by Christine Anne George
A few weeks ago, when I was discussing a research plan with a student who was getting ready to work on her note on a breaking-news topic, I said something I hadn’t expected to say in relation to research: “You should check Twitter to see if any of the prominent scholars in the area have a thread on this issue.” I realize that this might come across as somewhat of a hot take given that there’s still debate as to the scholarly weight of blog posts, but I do think that threads on Twitter can be worthwhile for both scholars and researchers.
For those who avoid or merely dabble on Twitter, a thread is a series of tweets, linked together, about a certain topic. If you’re thinking that it sounds like a blog post except broken up into 140 character (now 280 for some) chunks, you would be somewhat correct. (Politico describes threads as “a call to something that Twitter culture, in its far-off playful days, used to condemn implicitly: earnest commitment to a train of thought.”) The difference is that in blog posts, the author is more likely to link out to content as a form of providing sources whereas there really isn’t much of that in Twitter threads. (For an amusing example, please refer to this thread on the legislative process in the era of Twitter.) That same Politico piece I quoted above provides the reason why threads can be worthwhile—both for the scholar and the researcher: “A thread is quicker off the blocks and can be read in a fraction of the time, but also offers reads the intellectual satisfaction that magazine essays so, that snap of having your mind opened by an expert or a provocateur.”
I’d argue that we now have a spectrum when it comes to academic scholarship:
Book↔Journal Article↔Blog Post↔Twitter Thread
On this spectrum, the further right you go, the larger the potential audience (depending on the topic and jargon used) for the scholarship. Of course, the further right, the less weight as far as the Academy is concerned which is a discussion for another time. All four forms of this scholarship fit together. The Twitter Thread is an immediate response and dissemination of information that can be expanded into a blog post that can draw in sources. That blog post can then be formalized and expanded into a journal article which could eventually lead to a book.
For better or worse, information is instant these days. Even the time it takes to write a response blog post could take too long. If you want to join the discussion, you have to go to where the discussion is happening and engage in real time. That doesn’t come without risk. There is a potential danger to being too quick with a response, with not sourcing everything before sending out a tweet. Somehow that must be balanced because it’s important to get expert voices out there.
All of that was geared at the scholar. So what about Twitter Threads for researchers? All the reasons I mentioned above regarding response and tying in to other forms of scholarship stands. However there is a danger there as well. The Bluebook does acknowledge social media posts (an example of how to cite a tweet is provided in Rule 18.1(a)), but the medium isn’t as permanent as one would like it to be, so it’s necessary to create a Perma.cc record of the thread in full to preserve the text.
Perhaps threads on Twitter are just a fad that will eventually fall out of favor, but the way that they have been used in the past few months, they’re definitely an opportunity and/or resource to consider.