Using Twitter as way of challenging ideas

There’s a pretty good cartoon about a sea lion that did the rounds on Twitter a while ago. Maybe you saw it. It really did do the rounds. The basic idea was that Twitter’s format lends itself to strangers rudely butting in on conversations between friends. The problem behind this is that people use Twitter for a variety of purposes, and sometimes those purposes conflict.

You see this now and again in the interactions between education types on Twitter. On the one hand, you have teachers who use Twitter to interact in a supportive community of their peers. Maybe their purpose is to share resources, experiences and so on. On the other hand, you’ve got teachers who use Twitter as a forum for debate, challenging ideas, holding people to account, and linking to polemics they’ve written.

I think it’s fair to say that these two groups sometimes fall out. To the supportive group, the debaters can seem like rude, uninvited guests. To the debating group, the supportive community can all seem too cosy. This difference becomes further complicated because most of us are members of both groups, depending on the tweet. One minute you might want to act in ways conducive to a supportive community, and the next you want to challenge an idea which you think is wrong. Even more complicated, we sometimes use debates to show our allegiance to our supportive community.

Part of the problem is that to accuse someone of a wrong idea in education, especially if they’re a practising teacher, is to implicitly accuse them of unwittingly doing harm to their students. Teachers already get shit on by kids, parents and society in general – not to mention the pressure they can put themselves under – so this can smart somewhat. But at the same time, ideas need to challenged and scrutinised. Indeed, this kind of critical engagement with ideas is an essential component of education.

Where does this leave us? One solution that’s usually put forward is that we simply practice civil debate. The philosopher David Chalmers has a great list of rules for this, but it’s not hard. Be respectful, challenge ideas rather than the person expressing them and so on. The more difficult part, I think, is figuring out whether you’re in the right context for a debate. Twitter’s not like a seminar room where there’s a shared understanding that your ideas will be subject to critique. It’s a chaotic mix of contexts. Sure, one minute it’s like a seminar room, but the next it’s more like having coffee in the kitchen at work with a colleague you don’t know too well. Then you’re at a press conference for a new Apple product. Then you’re accosted in the street by someone with a clipboard and a petition. The average scroll through my Twitter timeline is more disjointed than the kind of dreams I was having when I had the flu a few weeks ago.

Part of the confusion comes from the notion that tweeting is a form of publishing. In pre-digital times, publishing was an unambiguous entrance into the arena of public debate; even more so in the field of academic publishing. Now, it’s less clear. To call a tweet “publishing” strains our ideas of what publishing is, even if we are “making text public” (a definition of publishing that I just made up).

I’m usually happy to see my ideas criticised on Twitter, but it depends. I make a lot of crap jokes on Twitter, and I’d rather they weren’t subject to a process of peer review. Twitter isn’t always a forum for debate and scrutiny, even if it can be ideal for this at times.

Of course, in certain cases, you’ll get people who need to be held to account against their wishes. Public figures, people in positions of power. The rest of the time, (boring conclusion alert) it depends on the circumstances, right?

Let me know if you disagree. Or agree. Either’s fine.

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