Wednesday, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, announced in the Wall Street Journal that he would be stepping down in the summer of 2019. This announcement led to a tsunami of encomiums on Twitter:
This was ironic, because buried within Brooks’s op-ed was a shot across the bow of social media and the intellectuals who succumb to it:
Another threat to the world of ideas is arguably even more insidious: mediocrity through trivialization, largely from misuse of new media. To understand this, remember Gresham’s law: “Bad money drives out good.” If one form of currency is inherently more valuable than another in circulation, the better one will be hoarded and thus disappear.
Today, we see a kind of intellectual Gresham’s law. Famous academics spend big parts of their days trading insults on Twitter. Respected journalists who suppress their own biases in their formal reporting show no such restraint on social media, hurting their and their organizations’ reputations. When half-baked 280-character opinions and tiny hits of click-fueled dopamine displace one’s hard-earned training and vocation, it’s a lousy trade.
This section hit home for a few reasons. First, I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and goodness knows I can be snarky. Second, as the author of “The Ideas Industry,” I am certainly familiar with the notion that a Gresham’s law dynamic can exist in social media (though in my book I applied it to comments sections).
I do not quite share Brooks’s concerns about the degrading effects of social media. To be sure, there are some famous academics who have … let’s say “not improved their intellectual standing” through their use of social media. But Twitter has its strengths as well. On this front, social media has also enhanced the standing of some intellectuals who make great contributions to the marketplace of ideas. I have profited greatly from following Julia Azari and Adam Tooze and Laura Seay and many others.
To paraphrase an old international relations adage, Twitter is what you make of it. Most intellectuals make better use of it than Brooks claims. Despite the hyperbole, I see little evidence that the trolls and cranks are driving everyone else away.