managing risks and rewards online

As a legal academic, I see both professional stakes and risks in sharing online. Management of the self these days means management of the digital self.  I expect other law professors to have their final or near-final work readily accessible online; that’s how I read most work in my field.  Using SSRN or another online repository is almost a requirement for a law professor, and it gets a readership that otherwise might not exist.  Other than that, there are many ways to successfully manage an online presence, from minimal (just that SSRN author page with preprints and a homepage with a brief CV) to maximal (I blog, on average, 2-3 items per day, usually cases, articles, or news stories that have caught my interest and fall within the self-defined scope of my blog).  Despite my embrace of the medium, I don’t tell everyone to blog.  Some people wouldn’t find it a good fit with their scholarly interests or personalities, and the last thing many scholars need is another duty.  For myself, though, I’ve found having a record of recent cases and my opinions on them have been very helpful for writing longer pieces when the time comes.

One thing that my friend and coauthor Eric Goldman has regularly emphasized for online posts: you’re more exposed to the subjects of your writings than a traditional scholarly publication would be.  If you do engage in public discourse, one possible consideration is whether you want professional liability insurance.  Some professional societies will offer insurance that may cover defamation claims, or you can check your homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, which may offer a rider.  The Citizen Media Law Project also has useful resources.  (Defamation suits against traditional academic publications are not unknown either.  Indeed, a law professor was recently sued for an article he published.) 

My purpose is not to frighten—yes, Americans are often stereotyped as litigious, but we have robust protections for freedom of speech and it’s hard to win a defamation lawsuit; the threat-to-real lawsuit ratio is high online—but to point out that the exposure you get online can be surprising.  Out of a thousand posts, it can be very difficult to predict which one will get widely linked, tweeted, etc.  So the traditional advice that lawyers give to business clients may now apply to academics as well: if you wouldn’t be comfortable with having your writing appear on the front page of the New York Times, don’t circulate that writing in public.  At the same time, most “public” posts are, in fact, functionally private.  It’s lack of audience rather than abundance that plagues us most of the time. It’s not surprising that we write for our usual audiences, nor should we live in silence out of fear any more than we should not drive because people get in car accidents. Participation in important conversations is what makes us citizens and scholars.


Especially as scholars, we are often eager, even desperate, to see our ideas in circulation—despite that, I think you’re right in pointing out that too often we feel like we’re talking to ourselves. The “lack of audience” you mention haunts even the best writers and scholars, pushing us to try to be novel , witty, or provocative to sort of “move” our intellectual products through the digisphere.

I think this really relates to the function and place of the academic and the labor we put forth.  It seems to me that this anxiety is only further magnified by the sort of “rock star” model of the scholar that seems to have taken hold in so many disciplines. Thanks for the reminder that the quest to build a scholarly brand for oneself necessarily entails exposure and risk that is somewhat unique to the digital medium.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call my insurance agent . . . 

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