Paige Morgan

Using Twitter at #sts11, and at academic conferences in general

I’ve been attending the Society for Textual Scholarship conference since 2007, but this is the first year that the conference was held in a location with easily and widely accessible wi-fi, and thus, the first year that it’s had a lively backchannel, thanks to the wi-fi and the fact that Program Chair Matt Kirschenbaum created a digital humanities track running throughout all three days of the meeting.

On the last day of the conference, Barbara Bordalejo was gleefully tweeting about showing Twitter to Paul Eggert, Peter Shillingsburg, and Marta Werner, which made me wish that I’d thought of showing them myself, because they’ve certainly all shown me amazing things, and it would be only courteous to return the favor. But I can still do that. This post, then, is written for an audience who haven’t used Twitter before (at all, or who use it, but not within a conference.) It’s long, but broken up into sections; read one, or all, as you like. I want to avoid asserting baldly that everyone should be on Twitter when they attend a conference. Different styles work best for different people. But if you’re curious about it, then this post may be useful to you.

Tweeting to promote, and document
Tweeting to interact
Twitter can make conferences more professionally useful
Too big to tweet: Peter Shillingsburg’s Presidential Address
Twitter and conflict; or, Twitter isn’t enough — but sometimes, neither is spoken discussion.
Tweeting in a textual context
But can’t you get ADHD from Twitter?
What I don’t know

Tweeting to promote and document

This was my first time tweeting at a formal conference (as opposed to at a THATCamp); which meant I had to figure out what I wanted to say. At the first session I attended on Wednesday afternoon, How to Do Things with NINES, there were only 3 people, including me, and tweeting wasn’t especially conducive to interacting fully with them; but I did send out a couple of messages describing what we were doing; knowing that people in the other sessions would be doing the same. And Typewright, which we ended up discussing as much or more as NINES itself, is worthy of more buzz: it’s a tool for crowdsourcing OCR correction in databases like ECCO, and one of the most exciting features of it is that once a user has corrected a full text, Gale will give him/her the rights to it. (My podcast scholarly edition, which I spoke about at MLA 2009, languishing in part precisely because of rights issues), should finally become a reality, once Typewright goes live).

On the chance that other people hadn’t heard about Typewright I wanted it to become part of the #sts11 tweetstream; and also briefly think, publicly, about how users might be credited/identified with their work. (The creators haven’t decided how the attribution system will work, and there are still issues with Typewright to be worked out — for example, what if some lines are partially corrected, but not fully? How will their status be recorded in the system? One of the lines we looked at had a word with an ink blot at the beginning, and as far as we could tell, it said “bish’d” — so though that line has been mostly fixed, it isn’t entirely legible.) Andy Stauffer is excited about the potential of using Typewright in the classroom, and so am I, but I’m also excited about it as a potential gateway drug for more intense work using digital tools. It’s simple enough that it should feel accessible to scholars who are leery of using a computer for anything more than word processing, it’s accompanied by definite rewards in the form of the textual rights (though I wonder how much people will be motivated to work on editions of Pamela and/or Clarissa.

I also want to know what happens once an edition has been corrected. Once someone’s claimed the first edition of Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” by correcting it, will it no longer be possible for anyone else to do the same thing? What if I find that someone has corrected half of a pamphlet, and I finish up the other half? Do I have to make a distinct change in every line, or only click the button to show that I’ve reviewed it and it’s correct?

Enough about Typewright, for the moment — back to tweeting.

Tweeting to interact

In the panels themselves, I tweeted to describe content and approach (which seemed especially important in the more non-digitally oriented panels, to break down any assumptions that there was a straight-up divide between the digitalists and textualists. I tweeted to capture any single phrase, idea, or question, quoting it if possible, given space. And I tweeted to ask questions; sometimes questions that I planned to ask the panelist, but which seemed more widely applicable, and sometimes questions that someone else might answer.

I marked when someone said something that thrilled me, or that captured something of the reasons that I have been drawn to this work. Is this any different than complimenting someone less publicly, at the end of a panel, or when you encounter them in the hallway at a conference? No, not in one sense, if the person is on Twitter, and yes, in another, because in order to make that compliment public, I needed to at least attempt to articulate it in a form that would be coherent for others. I think of this sort of complimenting as akin to exchanges that I’ve heard offline among academics, where someone praises a book, or a scholar, and this is where I sound cynical, because sometimes the praise sounds like namedropping, and what I like about reading people’s tweets about something that impressed them is that I often get a much more particular than general, non-specific sense of “X is so great.”

I met people through interacting via Twitter whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise. And because I met them through Twitter, I’m more likely to be in touch with them in future months, rather than depending on remembering to email them (and trying to say something intelligent in said email).

Twitter can make conferences more professionally useful

Every time there’s a meeting at my university for dissertating (or about-to-be-dissertating Ph.C.s who are preparing for the job market, someone asks “should I go to conferences?” And without fail, the Placement Committee says, “no, probably not. Conferences aren’t really useful at that stage.” You may or may not end up at a panel at 8:30 a.m. on the first day, or at 4:00 p.m. on the last day; you may or may not have an opportunity to meet senior scholars. To be maximally successful at conferences (especially those labelled as “important,” which are usually large), especially as a graduate student, you need to be adept not only in producing intelligent content for your paper, but also at self-presentation. This includes the ability to be involved in cogent, concise conversation, and to respond with provocative questions. Neither of these are skills that are taught in graduate school in most humanities departments (excepting theatre); they’re part of what’s often thought of as natural talent or charisma, or an aspect of mentoring. Oh, and speaking of mentors, that’s something else you often need to succeed at an important conference: a senior scholar who knows you and gives you introductions, and credibility. And just to be in the right place at the right time, poised for an interaction with someone who is not rushing to another panel, or to meet someone else.

A digital forum that’s simultaneous with an academic conference (be it on Twitter, or identi.ca) changes that, because your interactions with other people, be they senior or junior, take place over a few days, rather than in 5 minutes, and more likely, when the people you’re interacting with have enough energy to be social.

Too big to tweet: Peter Shillingsburg’s Presidential Address

Sometimes it was easy to draw out single thoughts for repetition, but tweeting the STS banquet, and Peter Shillingsburg’s presidential address, was extraordinarily challenging, because the address was beautifully written, and bold and cogent, and yet most of Shillingsburg’s points would not have fit within 140 characters, and his words were so carefully chosen that I could not entirely feel comfortable trying to paraphrase him with shorter synonyms. I tried to condense occasionally, because I did think it important to amplify his voice to an outside audience, who might not encounter the speech when it is (I trust) published in the Textual Cultures journal. I think it will be an address that is remembered and studied in years going forward, but studying textual transmission has taught me just how much transmission (or transformission) and preservation is the work of many, rather than one, and it is precisely because of that learning that I found it important to tweet.

Yesterday morning, at 5 a.m., I encountered Peter in the hotel lobby, as we were both on the way to the airport, and as impressed as I was the night before, I was even more impressed because he was articulate enough at the arse-crack of dawn to say that he’d read the tweets attempting to capture some of his ideas. “Some of it seemed like transcription,” he said, “and some questions, and some misunderstandings.” I had acknowledged that it had been challenging to capture, though both Barbara Bordalejo and I had felt that it was important to do so. Peter said that he wasn’t sure whether he should get in and start clarifying, or let it be; and I didn’t have an immediate answer that I could give as I headed out the door to the shuttle. As I thought about it more, I’m inclined to say that while he could respond by joining Twitter, it’d be more effective for him to respond with a post on a website. He could even use Storify to do so. The primary purpose, though, of tweeting, was to accent the address as the finale of the conference, both to pique interest in it immediately, and later, when anyone searches the #sts11 tweetstream, and eventually, when it’s published in print. The secondary purpose, at least for me, was to think actively and respond, as I would in a classroom or in conversation; because I articulate differently when I am doing so publicly than privately*. I don’t think anyone reading the tweetstream would ever think to formally quote Peter via @paigecmorgan, @bordalejo, or others; the tweets serve more as constellations — navigational guides twinkling in the dark (but beware of will’o’wisps, which conceivably exist.) And I note that no one, including me, made purely descriptive statements, like: “Shillingsburg is discussing the intersection of bibliographical criticism and McKenzie’s sociology of texts, and the issues that arise for scholarly editors from their intersection.” It would have taken two tweets, but we could have — and chose not to. Why is that?

Twitter and conflict; or, Twitter isn’t enough — but sometimes, neither is spoken discussion.

There was a great moment in the end of the spatial technology roundtable on Thursday afternoon, when @samplereality tweeted “Data visualizations are a symptom of screen essentialism.” This comment might have stayed submerged in the backchannel if @mkirschenbaum hadn’t asked him about it directly during the question-and-answer/discussion section. And I’ve been thinking about the exchange ever since, and not just because it raised interesting questions for me about the approach of digital humanists vs. traditional textualists (about which I’ll say more later), but because I think it captured a certain richness of dialogue that’s only possible with both backchannel and spoken discussion. Sample’s statement was so compact that it sounded dismissive; whether to sound dismissive was his intention or not, I won’t speculate. But his point about the danger of uncritically accepting data visualizations is quite valid. If I recall correctly, he was on the point of leaving the room when Kirschenbaum called attention to his statement; but as a result, the panel, and the rest of the room, had a chance to respond to it.

I don’t know why Sample was only willing to issue his critique on backchannel, rather than vocally, but I also don’t know whether, if he had phrased it as a spoken question, the statement would have had the same compactness and weight that it did, which for me, helped to characterize the urgency of the critique. It would have been a different discussion if it had been conducted entirely audibly, not least because I think that it would have been much more challenging to articulate a potential problem with data visualizations while effectively managing vocal tone. When voiced, it sounded less barbed, because Matt Kirschenbaum was reading it, rather than Mark Sample saying it. If he’d spoken, rather than tweeted, we would have had a different version of the discussion — and I think I prefer the one that we had.

Tweeting in a textual context

I’m sure that someone before me has made the connection between Jerome McGann’s radial reading, as discussed in ch. 5 of The Textual Condition, and Twitter, even though I don’t see any blog posts on it in a preliminary search. For any non-lit-crit readers, radial reading, in McGann’s own words, “involves decoding one or more of the contexts that interpenetrate the scripted and physical text” (119), and it’s associated with intertextuality and allusion, which have long been foundational tools in academic writing, especially in the humanities. It’s the idea that no text exists in a vacuum, and that in many cases, authors intentionally direct readers to read other things.

To tweet at a conference, which often involves reading (albeit quickly), the tweets arriving in the hashtag stream, is to read radially. Is it to write radially, as well? Transcribing and summarizing isn’t what I’d originally conceived of as radial writing, but I think that’s because my preconception is that radial writing has to involve a more brilliant/exalted response than just repetition. Some radial writing does, obviously. However, I think to dismiss the value of transcribing and broadcasting through repetition or paraphrase is to uphold the bias towards solitary authorship (and implicitly, against collaboration) that’s been longstanding in the humanities. McGann acknowledges that radial reading is “the most advanced, the most difficult, and the most important form of reading because radial reading alone puts one in a position to respond actively to the text’s own (often secret) discursive acts” (122). Tweeting at a conference is advanced, not because it uses technology, but because it requires decision making about what to type, and how to type it (this should be familiar to writers everywhere), and that’s difficult to do. I haven’t heard any discussions about conferences as texts, and I’d bet that’s because the discursive acts that they represent often are secret, or rather, secreted — in electronic files, which may be forgotten, or may appear in journals and books months or years later, and may or may not be available at an affordable economic price, and may or may not be found by conference attendees.

From reading tweets, throughout the conference, I gained a sense, sometimes very specific, sometimes not, of what was going on in other panels. I didn’t always read these tweets as they were being sent; checking the hashtag was something to do at breaks, lunch, and in the evening. Sometimes I found it difficult to tweet and focus at the same time; but other times, the listen-and-transmit mode wasn’t an obstacle at all. I know that there are things that I missed; that tweets don’t adequately substitute for the experience of being at a panel. But I could hardly help but be appreciative of them. Some of the things that I’m thinking about as a result of the #sts11 twitterstream that I would otherwise have missed:

1) Platform studies, which I’d never heard of, via @mkirschenbaum: Editing is platform studies and platform studies is editing. This seems obvious in retrospect. #sts11

2) How location affects reading, via @samplereality: How can we talk about books without talking about where we are when we read them? The location and posture of our physical bodies. #STS11

3) via @KLeuner: martha nell smith: Is it a fantasy that texts are more dynamic in the digital world? #sts11

4) via @KLeuner: Marta Werner notices there are only women at Editing Digital Feminisms panel #sts11

5) After the discussion about data visualization started in the geospatial tech roundtable, I was wondering how crowdsourced data might affect the degree of trust we put into it. But I wondered if I was being silly to ask such a thing. @mattlaschneider encouraged me to do so, and also reminded me of Randall Munroe’s crowdsourced color survey.

I haven’t seen very many statements trying to define what Twitter is for, in the context of a conference. Maybe that’s because no one wants to try and limit what micro-blogging can do — but here’s an alternative reason: it’s controversial to suggest that Twitter is useful because saying so calls attention to the weaknesses in current academic infrastructure and culture. By weaknesses, I mean not only the factors that have made conferences less productive in the past, but also economic constraints that I’ve heard referenced that make it less common to have teaching appointments funded by more than one department; and the often intense workload that non-tenured faculty members face. It calls attention to the common tendency to assume that only faculty and graduate students hoping to become faculty are scholars, while staff members aren’t.

In short, the discomfort surrounding Twitter, and the potential advantages of using it (whether using means actually tweeting, or just reading) are entangled with the social structure and customs of academia (and probably broader literary culture, as well.)

But can’t you get ADHD from Twitter?

The concerns I’ve seen raised most often about Twitter-use during conferences (and at other meetings, too, but for this post, I’m not addressing those other settings) is 1), that users who are tweeting aren’t listening to the talk, and 2), which follows that concern, that users who are tweeting are being disrespectful. The first is a little tricky, because users who are new to the platform will certainly find the multitasking of tweeting and listening challenging. Then again, when I’ve relied on writing notes at conferences, I’ve often heard the speaker say something that flashes in my mind, and sets off a whole chain of other ideas and questions. In those situations, I have to choose whether to try and write them down before I forget them, sacrificing my attention to the speaker; or keep focusing, and hope that I can remember what started the domino chain of ideas. In short, this multitasking problem has existed for as long as we’ve been taking notes, no matter in what format. Furthermore, short attention spans are hardly endemic only in tech use — if anything, the traditional conference format, with concurrent panels and minuscule breaks between sessions, does far more to promote brief encounters that are never followed-up on than a site like Twitter, where anyone who adds me as a result of what I said at #sts11 will keep seeing what I say (or drop me for posting too much about sci-fi and cats).

As for the idea that tweeting during a session is disrespectful, even when the tweets are positive — well, I haven’t heard that particular judgment from any of the textualists that I know, and I’m glad, because it would be just as easy for people to question the respect or disrespect arising from the work of producing critical apparati, and emphasizing the collaborative authorship of single works, or whole oeuvres. I’d stake a lot on Jack Stillinger’s Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius being unwelcome to at least a few of its subjects. I also think that the idea that tweeting during lecture is disrespectful is not a new conflict. Long before Twitter, I heard teachers expressing either perturbation that their students were frantically writing notes without looking up, or alternatively, that their students stared at them, and never wrote anything down. In that sense, Twitter really is just the pen and notepad in a different shape. **

It would be interesting to talk more about the ethics of radial reading on the internet, and our habits in doing so, because the choices that people have made in radial reading, and continue to make, have considerable force in arenas outside of academia. When I say this, I’m thinking about everything from radial reading habits as they effect our consumption of news (especially political content) to situations where people produce content both under their own name and under a pseudonym, and the controversies that arise therein.

What I still don’t know

I hardly think that this post is definitive on the subject of tweeting at academic conferences; so here are the things I don’t know:

1. Do you have to be participating as a Twitter-user in order to get the benefit of a conference stream? Does it work as well if you’re just reading? (As someone looking forward to reading the #asecs11 stream, I think that reading is valuable — but that’s partly because I can respond to the Twitterers if I choose to. Someone without an account can’t.

2. A question especially for people like Peter Shillingsburg, Paul Eggert, Marta Werner, and Martha Nell Smith, all of whom had remarks tweeted throughout the conference — but this goes for anyone whose work is talked about in Twitter, but doesn’t have an account. What does the discussion look like to you? And if you decide to respond, what format might you take?

ETA, a restatement of the above question from Kirstyn Leuner, which I think is more effective and direct at what I was trying to get at with question #2: Are all conferences and conference papers equally public? And is it *always* ok to tweet out conf papers, as convention?

3. Who do conference tweeters see as their audience? And what choices are they making in order to serve that audience? (Links, non-links, use of twitlonger, etc.

4. Is there a minimum number of people who need to use Twitter in order to make a conference twitterstream useful? How do we say when a stream is helpful and when not?

*This is not to say that one is better than the other; or that what is true for me is true for anyone else, but I find that when I am thinking privately, I tend to be documenting, and when thinking publicly, I tend more towards constructing. I wanted to be constructive at STS in general, and with the Presidential Address in particular, because I find I am often able to reach new heights when I do, in a way that I cannot always do in private.
** Also, though I’m saying so flippantly, I can’t help but think about what it would look like to compare the rudeness of tweeting during a panel with the rudeness of the printed matter created as a rivalry between Alexander Pope and Edmund Curll.

Comments are closed.