Can Twitter be a legitimate source of legal research and scholarship? As an associate editor of the Michigan State Law Review, 3L Patrick M. Ellis decided to find out. To fulfill the requirement that he produce a scholarly note addressing a legal issue, he has written a paper that he researched and sourced almost entirely through Twitter.
He has now posted a working draft of the paper, 140 Characters or Less: An Experiment in Legal Research, at SSRN. In the synopsis that introduces the paper (and on his own blog), Ellis explains:
Generally speaking, law review editors and other academicians demand that authors support every claim with a citation, or, at the very least, require extensive research to support claims or theses. This Note seeks to fulfill this requirement, with a variation on conventional legal scholarship. Almost all of the sources in this Note were obtained via Twitter. Thus, this somewhat experimental piece should demonstrate social media’s potential as an emerging and legitimate source of legal information.
Why would a law student want to explore the use of social media for legal research? Apparently, I am partly to blame. Ellis cites a recent Law Technology News column of mine in which I bemoaned the continuing inaccessibility of legal information. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Ellis suggests, may have the potential to help solve this accessibility problem.
By perceiving and using social media as something more than a marketing tool, lawyers, law schools, and, most importantly, clients, may be able to tap into a more diverse and more accessible well of information. This redistribution of information accessibility may not only solve some of the problems facing the legal industry, but also has the capability to improve society at large.
In his article, Ellis begins by surveying the inaccessibility of legal information and the problems it causes for attorneys and their clients. He then goes on to discuss how Twitter can function as an “information-accessing mechanism,” describing how he went about using Twitter to research the article. He concludes with a consideration of how social media may help to remedy some of the accessibility and symmetry issues facing practitioners and consumers.
Even as Ellis pursues his experiment, he is realistic about the limits of Twitter as a research tool. For one, most of the sources he found through Twitter were not academic or scholarly, but were blogs, websites and news sources. For another, it is almost impossible in some cases to determine whether someone on Twitter is who they say they are.
That said, Ellis is confident that social media will continue to drive real change in the legal profession, and that change will benefit both those who are members of the profession and those they serve.