At 268,000, visits to this blog are now down 37% from the peak year of 2015. At the same time, this year I had the fewest number of new posts, just 39. On the other hand, this year I had 25 million impressions on Twitter. Whatever that means.
In my case, and probably many others, the role of the blog has changed with the growth of Twitter. A lot of what the blog did was provide an immediate outlet for daily chatter and work in progress thoughts, a way to get feedback, check in with colleagues, learn new things and meet new people. That’s a lot of what I use Twitter for now, more efficiently (if more noisily).
The other squeeze on the blog is the imperative to do open science more systematically, for which I use the Open Science Framework to post data and code — in projects, which may include multiple files, and quick files for single documents. And of course I use SocArXiv for more formal working papers, reviews, and preprints (mine are here).
So what is the role of the blog? It’s the place for official news and announcements about new work — including notifications of stuff I’m publishing elsewhere — longer arguments, and informal work. It’s a way for people to subscribe to my news via email (it also goes on Facebook, which a lot of sociologists use).
In several talks I have tried to illustrate the total information strategy in something like this pentagulation:
I’m happy to hear suggestions (on any platform) for how to handle communication strategy.
The tricky relationship between platforms and different media came home to roost in my book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. That book was inspired by the success of this blog, which is what enticed University of California Press to consider it. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of my readers on other platforms, I worked pretty hard on it, selecting the best blog posts, and then combining, updating, and adding to them to make a collection of essays, with data. I don’t know how successful the book is compared with other academic books generally, but, with almost no marketing beyond my social media platforms, it has generated basically no buzz for me (media, invitations, etc.). That’s in contrast to working papers, tweets, and blog posts, which continue to bring in wider attention. I know other people have done amazing blog-to-book projects, but this experience definitely showed me that the successful translation is far from automatic. Live and learn! Maybe in the long run the book will be what persists from the first decade of this blog.
“The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees. … Once the President has chosen a platform and opened up its interactive space to millions of users and participants, he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with.”
— Barrington D. Parker, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided in our favor in Knight Institute v. Trump, upholding the decision of from the U.S. District Court that President Trump violating the First Amendment by blocking me and six other plaintiffs on Twitter. The decision was unanimous among the three judges (two appointed by Republicans, one Democrat), who heard oral arguments in March (available in video here).
In ruling that Trump can't block people on Twitter, the 2nd Circuit said the First Amendment stands for the concept that "the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less." We agree!
I was interviewed for a (paywalled) Times Higher Education article, “US university professor helps beat Trump on Twitter blocking,” saying:
“I often don’t read his tweets before replying. The point is not to have a dialogue with him, but to engage with the millions of people who read his tweets. … When I have a popular reply it can be viewed by 100,000 people or more, which, while small in the grand scheme, is very satisfying as an individual act of resistance.”
The article concludes:
But the professor acknowledged that some of his friends regard his approach as a waste of time, “playing into Trump’s hands, sinking to his level, fueling the outrage industry without advancing the cause of improving democracy through civil discourse. And honestly, they may be right,” he said. “We each have to respond in our own way to what, for many, is a deeply distressing turn of events.”
Much more important than my tweets is the effect of the case on the legal protections for democracy. I share the optimistic take by Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight Institute and the lawyer who delivered the oral argument in the Second Circuit:
“Public officials’ social media accounts are now among the most significant forums for discussion of government policy. This decision will ensure that people aren’t excluded from these forums simply because of their viewpoints, and that public officials aren’t insulated from their constituents’ criticism. The decision will help ensure the integrity and vitality of digital spaces that are increasingly important to our democracy.”
(The whole team at the Knight Institute has been amazing and I’m deeply grateful.)
I also gave this interview to ABC News streaming show Briefing Room, and offered this summary off the cuff:
This is exactly what we were hoping for. Trump and the Department of Justice that’s representing him had argued that when Trump tweets, they acknowledge, that’s official business, but when he blocked people they said that was his personal preference and his personal behavior. And it’s really new territory because increasingly government official are communicating with the public on these private platforms, and we have to do some work to bring the First Amendment to bear in these environments. The principle here is that if the government, or a government official, establishes what’s called a public forum, then they can’t exclude people from that forum on the basis of their views. So Trump can have a private party, he can have a campaign rally, he doesn’t have to let every person in the world walk into the White House – but if he puts up a sign that says, “Public Debate Happening Here,” then he can’t say, “Oh, by the way, only Republicans can come.” And that’s what the court found he’s doing essentially with his Twitter feed when he blocks people, and creates this false impression that, you know, he has the biggest crowds and everybody loves him.
Here’s the clip:
The next step is to see whether Trump appeals, in which case he can either ask for a review by the full panel of the Second Circuit, or go up to the Supreme Court. We’re supposed to hear within 90 days.
Thank you to everyone who read and responded this year.
These are some of the good things that happened in 2018 that may be of interest to blog readers. I was on sabbatical. A new edition of my textbook, a book of essays, and some papers came out. President Trump was compelled by a Federal court to unblock me on Twitter. The excellent Joanna Pepin finished her PhD, and other students made great progress. I was elected to ASA’s Committee on Publications.
On the blog, productivity was good this year, with visits up 14% to 330,000, on traffic to 49 new posts. Blogging lives. In the longer-format genre, I posted a number of working papers and preprints, and two had stand-out performances: One on divorce trends and one a review of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West (3100 downloads between them).
In the shorter-format genre, Twitter impressions were down 10% this year, to 23 million. After a surge in June following the President unblocking me, my impressions declined over the remainder of the year. Maybe the Twitter algorithm isn’t serving my tweets to as many people, or my tweets aren’t as good, or maybe I spent less time on Twitter.
On the blog, these were the top ten posts written in 2018:
2. Mark Regnerus to be promoted to full professor at UT Austin. The University of Texas central administration overrode negative recommendations from both the Department of Sociology faculty and the College of Liberal Arts, to commit millions of dollars to Regnerus over the rest of his career. Bad decision.
6. Trump Twitter suit argued in federal court. With the Knight First Amendment Institute and six other plaintiffs, I sued President Trump for blocking me on Twitter. After oral arguments in New York, I got to speak to reporters literally on the courthouse steps. (We won the case, he unblocked us, and the case is now under appeal.)
8. Fertility trends explained, 2017 edition. Putting a marked US fertility decline in context, with figures and code. Conclusions: the economy is probably about to tank, and the U.S. fertility rate is still relatively high for our income level, especially for racial-ethnic minorities. I hope you listened to me and sold your stock back in May.
We won our lawsuit on May 23, with a federal judge ruling that Trump blocking me and seven others violates the First Amendment. Now, as of June 4, I am actually unblocked by the president’s @realdonaldtrump account, as are the other plaintiffs. At the same time, the Department of Justice filed a notice of their intent to appeal the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Meanwhile, an unknown number of other people remain blocked by the president. The Knight First Amendment Institute, which is representing us, has asked other people who are blocked to contact them at: email@example.com. I would love this case to end up extending to others blocked by Trump, and other public officials.
Federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled yesterday that the president is violating our First Amendment rights when he blocked me and six other plaintiffs for disagreeing with him on Twitter. The details and decision are available here. Congratulations and deep appreciation to the legal team at the Knight First Amendment Institute, especially Katie Fallow, Jameel Jaffer, Alex Abdo, and Carrie DeCell (sorry for those I’m missing).
I described my participation in the suit and my tweets last year here, and the oral arguments in March here.
Judge Buchwald’s introduction to the decision is great:
This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.
She went on to issue declaratory relief, meaning she told the president he’s breaking the law, rather than injunctive relief (an order to act), writing:
It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803), and we have held that the President’s blocking of the individual plaintiffs is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the President and [social media director Dan] Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional.
That remains to be seen, of course (I’m still blocked at this writing).
“In an age when we’re seeing so many norms broken by government regarding free speech, this is an important and right decision,” says [Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland]. “It sends a message that we’re not going to destroy free speech norms.”
[David Greene, a senior staff attorney and civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation] says he hopes the ruling warns other elected officials who are blocking constituents on social media to stop. “We routinely get a ton of people complaining to us about similar practices,” he says. “I hope they take it as a message that you have to stop doing this.”
“The First Amendment prohibits government officials from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint,” said Katie Fallow, senior staff attorney at the institute, in a statement Wednesday. “The court’s application of that principle here should guide all of the public officials who are communicating with their constituents through social media.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law at UC Berkeley, agrees.
“The judge followed clear law: A government official cannot give selective access of this sort,” Chereminsky said.
Knight staff attorney Carrie DeCell said the organization was pleased with the decision, but expects the White House to appeal. “Twitter is a new communications platform, but First Amendment principles are foundations,” DeCell said. “Public discourse is increasingly taking place online.”
DeCell said the case could have implications for all public officials using social media — not just Trump’s account. “The reasoning in the court decisions, we think, should inform public officials’ activities on our social media pages throughout the country,” she said.
My co-plaintiffs have also written on the decision. See Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter Poza in Daily Kos:
Public officials are relying on social media more and more to communicate to constituents. As that shift accelerates, it’s imperative that courts recognize that the First Amendment protects against viewpoint discrimination in digital public forums like the @realdonaldtrump account just as it does in more traditional town halls. An official’s Twitter account is often the central forum for direct political debate with and among constituents, a tenet of democracy.
Twitter is as public a forum as a town hall meeting. By blocking people who disagree with him, he’s not only blocking our right to petition our government and access important information, but he distorts that public forum by purging critical voices. It’s like a senator throwing someone out of a town hall because they held up a “disagree” sign.
The New York Times also did a piece on other people Trump blocked (the public doesn’t know how many such people there are), one of whom called the decision “incredibly vindicating.”
I agree. The decision is a breath of democracy fresh air.
Too often sociologists think of social media, or online communications generally, primarily as a way of broadcasting their ideas and building their audience, instead of as a way of deepening their engagement with different people and perspectives. You see this when academics start a twitter account right when their book is coming out. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very limited. A crucial part of being a public scholar, public intellectual, or a public sociologist, etc., is reading, listening, and learning through engagement, and digital communication can enhance the metabolism of that process. Especially important is the chance to learn from people you don’t normally interact with. For all the complaints about social media bubbles, some true, social media also offers huge efficiencies for meeting and learning from new people.
As I’m writing an essay about this, I thought of my work on divorce as an example. So here’s that thread, condensed.
A divorce story
In 2008 I was teaching an undergraduate Family Sociology course at the University of North Carolina, and included a section on divorce based on other people’s research. I was also developing a proposal for my own textbook, which at the time framed family structures and events, including divorce, as consequences and causes of inequality. I was reading research about divorce along with many other family issues that were outside of my formal training and experience (the closest I had come to a family demography or family sociology course was a seminar on Gender, Work & Family in grad school).
Then in 2009, I wrote a post on my pretty new blog criticizing something bad the Brad Wilcox had written about divorce. I was trying to be newsy and current, and he was claiming that the recession was lowering divorce rates because hard times pulled people together. We didn’t yet know what would happen in the recession. (In the comments, Louise Roth suggested it would take time for divorces “caused” by the recession to show up, which turned out to be true.)
I kept on that path for a while, criticizing Wilcox again for similar work in 2011. By then — prompted by the combination of my reading, the blog debates, and the news coverage around families and the recession — I was working on a paper on divorce using the American Community Survey. I presented it at a demography meeting in the summer of 2011, then revised and presented it at the Population Association of America the following spring. I blogged about this a couple more times as I worked on it, using data on state variation, and Google searches, each time getting feedback from readers.
A version of the paper was rejected by Demography in the summer of 2011 (which generated useful reviews). Although now discredited as not peer-review-publishable (which no one knew), my commentary on divorce and the recession was nevertheless featured in an NPR story by Shankar Vedantam. Further inspired, I sent a new version of the paper (with new data) to Demographic Research, which also rejected it. I presented on the work a couple of times in 2012, getting feedback each time. By August 2012, with the paper still not “published,” I was quoted describing my “divorce/recession lull-rebound hypothesis” in New York magazine.
The news media pieces were not simply my work appearing in the news, in a one-directional manner, or me commenting on other people’s research, but rather me bringing data and informed commentary to stories the reporters were already working on. Their work influenced my work. And all along that news coverage was generating on- and offline conversations, as I found and shared work by other people working on these topics (like the National Center for Marriage and Family Research, and the Pew Research Center). Looking back over my tweets about divorce, I see that I covered divorce and religion, disabilities, economics, and race/ethnic inequality, and also critiqued media coverage. (Everything also got discussed on Facebook, in a smaller semi-private circle.)
By 2014 I finally got the paper — now with even newer data — published in a paywalled peer-reviewed journal, in Population Research and Policy Review. This involved writing the dreaded phrase, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to revise this paper again.” (Submitted October 2012, revision submitted August 2013, second revision submitted January 2014, final revision April 2014.) The paper, eventually titled, “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011,” did improve over this time as new data provided better leverage on the question, and the reviewers actually made some good suggestions.
So that’s an engagement story that includes teaching, the blogosphere and social media, news media, peer-reviewed publishing, conference presentations and colloquium talks. I did research, but also argued about politics and inequality, and taught and learned demography. It’s not a story of how I used social media, or the news media, to get the word out about my research, although that happened, too. The work product, not just the “publications,” were all public to varying degrees, and the discussions included all manner of students, sociologists, reporters, and interested blog or Twitter readers, most of whom I didn’t know or wouldn’t have met any other way.
So I can’t draw a line dividing the “engagement” and the “research,” because they weren’t separate processes.
After the two-hour hearing, just like in Law and Order, the news media met us with cameras and microphones as we came down the stairs of the courthouse, and I realized I hadn’t prepared what I would say. The first questions focused on a suggestion by the judge that Trump should just mute his critics on Trump instead of blocking us. Was this the solution? I hadn’t had time to consider it carefully, and we haven’t received any kind of settlement offer. So I said this:
Honestly I don’t know if muting is really the solution. But if all they really care about, which they say, is that he just doesn’t want to hear from us, then he would mute, but obviously he wants to suppress our speech. Obviously he doesn’t want us to be participating in the forum. He wants to look out at the world on Twitter, and see that everybody agrees with him and everybody thinks he’s great – and the fact is that’s not true – and that’s why he blocks us. He literally blocks us so that we won’t be seen to be expressing our views against him, and I think that’s outrageous and I’m glad that it’s apparently illegal.
“I never thought he would block me. I tweeted at him all the time,” Cohen told CJR outside court. He’d just watched attorneys from the Knight First Amendment Institute tell a federal judge that in blocking Cohen because he didn’t like his tweet, the president had engaged in unconstitutional discrimination based on viewpoint. The Knight Institute, which is based at Columbia University, is representing Cohen and six other plaintiffs—a surgeon, a comic, a musician-activist, two writers, and a police officer—in a bid to qualify Trump’s Twitter as a public forum; part of a broader push to protect the First Amendment from a president who clearly does not respect it.
A federal judge in Manhattan had plenty of questions for lawyers representing a group of Twitter users who sued President Trump in July after he blocked them on the social media service. And she had even more for the government.
The seven users, who had been blocked by the @realDonaldTrump account after criticizing the president, were joined in the lawsuit by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Their lawyers claimed that Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed is an official government account and that blocking users from following it was a violation of their First Amendment rights.
Lawyers from the Department of Justice insisted that the Twitter feed was not, in fact, a public forum. Furthermore, they argued, no one had been meaningfully excluded from it.
Courthouse News, with the courthouse steps statements:
New York City Fox 5 news, with some followup interviews:
Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, said he was summarily blocked in June 2017 after he reacted to a Trump tweet by replying with a photo of the president superimposed with the words “Corrupt Incompetent Authoritarian”.
“At first I was kind of proud, like ‘oh he cares about me,'” Cohen said.
“But then very quickly I realized that a lot fewer people were seeing my tweets and my political efficacy, my ability to speak to my fellow citizens, was impaired by that. And I think that’s not the way our government should act.”
These are just a few clips, mostly my scrap-booking for the day. I’ll write more later. Read all the case documents and statements, including those of the other plaintiffs, from the amazing Knight First Amendment Institute here.
It’s been another year online. Here’s my report. Feel the excitement, because it’s 2017.
This year I only wrote 54 Family Inequality blog posts, down from 77 last year; the 2010-2016 average was 130 per year. On the plus side, despite a 30% decline in posts, I only had a 7% decline in visits to the blog. Thanks!
On the third hand, while the blog had a little less than 300,000 visits this year (down from a peak of 428,000 in 2015), my tweets had more than 25 million views in 2017, according to Twitter analytics. Yikes. The peak in Twitter hits was May, with 4.8 million views. President Trump blocked me on Twitter on June 6, and I haven’t hit more than 2 million views in a month since. Who among us a year ago could have predicted our current relationship to the president of the United States (and his truth-and-soul crushing army of minions)? Our lawsuit against the president and his staff proceeds; the latest news is posted here.
The big blog news for the year is actually offline, the publication of my new book, Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible. I selected the best of the 900 blog posts on here, then revised them, updated them, and combined and organized them. The result is eight chapters of surprisingly (to me) fresh essays. I’m super happy with it, and hope you (and maybe your students) are, too. Order an exam copy or buy it from University of California Press or Amazon.
So here are the top 10 blog posts written this year:
3. More bad reporting on texting and driving, and new data. For years the New York Times has been publishing hysterical pieces about texting and driving, apparently in the service of selling Matt Richtel’s book. When David Leonhardt jumped with more nonsense in I updated my series. (Also, don’t text and drive.)
4. Sexual harassment: Et tu, Sociology? My colleague Liana Sayer and I made an offer. If you have first-hand knowledge of sexual harassment in sociology, tell us about it. We’ll collect information and report on it. Some people have contacted us. I hope more will. We’ll report back as we can.
6. How I choose sides like it’s 1934. If I’m wrong — a false-positive read on the catastrophicness of the situation — that’s a better mistake to make than the false-negative mistake of not taking Trumpism and all this seriously enough until it’s too late.
8. Race/ethnicity and slacking at work. Does new research show Black workers slack off more, and is working harder for the man really a sign of good character? Modern economics and a history lesson from Robin D. G. Kelley.
While cautious about the risks the normalizing Trump, I have nevertheless attempt to engage a little with his followers on Twitter, which is the only place I usually meet people who are willing to support him openly. One exchange yesterday struck me as iconic so I thought I’d share it.
Maybe if I’d studied conversation or text analysis more I would be less amazed at how individuals acting alone manage to travel the same discursive paths with such regularity. In this case a Trump supporter appears to spontaneously recover this very common path over a short handful of tweets:
I don’t believe your facts
If they are true it’s no big deal
Obama was worse
Nothing matters everyone is corrupt
The replies got jumbled up so I use screenshots as well as links (you can start here if you want to try to follow it on Twitter).
Ivanka Trump tweeted something about how she was going to India. Since I’m blocked by Donald but not Ivanka, if it’s convenient I sometimes do my part by making a quick response to her tweets. I said, “Your representation of the US in India epitomizes the corruption and incompetence of this administration.”
The responses by @armandolbstd and @dreadGodshand are very typical, demanding “proof” about things that are obvious to basically informed people. I made the typical mistake of thinking we could talk about common facts, using the word “literally” a lot:
OK, so then I got sucked in with what I thought was the most obvious example of corruption, leading @dreadGodshand into the whole cycle:
Interesting how the “ok, maybe it’s true but so what” thing we hear constantly strikes him as suddenly a new question. And from there on through no-big-deal to Obama-was-worse to nothing-matters:
And he concluded, “I’m not hating obama for it. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s designed that way to help their parties. Who really cares?”
This reminds me of the remarkable shift in attitudes toward immoral conduct among White evangelicals, who used to think it was a very big deal if elected officials (Obama) did immoral things in private but now (Trump) shrug:
People do change. But I don’t put that much stock in changing people, and contrary to popular belief I don’t think that’s how you have to win elections. In the end defeating Trumpism politically means outvoting people who think like this, which will be the result of a combination of things: increasing turnout (one way or the other) among people who oppose him, decreasing turnout among people who support him, and changing the number of people in those two categories.
You might think this example just shows the futility of conversations like this, but maybe I’m missing some opportunity to get through. And it’s also possible that this kind of thing is demoralizing to Trump supporters, which could be good, too. So, live and learn.
On June 7, I described how President Trump’s Twitter account blocked me, and the argument for why that violates the First Amendment. I can now report that the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has filed a lawsuit on my behalf demanding that the President unblock us. The other plaintiffs are Trump-blocked Twitter users as well: Rebecca Buckwalter, Holly Figueroa, Eugene Gu, Brandon Neely, Joseph Papp, and Nicholas Pappas (the Knight Institute is also a plaintiff). The announcement is here.
This was the tweet I sent 15 minutes before discovering I was blocked by @realDonaldTrump:
Our argument is that the President created in his Twitter stream a “designated public forum,” and he can’t legally exclude people from that based on their political views.
Here’s my part of the story, as told to the Knight communications team:
I’m okay with the fact that the candidate I wanted lost the election. Our family was upset by the outcome, but I approached this like a civics lesson for the children: We told them that this is a democracy, and the next best thing to winning an election is using the democratic process to speak up. It is all of our responsibility to use the tools we have to engage in our democracy.
Social media are among the most effect tools I have to speak out. I have a blog and as a professor I publish academic writings, but Twitter gives me the broadest audience most immediately. For example, I’m delighted when I write a blog post that is read by a few thousand people. But because of my audience on Twitter, I can reach as many as 100,000 people with one of my tweets replying to the president. It’s true that there are some people who use the reply threads on Twitter just to trade insults, which may not be the most productive sort of conversation. But they also allow you to see a range of opinions of people who agree or disagree. Since I’m not a political commentator by profession, and I’m a parent, Twitter is the only way I can connect with that many people with just a few minutes of time every day (it helps that he and I seem to wake up at the same time in the morning so I can reply right away).
Being blocked by Trump diminished my ability to respond and engage in the political process. There has been measurable impact on my ability to be heard. Yes, I can still say what I want to say, but not to those I want to speak to, when I want to say it or in the way that means the most to me. It’s disempowering to be prohibited from speaking. And I’m troubled that the president can create a space on Twitter — where there are millions of people — that he can manipulate to give the impression that more people agree with him than actually do.
The complaint specifies:
Defendants’ blocking of Professor Cohen from the @realDonaldTrump account
prevents or impedes him from viewing the President’s tweets; from replying to these tweets; from viewing the comment threads associated with these tweets; and from participating in the comment threads.
If I complained about random citizens blocking me on Twitter, you could call me a whiner or a snowflake. But the President is not a random citizen, he is a public official — even, yes, my president — and complaining about him blocking me from his official public forum is not a personal beef, it’s a Constitutional obligation. That’s why we have a Constitution, and the court system to enforce it.