If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Folks, we need to have a conversation. About Twitter. And generosity. And public shaming.

First let me note that I have been as guilty of what I’m about to describe as anyone. You get irritated by something — something someone said or didn’t say, something that doesn’t work the way you want it to — you toss off a quick complaint, and you link to the offender so that they see it. You’re in a hurry, you’ve only got so much space, and (if you’re being honest with yourself) you’re hoping that your followers will agree with your complaint, or find it funny, or that it will otherwise catch their attention enough to be RT’d.

I’ve done this, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of public insult a few times, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks.

I am not going to suggest in what follows that there’s no room for critique, even on Twitter, and that we all ought to just join hands and express our wish for the ability to teach the world to sing. But I do want to argue that there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming. And if we don’t know the difference, we — as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly trying to make the world a more thoughtful place — need to figure it out, and fast.

There are two problems working in confluence here, as far as I can tell. One is about technological affordances: Twitter’s odd mixture of intimacy and openness — the feeling that you’re talking to your friends when (usually, at least) anyone could be listening in — combined with the flippancy that often results from enforced, performative brevity too frequently produces a kind of critique that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.

The other problem is academia. As David Damrosch has pointed out in another context, “In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture.” Damrosch means to indicate that academics are more likely to respond to shame, or the suggestion that they are a bad person, than to guilt, or the indication that they have done a bad thing. And he’s not wrong: we all live with guilt — about blown deadlines or dropped promises — all the time, and we so we eventually become a bit inured to it. But shame — being publicly shown up as having failed, in a way that makes evident that we are failures — gets our attention. That, as Damrosch notes, is something we’ll work to avoid.

And yet, it’s also something that we’re more than willing to dole out to one another. There’s a significant body of research out there — some of my favorite of it comes from Brené Brown — that demonstrates the profound damage that shame does not only to the individual but to all of the kinds of relationships that make up our culture. Not least among that damage is that, while a person who feels guilty often tries to avoid the behavior that produced the feeling, a person who feels shame too often responds by shaming others.

So, we’ve got on the one hand a technology that allows us, if we’re not mindful of how we’re using it, to lash out hastily — and publicly — at other people, for the amusement or derision of our followers, and on the other hand, a culture that too often encourages us to throw off whatever shame we feel by shaming others.

Frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of it. I’ve been withdrawing from Twitter a bit over the last several months, and it’s taken me a while to figure out that this is why. I am feeling frayed by the in-group snark, by the use of Twitter as a first line of often incredibly rude complaints about products or services, by the one-upsmanship and the put-downs. But on the other hand, I find myself missing all of the many positive aspects of the community there — the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, the liveliness. Those are all way more predominant than the negative stuff, and yet the negative stuff has disproportional impact, looming way larger than it should.

So what I’m hoping is to start a conversation about how we might maximize those positive aspects of Twitter, and move away from the shame culture that it’s gotten tied to. How can we begin to consider whether there are better means of addressing complaints than airing them in public? How can we develop modes of public critique that are rigorous and yet respectful? How can we remain aware that there are people on the other end of those @mentions who are deserving of the same kinds of treatment — and subject to the same kinds of pain — that we are?


  1. Thanks so much for this, Kathleen. I really appreciate the way you’ve articulated the difference between critique/engagement/questioning and public shaming. For me, a major part of this shaming recently has been making dismissive jokes about other people’s perspectives or critiques. Even when the person is only “gesturing” at those conversations and not pointing directly to a person, I think its important to remember that words matter, especially if your/our voice has power. So, because you do have a powerful voice, I thank you so much for the post!

    1. Thank you, Rebecca. It’s taken me a while to put my finger on what it is that’s been bothering me, and I’m hopeful that we might be able to start making things a bit better if we can look at them head-on.

    1. Thank you Kathleen for a thoughtful essay here! There are many positive ways to promote conversations Twitter!

  2. Just a quick note here, but the opposite trend, which (as more and more colleagues are online, and on Twitter specifically) really *does* seem to be a trend, is equally problematic and disturbing to me: namely talking about someone—their work, their book, their blog post, their latest tweet, whatever—and *not* @-mentioning them. I saw this go down not long ago and when called on it the person who was doing the dishing (sans an @-mention of the recipient) said, “I just didn’t feel like getting into it today.” That strikes me as equally harmful, and as destructive of the open discourse and dialogue that is as close to a universal academic value as we’re ever likely to agree upon.

    All of which simply goes to reinforce what I take to be Kathleen’s larger point, that we continue to *work* toward the process of constructing a public discourse we can all find valuable and enabling.

    1. Strongly agree here. I’ve been disheartened by noticing how people bypass the power of commenting and direct response that the Internet enables for instead critiquing on the side or only to one’s circle of followers. Being able to see that discussion without being included in it (as can happen with Twitter) defeats the ability for either side to converse or revise ones thoughts.

  3. i’ve learned to change the people i read or who i tweet with. it is a process, for me, to find how and who i want to communicate with. let there be no critism (my spelling is off today) of one another, instead…yada yada.

    i can’t eat too much frosting unless its pink with chocolate underneath.

  4. Like irene, I take real pains to fill my twitterfeed with good sounds. So I’ve only run into the phenomenon you describe occasionally.

    Again and again, I’ve noticed that new communication forms, from Usenet forward at the very least, engender a vibe that starts out as “OMG, someone else on this medium! Friends forever!” and goes through a snarky stage (usually emerging on the other side — although I’m not so sure that LiveJournal/DreamHost ever did). The excitement stage is a wonderful leveler of hierarchies, and I suppose the snarky stage is a pale and futile defense of the prelapsarian past.

    1. Kathleen, it also occurs to me a similar problem arose in the MLA workshop s#3 on digital evaluation. People remarked that Twitter is such a “backscratching culture” that everything sounds like positive promotion of friends and their work, and it can be difficult for departments and deans outside DH to begin to assess the reception and intellectual contribution to DH scholarship. I wonder if the behavior described here in your post and in the conversation is somehow the mirror opposite of such “backscratching” bonding, and if there are some better dialectics beyond these two poles. Tweets may be short, but can still communicate substantively in a productive way. Departments, deans, the press, students and some of the best high tech people out there –howya doin’ @yourabi– are listening and wondering about humanists and their public conversations.

      1. I think this is a fair question, Ruth, and related to the one Jen Howard raises a couple of comments down. I suspect there is a connection between the snark and what got described as backscratching in the workshop (or niceness in the article Jen links to): a sense that given the meanness out there on the network generally, we have to protect our own. I hope that we can in fact find a more measured way to support, discuss, and debate with one another in public.

  5. I’ve been pulling away from Twitter for some of the same reasons. My sense has been that some communities are more inclined to the insider snark than others (which is what I find most offputting), and I’m having to find some balance between following people I feel like I “should” follow for various professional reasons and just not wanting to deal with that dynamic all the time.

  6. Hi Kathleen,

    Thanks for this post. You’ve identified a genuine problem with some of those quick-time, off-the-cuff conversations that make up Twitter. I hope people respond to your call to exercise a little more mindfulness, to use yoga-speak, in those exchanges.

    There’s an opposite (not necessary equal) problem Twitter encourages: niceness that’s so nice it verges on meaninglessness or at least triggers suspicion in the reader that it can’t all be heartfelt. This may afflict the literati more than the academic set(s). See Jacob Silverberg’s “Against Niceness” essay for Slate:



  7. Thank you for this post – another one I’m going to put in my “read every quarter” folder along with Louis CK’s “Everything’s amazing a nobody’s happy” clip – august company indeed! I think it’s particularly sad that this happens in academia, and one of the flavors I see a lot (and have probably done myself) is the I-can’t-believe-[someone]-doesn’t-know-that tweet. We’re in the business of teaching and learning in a time of huge change – why do we not default to helping the person LEARN the thing they don’t know instead of making fun of them?

  8. I see this post and comments as usefully moving toward an etiquette for twitter, something that was bound to happen as the medium became used by more and more people. I’m leery, though, of how that will work in practice. I’ll use an example from my other TL, which is all tennis, all the time. There, someone wrote a manifesto of twitter etiquette, suggesting the easily adoptable rule that you don’t @mention a player when reporting their losing score. That has worked really well. But I would also note that yesterday Jennifer Capriati deleted her twitter account in the wake of some truly vile backlash to her comment that she was glad that Serena Williams hadn’t won, as she had seen enough of Serena Williams to last her a lifetime. And by vile, I mean, “I hope you overdose again” kind of commentary.
    The beauty of twitter is that it can open up the creaky doors of academia, or even small insular groups in academia, to wider audiences and participants. But that’s the rub. If you want twitter to remain a place to put your work out there for wide dissemination, one gets the world–with all its various rhetorical sensibilities–talking back. One person’s snarkiness in that world might be another person’s critique, and I’m loathe to put myself as the one who can be the arbiter of that distinction. I realize I’m just rephrasing here the comments many have raised before about the two sides of the coin: too much niceness v. too much critique. But I want to include in that a full-throated cheer for the agora, the sometimes rough-around-the-edges meeting place of ideas that twitter provides. And, thank goodness for that blocking feature when it gets out of hand!

  9. While I agree with much of what you say here, I think there’s another axis to think about: power or celebrity. One of the great things about Twitter is that it is an open platform regardless of power & position, meaning all tweets are potentially equal. Of course in practice, they are not – we know that a celebrity tweet “matters” more than a random user, based on the degree to which they’ll be read, retweeted, responded to, etc., and that celebrity will typically have social capital that makes their statements more powerful. So if a celebrity tweets something negative toward a “commoner” it’s a very different type of speech act than the reverse: it’s potentially the difference between bullying and critiquing.

    Within academia, the celebrity differences are usually smaller scale, but the power differentials are much more stark & explicit. A grad student knows that tweeting critique at a tenured professor is an act of public resistance, while the reverse would be seen as bullying & shaming (or business as usual, within some academic cultures). I think we should encourage the former (thoughtfully & productively), while discouraging the latter – and one way is for those of us with enough power (however limited & marginal to the specific realm of our subfields) to be the targets of critique to respond to such comments with generosity & openness, rather than defensive shaming or decrying Twitter itself (and of course that’s not what I’m saying you’re doing here).

    Personally, I try to be generous and withhold public critique of people who are lower in status/rank than I, while modeling a style of thoughtful & open conversational critique with those at the same or higher rank than I. As always, I think that open dialogue, thoughtful engagement, and honesty are more productive than timidity or shaming. Thanks for starting the conversation!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jason! I do agree, of course, that there are substantive differences in where the line between critique and shaming falls, depending on the vector of power relations between the folks involved. Despite that, I do want to say that there nonetheless remains a line, and it’s too frequently crossed.

      There was a very interesting Twitter conversation about this last night between @adelinekoh, @roopikarisam, @bonstewart, and some other folks, about the connections between the kinds of snark seen on Twitter and the mode of criticality that too many of us fall into in our more general work in grad school — leaping to disagreement and dismissal before really lingering in an argument. I think there is a connection, and it has to do again with the more general shame culture that pervades academia: in order to enter a conversation, to have a voice in that conversation, it too often feels as though we have to dismiss or denigrate the work of others, rather than really engaging with that work.

      So I mostly agree with you here: open dialogue and thoughtful engagement are exactly what I want to see us focused on. And I agree that we’ve got to begin with those in positions of greater power if we’re ever going to change the tenor of the broader culture, because shame culture definitely rolls downhill. But I think we need to pay attention to this kind of public shaming wherever it occurs, and think seriously about what lies beneath it and whether there might be a better mode of developing real, thoughtful critical dialogue.

      1. Agreed 100% about the connections to the general academic mode of “clear & critique the terrain” that is part of – or maybe the root of – the problem. I’d thought about pulling in this post I’d written about that issue before to my comment, but your reply made the connection more direct.

        In general, I think the lesson is that the academic world is much more pleasant & productive when we focus on making the case for why our own perspectives are correct, rather than why other people’s are incorrect.

      2. Thank you for yet another excellent post. I completely empathise with what you say on your post, and I too have found myself changing the way I tweet.

        Like you, I am all for open dialogue and thoughtful engagement. Nevertheless, and in spite the fact that I’ve always been a keen promoter of Twitter within scholarly communications, I remain hestitant Twitter is the right platfrom for this open dialogue.

        I tried to articulate my recent thoughts/emotions here: thttps://epriego.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/twitter-towards-rules-of-engagement/.

        In my post, I do not mean to say that it is impossible to hold a thoughtful and productive real time dialogue (when previously set up, like in well-established Twitter chats like #PhDchat, #ECRchat and #femlead, results can be indeed very positive). I just think that as Twitter becomes densely populated the risks of friction have increased. Granted, some people are out there carelessly or purposefully creating friction. Others are very careful, but still friction can arise, often unexpectedly or unintentionally. Perhaps disappointingly, sometimes, as when taking rush hour public transport, the only way of not stepping on someone else’s toes is by not moving at all.

    2. Hi Jason,

      I was working with some similar ideas in my response post today (http://ryan.cordells.us/blog/2012/09/24/creating-and-maintaining-a-professional-presence-online-a-workshop-for-graduate-students/). Basically, I argue that many in the DH Twitter community have moved from positions of relative powerlessness only a few years ago (at least in relationship to in the wider academy) to positions of celebrity. However, the nature of our engagements on Twitter haven’t shifted, so particular kinds of chatter that fostered community a few years ago are now read as bullying from on high. We have to recognize this shift and change.


  10. What I find most compelling about this post, Kathleen, is the notion that as a community of scholars, we should figure this out and fast. Scholars, and particularly those who focus specifically on media studies, should be considering the rhetorical situation of *any* form of public utterance. New tech platforms, as Meg points out above, do also seem to breed this exuberance-cum-disdain-for-newbies that is aggravating and then simply just tiresome. I do wonder if some of it has to do with the shame vs. guilt that you note and/or the online bullying we’ve seen across platforms.

  11. Sorry, the world isn’t your career advancement tool, and if you want to debate and engage with the public and share your ideas, you have to deal with some criticism that isn’t coming from your cozy, complicit colleagues.


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