Tuesday, January 07, 2014


a guest post by Dorothy Kim [@dorothyk98]

MLA 2014 in subarctic Chicago is around the corner. Many articles have already discussed the rules and guidelines for tweeting this conference: http://convention.commons.mla.org/2013/12/03/virtual-mla-a-quick-guide-to-using-twitter-at-the-mla-convention/ and this https://chroniclevitae.com/news/242-conference-season-is-here-don-t-stink-at-twitter or this http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/ten-tips-for-tweeting-at-conferences/54281?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en. I will not rehash what these articles lay out, but medievalists should read these excellent pieces in order to understand what will happen at conferences in regards to twitter. Some basic things of note for medievalists: 
1. follow the #hashtag
2. the general rules these days are that people are going to tweet your conference presentation unless you announce you do not want it to be tweeted
3. attribute who is saying what
4. realize that live-tweeting a talk is your scholarly ally, not an enemy.
Finally, there are usually two types of conference tweeting: 1. summary or reporting what is being said or 2. being an active discussant/participant on twitter about the presentation. 

For a long time, tweeting the MLA particularly and conferences more generally was located in the world of digital humanities (DH) scholarship and in DH panels, conferences, and workshops. There have been a few dust-ups including #twittergate:  http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/10/02/scholars-debate-etiquette-live-tweeting-academic-conferences. Tweeting has moved out into other disciplines, but not as readily or as intensely as in the DH scholarly world. However, many of the standard rules and etiquette for live-tweeting conferences has developed from the twitter practices in DH. This post on #medievaltwitter is both a personal story about a medievalist tweeting, but also a rumination about why twitter should be one of the most comfortable digital platforms for medievalists.

Twitter Egg

I was forced to get a twitter account at a digital humanities and liberal arts colleges conference in Washington D.C. in April 2012. When I mean forced, I do mean forced. I was sitting between Kathryn Tomasek (Wheaton College) @KathrynTomasek and Rebecca Frost Davis @FrostDavis (St. Edward’s University). They both had iPads and other devices out ready to live-tweet a discussion about Library-IT-Faculty collaboration. I believe it was Rebecca who leaned over and said, “you’re tweeting along right”? I said: “Ummm, no. I don’t have a twitter account.” They were both shocked. At this point, I had been in and out of DHSI, DH conferences for liberal arts colleges, NITLE DH webinars, and TAPAS planning meetings with them for over a year and a half. It’s more or less expected if you are doing any kind of DH scholarship to have a twitter account. It is the major location of DH information, networking, and scholarly conversation. Rebecca opened up the twitter page on my computer and pretty much said, “you need to start.” This is how, where, and why my twitter self was born.

For months, I had maybe a dozen followers, several people at the DH and liberal arts college conference where I had originally lived-tweeted (and Rebecca and Kathryn had tagged and retweeted my tweets) and random IT college friends. My icon was an egg with a green background; I was an egg for a very long time.

My twitter account would come out for digital humanities conferences and talks. And because of this, the first set of rules and etiquette I learned about tweeting came from the DH world. Here, it is standard to live-tweet and to live-tweet heavily. Usually the #hashtag is already set up and often the entire twitter feed streams live on a AV screen for the rest of the audience to see as the speaker delivers his/her talk. This kind of live-tweeting creates simultaneously unfolding discussions and conversations that includes both people in the audience live-tweeting and others who can’t physically be present following, commenting, arguing, and asking questions over twitter.

It’s a frantic and heady thing to see a session being live-tweeted. The adrenaline is high; the comments are in live time and at high speed; and it always makes for a fantastic Q&A session. For the speakers, especially those who don’t realize this, if someone is live-tweeting your talk, s/he is concentrating intensely on what you are saying. The live-tweeters are usually heavily invested in what is unfolding in the session. I have participated in these kinds of live-tweeting sessions in which separate discussions are happening in response to what the speaker is saying—often with linked information and several lightning exchanges about key points. But usually, this has been at DH talks and not for talks in medieval studies.


The peculiar thing is, DH-style, intense live-tweeting reminds me most of medieval commentary practice. As a manuscript specialist, I spend a lot of time looking, reading, transcribing, and thinking about the physical manuscript medium. I am obsessed with the marginal and interlinear glosses and commentary as I am with the main text in a manuscript. If the medieval manuscript is a recording medium that allows scholar now to see the conversations and connected marginal glosses of individual readers, then twitter is the digital medium that replicates this practice the most but with comments all the time and in real time for individual thinkers. And like the medieval manuscripts that many of us work with (though we clearly don’t put in our own marginal commentaries anymore), twitter also records our short, marginal thoughts. Twitter as a medium also allows us to archive and record these conversations (vis-à-vis storify, etc.). For all these reasons, I adore twitter. It also helps they didn’t sign their privacy over to the NSA.

At recent medieval conferences I have attended, there has been some unease about twitter and what it means that people are live-tweeting paper sessions and talks. Roopika Risam in discussing twitter at MLA writes: “As social media usage becomes a common feature at conferences, anxieties about authority, control, attribution, originality and privacy are likely to haunt the theory and practice of scholarly social media use for some time to come.” If this statement does not create déjà vu for most medieval scholars especially in relation to the scholarly discussion about the place of marginalia, runaway scribal commentary, and the invention of scribal versions, I don’t know what will. Roopika Risam’s statement particularly about the “anxieties about authority, control, attribution, originality and privacy” could be straight out of Michael Camille’s book Image on the Edge.

Most medievalists probably don’t realize that twitter, as a multimedia communication platform, functions like the space of marginalia in medieval manuscripts. Even twitter’s tone is reminiscent of the tone of medieval marginalia. Twitter’s tone and range can include very scripted and serious scholarly arguments similar in tone and purpose to what medievalists see in looking at the Glossa Ordinalia. “Pangur Bán”—the 9th c. Old Irish poem written by a scribe about his cat on the margins of the Reichenau Primer—has to be the first cat meme. I don’t think people would be surprised that a lot of #medievaltwitter is filled with images from the margins of manuscripts—often the most salacious, eye-browing raising, and naughty ones. How many times has the decorated, farting and pooping monkeys circulated on twitter in the last 6 months? Twitter is a space for encyclopedic information, new linked discoveries, intense scholarly arguments, and even politicized activism. Twitter can be radically serious in pushing against the “authority and control” of the state, the scholarly-industrial complex, and institutional power. It can also be playful, hysterically funny, irreverent, cute: an utter delight though often also still radically pushing against the “authority and control” of the powers-that-be. Medievalists know that marginalia is a vast field of interconnected worlds. It’s the space of records, lives, and also intense creativity. The beginning of English poetry, as seen in Caedmon’s hymn, began as a marginal note in several Latin Bede manuscripts. We’ve seen whole histories written on the margins of manuscripts—as the English Peterborough Chronicle demonstrates with the Anglo-Norman Li Rei de Engleterre written entirely in the margins of an early Middle English historiographic manuscript.

Beyond the scholarly communication uses of twitter—instant notices about jobs, internships, fellowships, new digital projects, manuscript images, and seriously delightful images of astonishing marginalia, etc.—twitter can be a highly politicized and often heated space. But as many medievalists who work on animal studies may have realized, the platform’s name and avatar should have clued us into what the space is about. For medievalists, twitter should be a familiar and comfortable medium. Medieval texts are obsessed with avian discourse as the space of radical political allegory and discussion. If you are on twitter, you have an avatar, a handle, and you “tweet.” The medium has dictated that you are in the allegorical space of a bird. You are part of a floating community that allows you—as we can see in Marie de France’s Fables, or Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules—to speak radical (and often uncomfortable) politicized, intellectual, and social truths.

Tweeting as a “medievalist, digital humanist, and feminist”

Today, my twitter feed is my most visible public social media space. My academia.edu page is very bare-bones; I don’t have my own separate website; I don’t blog (other than a guest post or two). However, I tweet, and I tweet regularly. I am not an egg anymore. I now usually have seasonal floral pictures as my avatar. I will probably take a picture of the arctic vortex tomorrow and change my twitter avatar as I head out for Chicago. Currently, I check my twitter feed while walking from my house to the bus stop and on the bus to and from campus in Ann Arbor. I check twitter if I am waiting in line, in the car but not driving, generally, in mundane places where I am waiting for something else. I tweet personally as a “medievalist, digital humanist, feminist,” but I also tweet separately as a scholarly society. As secretary for the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, I run the Society’s twitter feed @SocietyMedFem and Facebook group. And yes, we will be tweeting madly in our two sessions at MLA.

I usually am a documentary tweeter at medieval, Jewish studies, and other non-DH related talks and panels. In other words, I tend to summarize what’s going on at the conference mostly for friends and colleagues who can’t be there but really want to know what’s going on. They, in fact, wherever they are in the world, follow the feed of the conference live. I believe I did this mostly because it was pretty clear that tweeting was not a normal part of the procedures in my other fields. I thought, in these situations (with less participants), the most important thing is to record what’s going on for others who cannot be there but who want to know. We cannot all be at the conferences specifically that discuss our fields all the time. In addition, there are usually not enough on-the-ground tweeters to get into the more participatory tweeting practices seen at DH sessions and panels.

However, this time at MLA, I plan to live-tweet as a tweeting participant and enjoy being in the thick of twitter marginalia. This blog post is then my call to all medievalists out there to get a twitter account and become participant tweeters at this conference. Or for all medieval academic tweeters, follow the conference feeds and be a participatory tweeter in the sessions and talks. Let’s enjoy our discussions live and online. Let’s delight, frolic, and link our points for other medievalists who can’t be in subarctic Chicago with us. Let’s revel intellectually, politically, and socially in this very medieval of contemporary social media spaces.

So along with following the specific MLA-designated #hashtags for the sessions, go ahead and use #medievaltwitter so we can follow all the great conversations and participate in what’s going on in our field. Let’s create archivable medievalist marginalia and tweet our intellectual, social, and political truths for future generations.

On a last note: Don’t forget to send pictures to @MLAelevator or its archnemesis @MLAelevatorhulk. Yes, I was there when it was generated. And as medievalists, I think we would delight at the very marginalia-like antics of @MLAelevator. I promise to make sure the MLAelevator tumblr is also up and running.

Dorothy Kim (@dorothyk98)
Assistant Prof. of English at Vassar
Frankel Fellow at the University of Michigan


Jonathan Hsy said...

@Dorothy: Thanks so much for this *excellent* posting -- not only do you make good points about general twitter-etiquette but you also nicely explain how this all works for medievalists who might not be used to live-tweeting at sessions. LOVE what you are saying about the connections between twitter and medieval commentary traditions (can't help but think of the crowded/frenzied embodied utterances in Chaucer's "House of Fame" here too).

I'll be following the #medievaltwitter hashtag! Let's see what happens!

And here's a great list of scholars to follow on twitter: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/255-4-scholars-to-watch-at-mla-2014

Note the end of this article lists other live-tweeters to follow for their MLA "commentary" -- indeed, tweeters are "commentators" in just the ways you describe!

Candace Barrington said...

Dorothy: This is a great posting. I can attest that conference twittering has made me a better listener: nothing like trying to summarize a presentation in 140 characters to ensure I capture (and remember) the paper's essential argument.
Like Jonathan, I'll be following the #medievaltwitter at MLA later this week.

dorothyk98 said...

Thanks Jonathan and Candace. I definitely agree about "House of Fame" and the idea of crowded/frenzied embodied utterances. And sometimes twitter feels like that. Encourage all your medievalist colleagues to #medievaltwitter. It would be nice to get active tweeters creating some fantastic discussions. MLA makes it easy, it has already set up session #. I think it's interesting that our European medieval tweeters are a bit more regular and vocal than American ones.

Ruth Evans said...

Dorothy, thank you. NCS needs a policy on this, so it is really helpful to me to have you set this out so clearly.

Kathie Gossett said...

Excellent post and discussion about live-tweeting. I would just add one thing for presenters: if you have a Twitter handle put it on your presentation slides so tweeters can provide attributions!