Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Querying #ILTwitter as a Tweetling

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Querying #ILTwitter as a Tweetling

[Raghavi Viswanath is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute in Florence and a Senior Research Associate at Public International Law and Policy Group. Tejas Rao is Researcher, Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor, University of Cambridge and Associate Fellow with the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law.]

Academia boasts of 17,000,000 members, of which 178,000 follow @academicchatter. This (admittedly poor) proportion split is only an attempt to capture how pervasive Twitter has now become for academia. This is acutely felt in #ILTwitter, to which both of us are new members.

Today, we see international law researchers creating 20-part threads instead of churning out full articles/blogposts as rejoinders. #ILTwitter now toggles between being an Ellen Degeneres show-esque platform to chat with your heroes to a dumping ground for academic anxieties/successes/frustrations to a forum to source feedback, assistance, and promotion for published pieces, often fulfilling all these roles at the same time. While discourse about a new piece was earlier limited to either privately engaging with the author via e-mail correspondence or publicly engaging exclusively through the moderated comments section of websites, research now travels further, with sub-tweeting/call-backs to pieces from earlier in the year being more accessible to individuals on the platform. For ECRs in international law, #ILTwitter has repeatedly proven to be a resource genie of sorts. In less than 24 hours, Twitter has often mobilized the crowdsourcing of syllabi, article literature, archives/catalogue access, sample manuscript proposals, and formulae for abstract writing.

Perhaps most significantly, Twitter offers ECRs a medium for immediate and direct participation in academia, a profession noted for its gatekeeping and “tradition” (a sugarcoated description for academia’s tendency to shut down/censor young, progressive, diverse voices). Twitter offers a pathway for ECRs to contribute to the discourse in many ways. First, Twitter empowers ECRs to self-identify, publicly, as a part of the research community. For ECRs (but also for established researchers) experiencing constant imposter syndrome and the anxieties of research, alongside the quest to find their feet and their voice, this is critical. Second, Twitter offers ECRs access to academic networks/researchers they would have traditionally not crossed paths with or been too scared to approach. While one of us has cold-emailed senior researchers seeking advice, guidance and opportunities, these e-mails rarely receive replies. The public visibility (or annoyance, depending on whether you receive notifications) generated by replying to/engaging with tweets increases the likelihood of receiving these opportunities, or responses to queries an ECR may have. Third, Twitter is able to forge lasting academic partnerships; ECRs are able to produce critique and content with other ECRs and sometimes, even senior researchers. Taken together, each of these engagements, when supplemented with Twitter’s primary use as a microblogging website, allows ECRs to view fellow colleagues and researchers as humans – perhaps best evidenced by the discourse on pop culture and IL now becoming mainstream and cat GIFs being appropriate responses to senior academics’ takes. This contributes to relieving the many stresses of the expectation of continuous productivity.

One cannot deny that disciplinary discussions become more diverse and informed because of ECR participation. While it would be wrong to entirely dismiss the ongoing and separate efforts of the academic fraternity to improve this participation, conversations between ECRs and the “establishment” have been significantly aided by platforms such as Twitter. More recently, Twitter has been meaningfully channeled (including by ECRs) to call out and disrupt hegemonies in academia.

As much as this seems to be rather virtuous, the reality is that Twitter’s role is not just one of a facilitator or a democratizer. While utilizing the platform, it becomes integral to recognize that Twitter and its several use-cases are complicit and culpable in perpetuating existing opportunity/power imbalances in equal measure. These imbalances have significant discursive, material, and emotional implications.

For one, Twitter is geared to create echo chambers. The algorithm, that oracle-ish being that preys on every swipe and every tap, is far from naive. It creates a highly personalized feed for the user, one which ensures increased engagement with the platform. However, this keeps voices that the user has not already engaged with away from their feed and their suggestions altogether. As a result, all members of #ILTwitter experience conversations within a bubble, mapping their real-world interactions onto the platform. Chirpty’s Twitter interactive circles helpfully visualize this bubble. These bubbles act as digital gatekeepers, invisibilizing voices that are not within the first circle of followers/following lists for senior researchers. Importantly, Twitter echo chambers (or any echo chamber for that matter) are never discursive alone. As we show below, they come with significant material consequences.

One perhaps controversial fallout of #ILTwitter is its impact on research standards themselves. For our own sakes, a caveat that this comment is only intended to be a note of caution and not a value judgment.  Twitter – by way of its packaging – prioritizes short-form academic engagement. Studies have found that Twitter’s algorithm actually promotes threads more than tweets with links to academic publications. While threads are easy to consume and, when done right, can prove to be incredible testaments to the tweeter’s academic rigor, the ease of dissemination/engagement with threads threatens to dilute the standard of research. Especially for ECRs, given the competitive nature of publishing in academic journals and the cancellation of live networking events during the pandemic, Twitter has become a key site of academic production. But discussion seemingly takes place “around” a fresh piece of literature than about nuances of the literature itself. This is dangerous for several reasons, not in the least because the brevity that Twitter promotes may not adequately capture and may even misconstrue the findings of a researcher. Moreover, academic Twitter may encourage a herd mentality of influence, where the habit of reading and applying one’s own mind is replaced by the habit of reading about others’ reactions to a piece of work. Twitter recently introduced a feature that asks “Do you want to read the link first?”, before you share a piece,  seemingly because users and researchers frequently engage in debates that presume knowledge of a piece of work/writing by way of participation in a Twitter thread that references it.

Another increasingly concerning material effect of #ILTwitter is the potential factoring of Twitter visibility into hiring decisions in higher educational institutions. Before Twitter took off the way it did, public engagement was measured by the number of opinion pieces in newspapers or appearances in interviews/conferences. However, Twitter now offers a more tangible picture of one’s public impact. In its 2016 report, the American Sociological Association recommended that public outreach via Twitter – based on quality and depth of expertise on display – be considered in tenure decisions.  For higher education institutions seeking to establish themselves as “the place to be”, researchers’ Twitter visibility also guarantees a base-level of engagement with their home institutions’ Twitter account.  Now, we understand that the outreach of this suggestion is perhaps limited to parts of the US (and even within the US, senior academics have voiced reservations about taking Twitter engagement into account when making hiring decisions). Whether or not Twitter visibility should be a factor in tenure or hiring decisions is a much larger debate. What is important to acknowledge is that the material implications of #ILTwitter’s heightened participation on the platform is felt more acutely by ECRs. The truth of the matter is that hiring apart, Twitter is the first port of call for multiple opportunities in academia.  PhD recruitments, publications, and teaching/marking opportunities are now advertised first on #ILTwitter. Senior academics entered job markets at a time when Twitter was not so entrenched in academic life. As a result, and given their significant clout (admittedly of varying degrees, based on gender/sexual orientation/nationality/class/caste/Global North institutional support), they are still able to be away from the platform altogether. ECRs, on the other hand, are entering job markets at a time when much of academia’s opportunity creating/sharing networks exist primarily on Twitter.  Given Twitter’s ability to hyperbolize the realities of academia, it is often the case that the dominance of Twitter heightens anxieties for ECRs, not all of whom have access to the first-hand experiences/insights of senior academics.

It is critical to acknowledge that although ECRs have grown up in the “social media age”, this may end up becoming additional labour that is implicitly expected of them. Even when senior researchers do join Twitter, their ability to “participate” is far greater than an ECR, owing to the real-world networks the former possess. Whether it is commenting on tweets by senior academics or sharing one’s own work, ECRs may find it harder to make their voice heard even from behind the keyboard. We expect and recognize that there will be disagreement over this claim. Perhaps it is not expected that ECRs participate on Twitter at all, and we are exaggerating the issue at hand. However, it has generated this conversation among ourselves and our peers. Those anxieties necessitate reassurance, which we are grateful senior academics are able to provide.

Albeit empowering in part, Twitter also imposes sizeable emotional costs. Twitter participation,  or rather, Twitter ‘performance’ does not come naturally to all. Twitter likely demands a great deal of additional investment from some. While threads that share “Some professional news” or “Things I accomplished in 2021” encourage ECRs to celebrate their accomplishments (a noble ambition), they have the potential to (and admittedly do) induce imposter syndrome in ECRs and even amplify the value of comparison. They also inevitably contribute to the virtue signaling of productivity. The counter-argument presents itself naturally – as industries move and are disrupted, surely individuals participating in the market must move with them, learning the skills that ensure sustainability and marketability. We are cognisant of this, but such a move demands some introspection.

It is important to clarify that we do not think that Twitter cannot or is not in “pursuit of academic knowledge”. Only that the allure of Twitter visibility and the academic currency attached to Twitter is so compelling that it may present a dangerous illusion of academic research to the point where ECRs begin to chase Twitter validation without pausing to assess whether Twitter research capabilities are consummate and/or transferable to the remaining forms of academic research. That reflection is taking place slowly – and we hope can become a part of the mainstream.

All of this then may appear to be cynical criticism of Twitter and those members of the #ILTwitter fraternity that have been successful already in figuring out their relationship with the platform. This is not our intention. As two individuals with social and social media capacities vastly different from each other, we are cognisant that our own limitations may contribute to our views about Twitter itself. However, even if we were completely adept with the website, this exercise of meditating on the value we individually (and as a community) attach to Twitter is critical. At this juncture, Twitter has already systemically and subconsciously transformed the way we engage with international law and its sisterhood to an extent that is impossible to undo. What we can do though is to be more conscious of the ways in which Twitter shapes and shifts our discourse from hereon. More materially, we can take stock and look out for each other when we realize that the code is getting the better of us, in particular where we see gatekeeping and over-zealousness to label individuals solely through their Twitter personas. This piece is a nudge – by and for ECRs – in that direction.

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