measures by being judgemental on Twitter about the [perceived lack of] political engagement of their colleagues on Twitter. On Twitter, silence does not mean “total quiescence”. It might just mean a conscious, sensitive public awareness of time, resources and readership.

Personally, though it is hard, I am trying to moderate my engagement with Twitter as a “place”. In the past, I have resisted critiques of Twitter as an “echo chamber”, as I still believe Twitter can be an excellent means to widen public participation for Higher Education projects. However, once one belongs to different professional and social networks within Twitter itself, it can be easy to experience this feeling of it being some closed chamber where resentment and judgemental microagressions from people we don’t even know well or who don’t know us at all bounce up and down, reverberating angrily, chaotically and noisily. This is not always a case of “filter failure”, as filtering is not as simple as those unfolllowed might take it personally. Rather than filtering, it might be a question of distance. If you are too close to the bark, you might not see the whole tree; let alone the whole forest.

Much in Twitter is about context and much more is about the multiplicity of possible interpretations. Some reactions to what we write are not intentional. Other reactions, however, are definitely intentional. Personally, I’d like to suggest that when it comes to politics, or definitions (who does what, who is who or what, etc.), being as aware as we can of difference is important. It is possible for Twitter to be much more than a chamber of opinions and judgements. Unless you get paid to tweet about everything and anything, you cannot fight all the battles on Twitter. If you are convinced that a certain issue is worth fighting for, do your thing. At the end of the day, work is one of the best expressions of conviction.

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