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Twitter Is Awful: Lessons From #Ferguson That Lawyers Can Use

“Tear gas?”
“Wait, was that a flash grenade?”
“Oh, now there’s a picture!”
“They arrested journalists… just for being in a McDonald’s?”
“Now the arrested reporters are back online!”

Last night, many of us fixated on our Twitter feeds to follow, in real time, every breaking development in Ferguson, Missouri. The hashtag acted as a latter day, crowdsourced ticker tape keeping those miles away from the town — clear to Gaza — abreast as the peaceful protests brought on a symbolically striking military-style occupation, complete with the use of gas and rubber bullets and the arrest of journalists for performing their constitutionally protected jobs.

That’s what Twitter did that was awesome. Unfortunately, last night also put on display everything awful about Twitter. Everything that people mistake it to be when they set up a handle and broadcast their message to the world in 140 character segments. Others have tackled what Ferguson means in the grand scheme of criminal law and what lawyers should do in response to Ferguson. But there are also lessons to be learned from “#Ferguson” — the cyber place that conveyed the events of Ferguson — and the opinions of casual observers — to the world.

Lessons that all technologically connected lawyers, and frankly everyone, can use….

You’ve heard it all before. Twitter is an increasingly essential marketing tool for lawyers and firms. Law schools, too. It’s so obvious that state bar associations even realize this. But so many people just don’t get how Twitter can fail you. Or be abused.

1. Context — Your Audience Will Ignore It

The whole idea for this story kicked off last night, while I followed my feed from the bar instead of watching the Shark Week documentary they’d put on screen. David Carson (@PDPJ), a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer, sent out this Tweet:

Moments later, a number of the more conservative voices I follow on Twitter retweeted either Carson’s tweet or the photo. I got it a lot in the span of a few minutes. The tenor of the retweets unabashedly cast aspersions on the protestors. The comparatively “better” ones trolled people for describing the protests as peaceful or questioning the police. The more vile included borderline racist language.

The problem? Carson was covering the protests all day long and those hoping to cast the protests as the exclusive province of criminals missed Carson’s preceding dozens of Tweets describing the protests as peaceful, the police as dishonest and confrontational, and showing attacks on the protestors. The audience seeing that Tweet second-hand found a report to match their worldview and latched on for dear life. It’s doubtful that majority of that audience went back to put Carson’s work in context.

Even if you are keeping a steady stream of content going on Twitter, any single statement can be grasped and thrown out of context. You may think the last 140 characters makes total sense in the context of the preceding 12 tweets, but that isn’t necessarily how it will be consumed once it’s chopped and recommodified for someone else’s audience. When you want to tweet to market yourself, take the time to guarantee that you’ve fit everything you need to say in 140 characters, because if you’re trying to tweet like you’d talk with reference to prior statements, you’re going to get in trouble.

We’ll call this the “Patton Principle” since the pitfalls of context were best trolled by comedian Patton Oswalt when he deliberately sent out this tweet to incite a barrage of hate mail.

Immediately after having written this tweet that many, many people didn’t bother to look at:

2. Nuance — Don’t Hope For It

This is related to the observation about context, because the majority of tweets taken out of context were desperate attempts to provide nuance to an earlier tweet that wouldn’t fit in 140 characters. But it simply can’t be done. The abuse of Twitter as a means of communication comes when people mistakenly assume the other side of the conversation is interested in (or even capable of) having their statements critically examined.

Twitter is the culture of “argument by soundbyte” taken to the extreme. Take for instance this tweet, which came up after another Twitter user — also without nuance, but at least because he was trying to be witty — declared that black people should move out of a “racist s**thole” like Missouri to Massachusetts.

First of all that’s wrong, there were 157 hate crimes in Massachusetts in 2012, and only 70 of those were on the basis of race, the only relevant motivator here. And 104 incidents in Missouri, of which 66 were listed as racial in nature. There’s about 700,000 more people in Massachusetts and only 4 more racial hate crimes. That’s not encouraging to this guy’s point.

Might there be some other factors that depress the reporting and investigation of hate crimes in states with long histories of racial oppression? Like structural intimidation? While Massachusetts was racking up 70 racial hate crimes in 2012, Alabama had… 3. Mississippi had a whopping 5. Either Chief Justice Roberts was super-duper right about the end of racism or something else is off.

But the point is there’s no way to break that down over Twitter. So if you’re looking to blast a message about your work or your firm, consider whether your message is simple enough for Twitter. If it isn’t, keep it in your pocket. Or better yet, write a blog post about it and link to your post in Twitter.

As a corollary, just ignore trolls like the guy citing FBI statistics. There’s an urge to respond to this kind of reasoning to point out its flaws. We all succumb to it. This is especially true if you think you’re interacting with a lawyer because you assume you’re dealing with an adult capable of complicated reasoning. Disabuse yourself of that notion because Twitter doesn’t allow critical communication even amongst critical thinkers. It’s a great place for a show trial, but a poor venue for honest argumentation.

3. Don’t Write Something Half-Cocked

Not related to #Ferguson, but it’s in the news anyway. Don’t do something like tweet about suicide in a way that encourages suicide. Think through the unintended messages.

Major events like the protests in Ferguson and the death of Robin Williams may be a far cry from pushing press releases or tossing out light fare about the latest offering from the firm cafeteria, but the follies of the Twittersphere still exist no matter how you use this tool. It just takes high-profile Twitter events pushing the medium to its limits to expose them in sharp relief.

Now I need to figure out how to Tweet this story out.

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