Graph of Philosophers on Twitter

Tweeting Philosophy: Interview with TrueSciPhi’s Kelly Truelove

Kelly Truelove is a technologist with a Ph.D. in physics and long-running interests in philosophy and online communities. On TrueSciPhi.org, he publishes lists and analytics regarding philosophers and scientists on Twitter.  I spoke with Kelly about philosophy Twitter stars, faux pas, and the medium’s future.

Twitter isn’t obviously an ideal medium for philosophy. Certainly, it is famous for being probably the timeliest medium for news. Yet, it would seem to be more conducive to brief immediate reactions rather than deep and thoughtful reflection. In what ways can Twitter be a useful medium for philosophers and philosophizing?

To philosophers who have given Twitter only a glance, I would suggest they take one more, but focusing on this aggregated live stream of tweets from philosophers who each have over 1,000 followers.  One thing that jumps out upon scrolling through it is the frequency with which tweets include very brief commentary or quotes along with links to articles, blog posts, and other sorts of content outside Twitter. Twitter’s 140-character limit constrains the medium’s capacity for self-contained philosophical discussions, but the humble link provides a way out of that box and opens up a very different mode of usage.  This mode is about directing followers’ attention to content elsewhere, whether it is the work of the tweeting user or third-party content they find deserving of comment, be it positive or negative. Twitter can be a useful medium for philosophers and philosophizing in that it provides a means to publish a stream that consolidates briefly annotated references both to their own work and to items they find noteworthy.  Twitter can become a central point of reference, lightweight and easy to maintain, for others to follow a philosopher’s work and see online content through the philosopher’s personal filter.

On your website, you have a new list of philosophers’ books on Amazon. So, promoting books and publications is one of the obvious reasons for philosophers to join Twitter. Plus it’s a convenient and timely way to keep up-to-date on news and issues. What are some other reasons why philosophers should be on Twitter?

Even if tweeting is not one’s cup of tea, a philosopher can gain value from Twitter by using it just to follow others.  The Twitter app and site nudge users to tweet, but there is no need to do so; it can be an entirely read-only experience.  There are many philosophy-related accounts to follow beyond those of individual philosophers.  These include accounts of academic publishers, departments, associations, and other sorts of organizations.  On “Philosophers’ Favorite Twitter Feeds“, I publish a list, updated weekly, of the accounts most followed in common by philosophers who have over 1,000 followers.  This is algorithmically determined by compiling the lists of all the feeds followed by these philosophers and granting each feed a point for each philosopher following it.  The top scorers by this method are accounts of individual philosophers, which is reflective of the fact that philosophers tend to follow each other.  However, interspersed among them are “organizational” feeds such as Philosopher’s Eye (from Wiley Blackwell), Oxford Philosophy, CUP Philosophy, Routledge Philosophy, Warwick Philosophy, and the APA, to name several near the top.  Twitter provides philosophers a convenient way to follow these resources in one place.

There are about 330 accounts listed on your “Philosophers on Twitter” page which includes philosophers with more than 1,000 followers. Given that there are thousands of philosophers in the world, 330 seems a small number. Why are there not more?

It appears there are at least a few thousand philosophers on Twitter; Rani Lill Anjum maintains a list of 2,400 philosophy students, graduates, and staff.  For most philosophers, it takes consistent tweeting over a year or more to reach 1,000 followers.  The median philosopher with over 1,000 followers tweets three times per day and has gained about 500 followers per year.  A minority of philosophers have large audiences in other media and thus are able to grow a following quickly through publicizing their feeds in those alternative channels.  For the rest, the early months, if not years, of tweeting can feel futile: Why tweet if no one is listening?  One solution is to connect with as many acquaintances as possible early on; your audience may be very small, but it can make up for that by being very interested and interactive.  Interaction often results in others mentioning you in their own tweets, or retweeting your tweets, which grows your following by exposing your feed to their audiences.

This problem of gaining traction tweeting is one factor limiting the number of highly followed philosophers; aside from some high-profile exceptions, it is unusual to gain followers without tweeting regularly.  Another factor is the apparently limited portion of Twitter’s user base interested in following philosophers.  My list of highly followed philosophers is topped by Alain de Botton at 586,000 followers and Daniel Dennett at 173,000.

Together, the 334 philosophers on my list have 2.2 million followers, a number that surely includes many duplicates, abandoned accounts, and artificial “spam” accounts.  For comparison, there are more than 1,000 accounts on Twitter that each have over 3 million followers, and Twitter claims to have 310 million monthly active users.  Even with the substantial public engagement of de Botton and Dennett through their popular books and appearances in other media and forums, neither is close to being a major personality on Twitter.  These figures are reflective of the relatively small size of the philosopher-interested slice of the overall Twitter pie.  It is small even after being fairly inclusive, as my list is, in the definition of “philosopher.”  That said, there is an audience on Twitter, probably somewhat larger, interested in philosophy in general, particularly in the forms of quotes from past philosophers and philosopher-related parodies.  Accounts offering such content can gain hundreds of thousands of followers each.

Last time I looked at your statistics, 26% of philosophers on Twitter are women. Given that around 19-26% of philosophy professors in the US, UK, and Australia are women, it would seem that Twitter statistics are inline with the overall representation of women in the field. What do you think?

The figures indeed are roughly consistent, but I would not read too much into a precise match or lack thereof.  My list is not limited to professors; it also includes, for example, current graduate students and PhDs who have left academia.  In addition, the percentage is sensitive to the follower cutoff point: 21% of philosophers who have more than 5,000 followers are women, while the figure is 16% above 10,000 followers.

What are some of the faux pas that philosophers make on Twitter?

There are many ways to use Twitter.  Some philosophers approach it very non-interactively, preferring to treat it as a one-way broadcast medium.  They may follow and mention few other users and only rarely reply to tweets.  To those who prefer to engage in Twitter more fully, such broadcasting seems like a missed opportunity at best and an ongoing faux pas at worst.  Of course, the more taciturn users may regard the high-tweet-volume, heavily engaged users in the same way.  I would suggest the worst such faux pas is not experimenting with the different modes of use in order to determine which works best for you.

There has been some discussion that Twitter will be loosening the 140-character limit on tweets. Do you have any thoughts as to how this will change philosophy on Twitter?

Twitter has said it will be keeping the 140-character limit, but it will make several changes as to what counts towards those 140 characters.  For example, at present, replying to a user’s tweet incurs a character cost of including the user’s Twitter name in the reply. Adding multiple users to the thread makes matters worse.  Twitter has said it will remove this penalty altogether, which should encourage more dialogue—and what is more central to philosophizing than dialogue?  As another example, attaching an image to a tweet reduces the character limit to 116, but this 24-character cost is to be removed as part of the upcoming changes.  Philosophers already use images as a means to tweet longer quotes, such as via screenshot or by a photograph of a printed page, and this change will allow a few more words of commentary to accompany such images.

Given that Twitter’s growth is decelerating and Facebook has five times as many users, should philosophers still join Twitter, or is it too late?

It depends on the philosophy communities you hope to find on Twitter and the use, whether passive or interactive, to which you wish to put the service.  The first steps in finding out the answer to “Is it too late?” are to join and spend some time locating and following philosophy-related feeds; you may just find what you are looking for.  However, Twitter’s days of heady growth are many years past. Philosophy communities that are sparsely represented on the service today are not likely to begin flourishing in the near future.  I would add that philosophers wishing to blaze a trail in a rapidly growing and changing social medium might consider Snapchat, which at present seems only slightly less suited for philosophy than Twitter did in its early days.

Do you have a favorite philosophy account on Twitter?

For humor, it is hard to beat Existential Comics, which has produced some terrifically biting tweets on tweeting.  For example,

Yes, I mean, ideally I’d find fulfillment, happiness, and self actualization in life. But I guess I’ll settle for being popular on Twitter.

Other recent jokes about tweeting can be found here and here.  And as for other favorites, I naturally would have to point to my list of “Philosophers’ Favorite Twitter Feeds“!  Currently, the top three are Nigel Warburton, APA member Gregg Caruso, and Rani Lill Anjum. Over 60% of highly followed philosophers follow them.

Aeon magazine has started a conversation about which philosophers would have been great tweeters.  Who do you think would have been best?

Because there are plenty of highly followed accounts dedicated to tweeting quotes from past philosophers, there may be an objective approach to answering this.  Given the number of Nietzsche feeds, I am sure he would come out of such an analysis ranking highly.  I would suggest that although Seneca is not seen so often on Twitter, bits of his “Moral Letters to Lucilius” easily could be reissued as “Moral Tweets to Lucilius”.

Equally intriguing is the question of which philosophers would have been awful on Twitter, allergic to brevity, clarity, and linking, and poorly interacting with peers and the public.  Are they more likely to be from the distant past, the more recent past—or the present?

Find out more about Kelly Truelove and philosophers on Twitter here.  

Image: “A graph of Twitter connections between philosophers who have over 10,000 followers” provided by Kelly Truelove

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