I started using Twitter in March 2007. That definitely makes me an early adopter of that platform. That was before the first iPhone was launched (in June 2007), before Twitter had a native mobile app and before it even have a native search feature, these last two developments coming through acquisitions (see here and here). One of my first uses of Twitter was to (privately) log food I ate through a service called “Tweet What You Eat”, the first food diary you could actually use on mobile, in my case a Blackberry Electron. I’m such a long time user that I have a three letter handle, which apparently is a sought after commodity. But that’s enough nostalgia (and bragging) for now.
I used to love Twitter. It was liberating to follow those early Twitter “stars” and to be able to interact directly with them. It was also the first online and public discussion platform that worked on mobile. You could tweet and receive tweets via SMS from the very start, and that allowed users that didn’t have smartphones to use Twitter on their “dumb phones” (that was in fact the original idea behind Twitter). The limit on the amount of characters was seen almost as an artistic challenge. I loved Twitter so much I used to wish that more politicians used it, thinking this would make them more accessible.
Today, I wish that politicians would spend less time insulting each other, saying outrageous stuff or being “victims” of nefarious “hackers” (e.g. here, here, here, here) on Twitter and instead spend more time solving the great problems of our times. I have come to think that 140 characters probably doesn’t give enough room for nuance or for having the intellectual honesty of acknowledging potential flaws in the ideas one expresses. Unfortunately, once one has tweeted a strong opinion in a particularly spectacular way (because, you know, you need to be viral), human nature makes it difficult for this person to change his or her mind. I’m no longer sure Twitter positively contributes to the political discourse (quite the contrary).
I’m also tired that the site is crowded with spammy accounts, disinformative bots and hubris. While Twitter used to be good for keeping up with the news and even got me (as many) to abandon RSS, I now find that a combination of following the right Facebook accounts and consulting aggregators does the job better… and spares me the noise and the often unnecessary opinion of those that share links on Twitter.
I often have a feeling that on Twitter, everybody is simply yelling all the time. With a particularly energetic two-year old in my house, I have enough of that in my life already. Maybe I also lost touch with Twitter after having practised in a firm that has such a broad range of clients that one almost needed to run a conflict search before posting anything else than a comment about the current sports game (in fact I did run at least informal conflict searches before tweeting… and accordingly deleted numerous drafts over the years).
Maybe you’re thinking that I’m just getting old… but that’s probably not the problem here. In fact, what sparked me to write this column is my recent rediscovery of Reddit, which is known to have a particularly young user base.
I have been a mostly silent Reddit user for the last two years, but my interest has grown in recent months. For those that have never been on Reddit, it is reminiscent of the old online bulletin boards that you may have used from late 90’s until the advent of the “Web 2.0”. In fact I’m not quite sure I would be able to convincingly explain the difference.
Why am I writing about Reddit in a legal technology column? Because I think it may be a more interesting medium for sophisticated and productive online discussion than Twitter.
Case in point: On October 30, a Reddit user posting under the Lumpawarroo screen name published what’s basically an essay explaining why Jar Jar Binks is the ultimate Sith Lord (stay with me: I promise that this post, and the “Darth Jar Jar” theory for that matter, makes sense). That user had opened his account about 10 days earlier, which means that if he had posted his essay on Twitter first, it probably would have been ignored.
In a matter of one weekend, Reddit users that supported this shockingly plausible Star Wars theory opened a “subreddit” (i.e. a Reddit board about a specific topic) to discuss the theory and collaborated in creating a website exposing the theory and its flaws. Of course, people discussed the theory on Twitter as well, but those were the armchair quarterbacks in all of this: Those that were really serious (I know, that sounds strange) about the theory were on Reddit.
The Jar Jar topic generated a lot of long form posts, multiple detailed “frame by frame” analysis, productive collaboration (to the extent writing long posts and comments about Jar Jar Binks may even be considered productive) and elaborate comments. The discussion was infinitely richer than it would have been if it happened on Twitter. I thus started to wonder: If people use Reddit for sharing deep thoughts about a trivial matter such as Jar Jar Binks being the most deceptive villain in a famous galaxy far far away, why isn’t it used for more serious topics, in law for example. There are in fact law-related subreddits, but they seem to lack, well… lawyers, and are frankly not particularly vibrant.
While tweets and Twitter conversations promptly disappear out of sight when newer tweets pile on, the pace is slower on Reddit. An interesting topic in the right subreddit may be discussed for days and weeks in the same thread. On the other hand, Twitter goes so fast it constantly makes you feel out of breath and can severely contribute to one’s “FoMO“. On Reddit, you can easily follow a discussion, and contribute positively, even if you’re not constantly monitoring the site (this is a problem even Twitter acknowledges it has).
Reddit’s “upvoting” system is also great for pushing good content up to the top and helping you ignore uninteresting posts, something a mere chronological feed is definitely not good at. It is also sorted by topic, and therefore I don’t get to hear about your passion for bonsai if I happen to follow you because you also post interesting links about legal information. I mentioned that Twitter was initially made to be used via SMS, but now that most professionals in our privileged country have smartphones, tablets or phablets, the 140 character limit seems like it’s just an idiosyncrasy.
Lastly, I find that because tweets have to be very short, it’s only those that are confident that they can have a constant stream of fresh ideas to write about (and that can therefore justify operating, or contributing to, a platform outside of Twitter where they can develop their ideas) that can post original content on Twitter. Those that could be occasional (or even just one time) contributors of long form content on a platform like Reddit are, on Twitter, left retweeting posts, posting links and hopefully getting a few retweets with a timely post with sufficient wit. The opposite is true for Reddit where the medium for circulating information can also be the platform where it is originally published in long form (Facebook also tries to become like that).
It may seem ludicrous to suggest that Reddit should perhaps be the place where legal tech discussion happens because it has somewhat of a bad reputation for being juvenile and trollish. (This, of all things, is the most popular Reddit post of all time. Yes, with the typo in the post’s very title. No, I don’t understand why rice – and not a more “debatable” food item like cilantro – is being singled out as something that can potentially make other food “distusting” (sic.). As for trolls, see this.) But I remember a time, not so long ago, when talking about using Twitter in relation with anything law-related got you nothing but derisive laughs, and when Facebook was seen as something for teenagers and college students… instead of being feared by them. I also have learned that on the Internet, anything is possible, including Jar Jar being a Sith Lord.
By the time this column is published, I will have posted law tech updates here, and I invite you to join me there. While I’m certainly not holding my breath that you will, the question remains: After all these attempts (since, say, the expression “Web 2.0” was coined in 2004) at creating new online discussion media (remember Google Wave?), weren’t old fashioned bulletin boards, organized by topics, very close to being the right thing after all? Google seems to think so with its third attempt at social media relevance.