The Loudest In The Room Isn’t Most Correct: The Rise of Twitter’s ‘Pop Sociologists’

Devyn Springer is an Atlanta artist, writer, and activist who is currently studying the African diaspora and art history at Kennesaw State University.

Approx 8 minute reading time

My grandmother used to always tell me, “the loudest one in the room is not always the smartest, and the one saying the most words is not always saying the most truth.” Then again, a year ago, days before publishing my first book, a mentor of mine reminded me, “the person whose book has the most pages does not always have the most knowledge on the pages.” Taking these two statements to heart and analysing how they exist in different spaces, I instantly thought of social media, specifically Twitter.

Over the past few years the world has witnessed a paradigm shift in the ways Twitter is used, with the platform rapidly transforming into a tool used for education and sharing of news. Following the death of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, we saw a rise of people utilising Twitter as a means to educate and inform people on different topics. And while this was not new to the popular social media platform, it did begin a new trend of what I call the “pop sociologist,” or folks who dedicate much of their existence on Twitter to educating people on various topics of race, gender, class, activism, history, etc.

As someone dedicated to delivering dialogical and liberatory education, the possibilities of educating individuals on Twitter are endless, but not without limits. There are trends in several popular Twitter ‘pop sociologist’ accounts that at times can do more damage than good.

The concept of an audience, or building a following, plays a central role in motivating individuals to produce content which can be seen as damaging. A trend has set in which promotes the idea of “watering down” or discussing topics on very basic, 101 levels for the sake of gaining a large following. While it is important to start with basics whenever discussing a topic, it is important to understand the problematic nature of never progressing educational content beyond this basic level.

Tweets are often made in thread form – a tool which allows you to string together several tweets and easily pack lots of information together – for the sake of going viral, not for the sake of educating individuals. This alludes to the intent of many Twitter ‘pop sociologists,’ and doing this allows for content to go viral which lacks critical engagement with the subject, dialectical analysis, and historical context. It is the difference between discussing how non-Black people of color often have anti-Blackness in their communities and discussing how non-Black people of color have anti-Blackness in their communities due to a specific historical context and integration into a systemic context which leads them to this. The latter would be less popular because it discusses a historical context and lends itself towards a solution-based analysis, while the first would go viral for its simplistic nature. When statements that lack nuance, depth, and historical context go viral, this often allows for the misrepresentation and misuse of content and theory. Tweets that allude to theory, but do not explicitly source, discuss, and cite, allow generalisations and blanket statements to become the norm, which is a problem.

Another problem we often see is the deliberate altering or rendering of form and content within tweets for the sake of whiteness, or rather white comfortability, to garner more retweets. Content is often pacified and de-politicised in order to not upset white followers, and what this creates are several accounts nearly appropriating radical language for a white audience. Examples of this are several “pro-Black” accounts that create content about Black politics from a very liberal and respectable perspective. Individuals who perform a radical or leftist politic, but obscure true leftist content with neoliberal ideals.

To understand this, we can look at how several Black queer intellectuals exist on Twitter. People like myself tend to stay in our lane, continually talking about the things we are well knowledged in, keep our content heavily experiential based, and never seek to make ourselves an authority of any certain politic. Contrasted with several other users, you can immediately notice individuals only talking about certain things when they are trending topics, often appearing to present themselves as authority on topics and politics in order to gain social capital.

And within the context of Twitter, the idea of creating yourself as an authoritative figure on a subject is important to note because it often positions one’s politics as anti-dialogical, or above criticism and approach,  and stifles critical engagement. By positioning themselves as some social justice authority through various means of accumulating social capital, individuals present themselves as uncheckable and infallible. This is an individualised rendering of a popular mechanism of neoliberalism; to position your politics, your identity, and your positions as binarily true. To position your self with a false sense of authority is to disrupt the organically engaging, dialogical, and uniquely communicative nature of Twitter.

What does this mean in the larger context of Twitter and what does it mean to exist in a manner that might be inherently damaging, even if done with pure intentions? And what solutions can be theorised and put into practice to effectively use Twitter for education? For starters, it means accepting the notion that if you want to dedicate your account to education and advocacy, you are taking on a responsibility to also progress and sharpen yourself over time. This is a process that the social justice oriented individual should be invested in already, but as our great elders like Paulo Freire, Walter Rodney, and Assata Shakur have taught us, the responsibility of education is not one to be worn lightly.

It also means the one dedicating to using Twitter to educate people having a clear line of introspection, as well as a pedagogical approach rested on engagement. Of course no one person is required to engage in any capacity if they don’t wish to, but on some level critical engagement is critical and vital to the education process. A model for this pedagogical, or educational, approach would be one that not only welcomes but insists upon engagement, constructive comments, questioning, and even at times critique; which Twitter is the perfect platform to allow this sort of pedagogy to blossom. The educator, like the activist or the artist, can be anything but neutral, and we must begin to see Twitter as an extension of a liberated classroom if we are to continue to attempt to use it as such. Tearing down the walls of promoting certain individuals as ‘authority’ of a certain politic due to their following and social capital is harmful to this pedagogical approach, because it allows individuals to deny introspection as well as critique.

And we have to ask, is Twitter even the best platform for the role of education? Surely, as a realm for social interaction and entertainment it is of fantastic use, but is it possible to ever properly use it pedagogically? I believe it can be, or it often is, but when done correctly with good intentions. Certainly many can agree that only so much depth and nuance can be packed into 140 character tweets, leaving out large portions of theory and context often, however with innovations in Twitter’s threading, linking, and photo/video uploading features, this is rapidly changing. While Twitter is not (and should not be viewed as) a space to build an entire personal political analysis from, replacing books, personal study, and research, it can be a great medium to exist as a starting point for analyses. We have to begin to see it as such – a starting point – and develop the craft of using Twitter to educate around that notion.

Much of my own nature on the platform exists in this same space, having dedicated the majority of my presence on the site to educating folks on different topics I’ve studied and devoted time to, so this exists not just as a critique to strangers but a self-critique and reminder as well. A reminder that if I am going to use what tools the master has given and attempt to subvert them to build power, I need to also hold myself accountable to using the tools as best as possible.

We saw the rise of the “pop activist” in 2016 and the entire construct was critiqued to hell and back, and rightfully so. But may I suggest the “pop sociologist” or “pop expert” is an equally problematic and at times harmful construct that we need to examine, dissect, and mould into something better? Can we turn the ‘pop sociologist’ into a pedagogical figure where false authority doesn’t replace dialogical critical engagement, a large following is not more important than the actual depth of content being produced, and knowledge is not pacified and distributed without historical context for the sake of appeasing a following?

As Paulo Freire informs us in his book Pedagogy of Freedom, “whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.” Therefore those dedicated to using Twitter as a platform for educating others must never feel they are above being educated, because it is a crucial part of a healthy pedagogy. One that involves the ‘pop sociologist’ to move beyond analyses formed solely on social media and into a praxis of education rooted in theories of liberation. Twitter can be a powerful tool for education and pedagogical activism, as we’ve seen already, but only if we continue to harness its power in the sharpest, most emancipatory ways possible.

Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed