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The Tweeting Philosopher

Is social media a safe place for "thinking in slow motion"?

The imprudent tweet has endangered the career of many a professional—psychology professor and Congressman, to name two. Last week the University of New Mexico formally censured psychology professor Geoffrey Miller, who had tweeted in June, “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” The tweet sparked outrage online that spilled onto the pages of the Atlantic.

(You already know about the ex-Congressman.)

Using Twitter, it seems, involves the following trade-off: in exchange for accessing a low-level stream of nonsense and chatter, you take on the risk of damaging your reputation permanently with the One Bad Tweet.

That’s why professor Brian Leiter advises graduate students, who already face perilous career prospects, to steer clear of public social media of any kind.

“The evidence is that first impressions are ‘sticky,’ and there is way too much risk that a bad first impression will be created by unfortunate or out-of-context remarks on social media, rather than a student’s work,” wrote Leiter on his popular philosophy blog, Leiter Reports, in response to a concerned graduate student’s request for advice.

A hiring committee member might overlook your brilliant, considered work on metaethics if he only recalls a gaffe like “Deontologists are full of crap screw you guys #TeamUtilitarian,” “So hungover during metaphysics lecture #YOLO” or “I think that Mitt Romney is a decent guy.”

Predictably, Leiter’s advice set philosophers atwitter on…Twitter. And, predictably, several of the tweets in response were under-thought and drew Leiter’s (likely permanent) ire,  promptly proving his point.

But philosophy professor Rani Lill Anjum, who maintains a list of philosophers on Twitter, sings the praises of Twitter. Initially a Twitter skeptic, she now encourages more academics to join her: for advice and encouragement, and even for help working through philosophical conundrums.

Twitter thinking is the opposite of philosophical thinking. John Campbell defines philosophy as “thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed.” Twitter, by contrast, is half-thinking at blinding speed. So why tweet?

The difference between Leiter and Anjum seems to come down to two issues: how well Twitter users are able to exercise restraint, and how well they can sift through the blather to find useful information. Anjum finds Twitter an “utterly friendly and supportive” place for philosophical discussion. But Leiter’s not buying it: “Twitter is (by and large) a lot of childish noise, and I think only in the mind of twitter users is it shaping the world,” he writes.

That’s fair enough, but perhaps Professor Leiter underestimates the ability  of academics like Anjum to create a  Twitter world largely sheltered from the noise and blather. For Anjum, Twitter is a place where a bunch of philosophers share ideas and encourage each other, with negligible occasion to embarrass themselves. It’s a small but inspiring feat, and it’s worth pondering how other communities might replicate it online.

Follow @rgblong



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