Twitter and the Mentor Delusion

Mentoring has become one of those buzz words in social media that is used to make stupid people stupider.  Wrap up interaction in the mentoring box, tie a pretty ribbon on it, and pretend that the desperate search for validation on the internet is a substitute.

A while back, Venkat Balasubramani noted the “Cult of Positivity” on twitter, where being nice to people you don’t know was repaid by their being nice in return.

Positivity certainly reigns supreme in the corner of the Twittersphere that I frequent, and my impression is that there are other pockets of it that are overwhelmingly positive as well. Twitter is all about highlighting positive things and people.  The virtual high five or pat on the back is currency on Twitter.  Indeed, research is passed around which shows that “negative remarks lead to fewer followers.”  In my (admittedly anecdotal experience), while there are a few people who call it like they see it, most legal birds are effusive in their praise and quick to withhold criticism.  And this extends to points of view taken, articles passed around, etc.  It’s almost as if it’s socially unacceptable to say that something sucks. 

This led Venkat to wonder whether all the positivity led to a negative impact, with people so concerned about positivity that no one wanted to be critical where criticism was warranted.  Where never was heard, a discouraging word…

Not only is the cult of positivity rewarded, but it’s not necessarily honest.  Seth Godin notes how those seeking validation are easily taken in by those who applaud with an ulterior purpose.

Humans have a natural openness to reciprocity. It’s a time-honored survival technique, one that allowed us to live together in villages for millenia. Someone who doesn’t reciprocate is less likely to be protected by his peers, right? Not only have we been taught reciprocation since birth, but it feels right. It’s baked in.

The problem occurs when the trading of favors become mercenary, when alert individuals start manipulating the system for personal gain. Suddenly, every favor is suspect, measured and not at all generous. Suddenly all the likes and links and blurbs become nothing but currency, not the honest appraisals of people we can trust. It means that bystanders have trouble telling the difference between honest approval and the mere mutual shilling of traded favors.

You think your twitter buddies are being supportive, while they play you so that you will be there when they need the favor repaid.  Yet, you’re sufficiently appreciative of their warm embrace that you are an easy mark, and are only too happy to return the favor of positivity and support to your sweet mentors.

Except mentoring requires not only the support of the good, but the criticism of the bad. Mirriam Seddiq made this point in an homage to her mentor, Terry Kindlon:

Mentorship is not about telling you you’re a superstar.  It’s about helping you get it right, or at least getting you closer to right than you were before you asked for help.  It’s also not about being nice. I published a letter from Terry to me wherein he basically tells me to go fuck myself and my hurt feewings.  I know at the time I probably cried when I read it.  It’s not nice.  It’s the opposite of nice.  But in that same letter he tells me to suck it up because I’ve got what it takes.  That, my friends, is high praise from the likes of him.  Good lawyers are made, not born.  But like any other creation, it’s not a simple process.  It is painstaking and methodical and requires a great deal of effort.  It also requires an incredibly thick skin. 

While empty validation is readily available online, and particularly on twitter, it bears no resemblance to mentoring.  Words of empty support, at 140 characters a shot, don’t make you any better. They just make you feel better.

For this reason, Kevin O’Keefe’s post, asserting “Twitter enables lawyers to improve their craft,” at  Real Lawyers Have Blogs, demanded attention.

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown (@emmersbrown), reports this morning that Twitter enables teachers to improve their craft. Twitter’s become a community of mentors offering inspiration, commiseration and classroom-tested lesson plans.

I’ve been on Twitter long enough to see the same camaraderie, collaboration, and learning taking place among attorneys using Twitter.

Classifying Twitter as solely a social media tool for marketing is shortsighted. Twitter immediately connects you to relevant information and people. That’s a coup for lawyers looking to become better lawyers.

Twitter is awash in “camaraderie,”  It stinks of it.  Insipid twits aplenty, offering virtual belly rubs for the asking.  There are the occasional witty twits, but they’re rare. There are even more rare informative twits, but there isn’t much of any worth that fits in 140 characters.  If that’s as deep as someone is capable of thinking, then perhaps it seems informative.  More likely, it’s just the positivity, since the need for validation seems to drive people to engage in blind twitting with people about whom they nothing filled to warm words and the appearance of empathy. 

Does it make you happy?  That’s nice.  Enjoy it, if that’s what you’re looking for on the internet.  But this has absolutely nothing to do with mentoring.  No one “improves their craft” via twitter. 

There’s harm being done here, and that’s why it’s necessary to point this out.  The lawyer who has tried ten cases is being “mentored” by the twitter lawyer who has never tried a case.  The lawyer who has tried 100 cases, but poorly, is a twitter rock star.  The twitter lawyer isn’t a lawyer at all, but someone “passionate” about something he knows nothing about.  You have no clue who you’re twitting with, and your twitter support group becomes the ultimate measure of the virtual “risky shift” phenomenon.  With support, the worst ideas begin to sound reasonable. 

Mentoring is crucial for lawyers, particularly the young and new ones who tend to look to the internet for comfort.  It’s not about camaraderie, or support, or high-fives or even getting your tummy rubbed.  It’s about being told when you’re wrong, before you do something foolish and damaging. It’s about a deeper understanding of what we do than appears in 140 characters. It’s about real people talking about real things with other real people, who we know and trust.  It’s about having a better reason to seek the advice of someone than the expectation that they will tell you how wonderful you are and give you a balloon.

Social media can be a fun way to kill some time, and twitter can be a wonderful substitute for real friends for those who feel isolated and alone.  It’s not without its virtues.  But mentoring is not one of them, and blind validation is the antithesis of mentoring.  If you’re seeking a pat on the back, knock yourself out on twitter. If you want to “improve your craft,” don’t delude yourself by thinking that your twitter pals are the answer.

Get real.  Find a real mentor. Engage in real discussion.  And leave the cult of positivity on twitter, where you can kill some time after you’ve done something meaningful.

13 thoughts on “Twitter and the Mentor Delusion

  1. Moshe

    Even the most well meaning people online, those who are actually honest, can’t be counted on as mentors. Let’s face it, nobody online cares THAT much that they’ll give you more than minimal attention.

    I discovered this not too long ago when I was conversing on twitter with honest lawyers I respect. I asked for an opinion about something I had done and the response was a general, “looks ok to me.”
    Fortunately for me, Scott was kind enough to take a longer look and actually explained to me what I had done wrong.

    All further questions of mine are now posed over the phone or in person with real mentors, people who have agreed to take time from their busy day and listen.

  2. Murray Newman

    At first, I was really upset reading this article, since I thought by virtue of the fact that we are on Twitter together you were my mentor. This post shattered those delusions momentarily.
    And then I realized we were Facebook friends, so it is all still cool, and I felt a lot better.

  3. Venkat

    I was trying to give the post residual vitality. Take advantage of the long tail. Leverage old content.

    Get with the program!

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