Twitter as a legal blogging tool

by scotslawstudent

Twitter is a microblogging system which is currently getting heavy media coverage. Microblogging is exactly what it sounds like – it’s small blog posts. Whereas you might need to sit down and fire up the word processor to write a blog post you should think nothing of firing off a quick status update if you’ve got a spare half minute. The integration with various other bits of modern computing is particularly impressive – I have a Twitter client built into my notification panel on my desktop and mobile Tweeting is highly polished. Twitter provides an API for anyone to hook their system with whatever front end program that they care to make and that’s very good and means we might see some very interesting applications which include it.

Twitter is great for status updates, and this is also something that it’s been criticised for – with the typical argument being why would people be interested in knowing what you’re doing all the time? It’s built around the SMS text message standard and that means that there’s a size limit on the messages – 140 characters. 140 characters is this much:

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How much content can you fit into that? Quite a lot actually but it’s quite hard at times and it’s very hard for legal discussion.

The 140 character limit

This is the biggest problem of Twitter while at the same time it leads to its biggest strength. It’s hard to say very much of anything in 140 characters and needs a marked change in style – phone users have adopted an entirely novel code of abbreviations to eke out as much room as possible in the same space but that’s not suitable, I think, for serious debate.  On the other hand we’re taught that conciseness is a virtue it’s a nice change to start thinking about your thoughts in smaller pieces but sometimes you just need that extra space to set out your thoughts, and particularly arguments. It’s hard to fit a balanced, reasoned argument into the space you’ve been given and, as an adult living in a complicated world, I’ve found very few issues come down to a straight uncontested yes and no. Lawyers might be paid to only fight one side but that naturally involves being able to see at least the two arguments in question (and then shoot the other one down, but the adversarial system’s another issue). Some knotty issues are extremely hard to express in a couple of sentences and that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to discuss these hard topics, just that Twitter isn’t the best medium for them.

What Twitter is fantastic for is simple fact reporting: [So and so] spotted in [such and such a place] doing [something], for example, or Govt to pass new law doing [something]. It’s short, it’s sharp and it doesn’t require any superfluous characters for opposing points of view. Opinion Tweets tend to need sharply edited just to fit into the space allowed. Twitter has been used to great effect to provide election observers with a forum to quickly get their updates out to a large group of people.

The problem of reporting quick, up to the minute facts has often been plagued by the lack of communications links – in fact, for a very long time the quickest way to get news communicated was to write a note and give it to a man with a horse, only recently replaced by running to the nearest phone. Twitter skips over any concept of having to go back to the office because it can be used anywhere. The biggest strength of Twitter is simply (and like many things that are simple to use that’s very complicated to actually make work) that it can be used from everywhere that gets mobile phone reception.

Mobile use

You can tweet from any mobile phone by using SMS or you can access the web site on newer phones. This means that you can use Twitter even where other modes aren’t possible – for example Stephen Fry, a hugely popular Twitter user was stuck in a lift for a few minutes and took the chance to keep up a running commentary of what was happening which he posted on Twitter. That sort of speed isn’t just useful in cases of comedians stuck in lifts, it’s good for matters of life and death. There was a case of a man lost on the mountain who was tracked down through his mobile which was itself tracked down by Twitter. Sadly that proved too late for the lost soul but it’s a far cry from only being able to email from a desktop computer stuck in an office which used to be how people accessed the online world.

Social networking

I’m not the biggest fan of social networking in its current form – I think the people who post every detail of their lives online for anyone to read are unwise and those posting every detail of their lives online for them to be sold to advertisers are being taken advantage of but I quite like the Twitter follower system. It’s less a friend list and more a whitelist for content – you only receive tweets that are written by people you actually want to see. There are options to communicate with users (eg using Direct Messages, @replies and so on) which are extremely useful for users who want to debate. I think the debate capabilities of 140 characters are again difficult to get used to but are very good for instant reply. It’s effectively a public chatroom where two people can talk and be watched by others. That harks back to the philosophers of ancient Athens. There’s no need to go away and write a thesis, you can simply send a quick tweet back from wherever you are. Does that improve the quality of debate? I’m not so sure. Firing off quick answers is no way to debate the laws of physics, for example, but it’s good for softer topics where strict fact checking isn’t as crucial.

The hashtag is a particularly interesting concept though which allows people to tag, just like I’ve tagged this blog post, tweets by topic.  For example, #pmq is intended to be used by people discussing Prime Minister’s Questions and particularly while it’s going on.  Rather than having to have added everyone who talks about Prime Minister’s Questions prior to them making their statement so I get it I can simply filter all tweets with this #pmq tag and read them.  This makes sense to me because it lets you focus on topic rather than users and I simply don’t know all users on Twitter and what they’ll post on but I do know about topics I want to discuss.

Conclusions

I’m not convinced by Twitter. I like it and I use it and I’m using it increasingly as a communications tool rather than a way of simply announcing new posts on the blog (although I still do that) but I think that there’s still advantages in being able to set out what you think in as many words as you need. Judges should never think about reporting back decisions over Twitter, for example. Twitter is good but still for a very particular purpose. It’s very good for pushing out facts to an increasingly mobile audience but it has natural constraints that make it difficult to debate that awareness you’ve raised.   It is a very good awareness raising tool for the lawyer but it is not itself a forum for academic debate.  As part of a lawyer’s online presence I think a healthy, interesting and popular Twitter feed can only be a good thing but it should not be overestimated and may only be of marginal help in attracting professional trade (the Twitter userbase is statistically still small) but not useless and provides a good platform for attracting traffic to a website – my figures have increased somewhat since using Twitter to announce blog posts.

Tagging is a concept that I find particularly interesting as a way of sparking topic centric debate, helping other users find debates they’re interested in and collecting news they’re interested in.  i think this, combined with mobile access, is the killer application of Twitter.

An example of a good legal Twitter feed is, as in most things online and legal, Joel Fights Back.  The students representing Joel provide regular Tweets which keep the campaign’s profile up and often provide hooks to interactive material on the project website.

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