Visualization of #kzoo2014 twitter activity, courtesy of data gathered by Kristen Mapes (@kmapesy); TAGSExplorer developed by Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey). I was apparently the most active tweeter at Kalamazoo! … Or, at least, I was the person to use the #kzoo2014 hashtag most frequently. Screenshot captured May 13, 2014, 11:53 PM EDT.
Kalamazoo 2014 (or rather the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 8-11, 2014) is already feeling like the distant past. JEFFREY has foregrounded some of the exciting new blogs that have emerged (or established blogs that have been resurrected or recently picked up steam again) since the conference, and Anna Smol is collating a grand list of Kalamazoo 2014 “wrap up” blog postings and videos on her blog, “A Single Leaf.”
#medievaltwitter and #Kzoo2014: background, history, stats
In this posting, I’d like to pivot from the blogosphere for bit to reflect on recent medievalist activity on twitter. I feel that this social media platform really “came into its own” at the 2014 Kalamazoo conference. Earlier this year, Dorothy Kim (@dorothyk98) wrote a guest posting here on ITM urging medievalists to make active use of twitter at Kalamazoo. See her #medievaltwitter posting before this year’s MLA Conference; in it, she offered some common-sense guidelines for using twitter at Kalamazoo: e.g., only tweet with permission of presenters, attribute the statements of others, use conference and session hashtags consistently, and respect others on twitter as you would in real life. These principles are in line with the guidelines set forth by Roopika Risam (@roopikarisam) for the MLA. Just before the start of ICMS at Kalamazoo, Dorothy publicized the Wikipedia Write-In organized by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (see also this follow-up posting on ITM, cross-posted from the SMFS blog). The ICMS organizers, meanwhile, publicized #kzoo2014 as the official hashtag of the conference. Although there was some initial confusion about the official hashtag before the conference and not all tweeters were consistent in providing hashtags for session numbers (see this Storify feed for my record of the meta-commentary on twitter about #kzoo2014 as it unfolded), twitter was a lively venue for conversation and dissemination of info throughout ICMS. According to this tweet by Kristen Mapes (@kmapesy) at the end of the conference (well, May 11, 2014, 10:41 PM EDT to be exact) there were a total of 6374 tweets across 1001 nodes (people).
[FYI—just in case anyone’s curious—the most tweeted session at Kalamazoo was #s391, the BABEL session on punctuation organized by Rick Godden (@RickGodden); see also the text of “, (A Breath)” by Josh Eyler (@joshua_r_eyler), the YouTube video-broadcast of “Interrobanging Chaucer” by Corey Sparks (@CoreySparks), and my talk entitled “&” [ampersand]. The second most-tweeted session was #s560, “Strange Letters: Alphabets in Medieval Manuscripts and Beyond II” (org. Damian Fleming, @IPFWMedieval). The third most-tweeted session was #s511, a roundtable sponsored by the MassMedieval blog on “Medievalists and the Social Media Pilgrimage: The Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies” (it is perhaps not surprising a roundtable with that topic was so actively live-tweeted!).]
So why should we care about twitter? Isn’t this all just ephemeral and frivolous background noise? Well, I’d like to make the case that twitter is not just a diversion or pastime for conference attendees but can actually be a useful tool—and it’s a platform that can be transformative socially, intellectually, and politically.
I shall make my case in the style of BuzzFeed:
8 Reasons You (Medievalist!) Should Use Twitter
1. Twitter is your inside source.
On a very practical level, following tweets can (simply put) give you a timely sense of “what went on” in session if you weren’t physically there—this could be the case if you were presenting in a concurrent session, or indeed if you couldn’t attend the conference at all. When attendees live-tweet the presentations that transpire at a session (thoughtfully and with the presenters’ consent), you can often discern the major points of each presentation and get a feel for the dynamic flow of the conversation—an aspect of conferences that can be difficult to capture for people who aren’t physically present. Such discussion creates a backchannel that emerges via the session hashtags. Kisha Tracy (@kosho22), one of the bloggers at MassMedieval, has used Storify to retroactively collate tweets from the “Relevance of the Middle Ages” roundtable for instance [note archived tweets on Storify sometimes appear in reverse chronological order]; see sessions archived on Storify by Yvonne Seale (@yvonneseale): #s373, “Beyond Women and Power” and #s385, a roundtable on Sean Field’s 2014 English translation of The Rules of Isabelle of France. If you are attending at a session and decide to live-tweet the proceedings, then your tweeting helps to broadcast the session and also act as a memory aid. Going through your twitter feed afterwards can be a great way to refresh your memory on the conversations that transpired.
2. Tweeting can be engaged note-taking.
It’s often difficult to process academic papers when they are delivered aurally, so being forced to listen carefully to a presentation and break the information down into manageable 140-character chunks can help you to focus your attention. The formal constraints of the medium invites the tweeter engage in a kind of rhetorical abbreviatio, compressing complex thoughts into their essence—getting at the heart of an argument more effectively (or composing a series of tweets to convey a sequence of ideas). The kind of “translation” one must do in converting aurally-processed talk into a tweet seems similar to something that teachers do in the classroom all the time. We must be able to rephrase complex ideas (e.g., the operations of a literary text, or a critic’s dense and florid argument) into terms that are accessible to a broader audience (in the classroom, our students; on twitter, a wider public).
3. Tweeting opens up new teaching strategies.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that twitter has implications for teaching. In the MassMedieval roundtable, Josh Eyler remarked on his use of twitter to facilitate conversation through a backchannel outside the classroom. The character-limit constraints of the twitter format can also foster creativity-within-constraints, developing new kinds of thinking and writing practices. Check out this twitter essay assignment by Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) [Not a medievalist, but hey we’re cool with that!] posted on the blog Hybrid Pedgagogy; for more on this, consult his collated twitter-conversations about teaching with twitter.
4. Twitter is a megaphone (or spotlight; pick your metaphor).
Twitter can help to spread awareness and broadcast projects underway—and it can be especially timely to when one has the “captive audience” of a major conference. How Did We Get Into This Mess?, a public blog by David Perry (@lollardfish), was referenced in the roundtable on writing for multiple audiences. A Material Piers Living in a Digital World, a blog on digital visualization and Piers Plowman manuscripts, was created Angie Bennet Segler (@MedievalAngie) and debuted at Kalamazoo. A twitter-project by Carla María Thomas (@cmthomas) on translating the Ormulum also received some play over twitter. I’ve found that following certain session hashtags (such as the #s511 for the MassMedieval’s roundtable on medievalists and social media, mentioned above) helped me to discover new online projects that weren’t on my radar before.
5. Twitter builds community.
Earlier this year the online Medieval Disability Glossary project (discussed by Cameron Hunt McNabb in the “Disability and Digital Humanities” roundtable) tweeted about their entries (or works in progress) using the #DayofDH hashtag; see Kisha Tracy’s collation of tweets. The effort connected linked the work are doing on this project to the broader field of DH endeavors. Kristen Mapes has created a public list of (hundreds of) medievalists on twitter; subscribing to this list can be an interesting way to keep up with what medievalists are doing these days. In a detailed blog posting, she explains how she created the list, taking a tip from a list of DH tweeters created by Dan Cohen (@dancohen). Medievalist communities can be fostered not just through shared scholarly interests but also a sense of play. The Chaucer blogger (@LeVostreGC) is my one of my favorites twitter accounts, and #WhanThatAprilleDay (launched the first day of April in 2014) was his playful invitation to celebrate old languages through tweets and online media; this made for a festive party on twitter and the blogosphere (and also here at ITM).
6. Twitter helps create an archive.
My references to live-tweeted sessions throughout this blog posting have been referring you to Storify, a useful website and tool for curating a bunch of tweets into a more manageable thread [there are many online tutorials on using Storify; see this guide]. After Kalamazoo was over, KARL drew upon some twitter conversations to write his posting on periodicity, medievalism, and gaming, and he used Storify to embed that twitter-conversation into the post. JEFFREY’s post-Kalamazoo reflections opened up a twitter-discussion on how we (scholars and educators and contemporary culture in general) think about and discuss anti-Semitism in the past—and he has since transformed that conversation into a Storify feed.
7. Twitter can be transformative.
My final point about twitter is that it can be a mechanism for provoking meaningful social change: in the archive, in the classroom, on the streets. The use of twitter was a key theme in the roundtable organized by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (SSDMA) entitled “Medieval Disability and the Digital Humanities.” As Rick Godden argued [read the whole text of his presentation on his new blog ParaSynchronies], the use of twitter (e.g., live-tweeting) can be a form of note-taking that is just as effective and cognitively engaged as traditional pen-and-paper forms of note-taking. Indeed, there is not just “one” way to record and process information, and people who use digital technologies (such as tablets, text to speech reader devices, and other assistive technologies) should not be stigmatized or excluded from discussions if they don’t seem to conform to “normative” embodied note-taking practice.
This discussion wasn’t simply full of “twitter utopians,” as it did address some of the potential downsides and disruptive forces of twitter and social media. There is a palpable tension between the fast pace of twitter and the slow, deliberative processing of ideas that scholars tend to cultivate. The sheer immediacy of twitter can cause “information overload” or create venues for aggressive trolling or bullying. Not all people have affordable or reliable access to the internet in the first place—so one can’t assume that twitter is simply “there” for everyone to use. But twitter—for those who use it—is one technology among many, and it can have certain advantages. People who cannot travel to a conference can still benefit when they can participate in discussions virtually—however mediated such an experience from afar might be. And as I maintained in my own talk at the “Disability and DH” roundtable, twitter can be a tool for activism and politically-engaged conversation and a space to express ideas otherwise difficult to discuss openly; just think of the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag (shout-out to @suey_park here!) and the very recent #YesAllWomen hashtag conversations unfolding online. Just yesterday, JEFFREY took to twitter to urge users of Facebook collectively respond to a disturbing anti-Semitic “ritual murder” community page, and hopefully many more will pass along the message and act upon it. When the world erupts in violence and fosters online communities that promote discrimination or provoke violence, twitter can be one way we start to change the world for the better.
I could even extend this thinking about world-transformation a bit further and say that the expertise we have as medievalists can be mobilized via social media to change perceptions of the past and to address gaps or biases in present-day scholarship. The SMFS Wikipedia Write-In, for instance, set out to revise entries relating to women and the Middle Ages, and in the process it created entries about feminist scholars who are key figures in medieval studies. The #medievalwiki hashtag chronicled the endeavors of the project over the course of the conference [see my selection of tweets on Storify], and my hope is that such efforts to transform Wikipedia—often the first “point of access” for people researching medieval topics—will result in a more inclusive online resource and a better-informed readership.
8. Twitter (like any technology) is what you make of it!
Such examples show how twitter circulates much more than funny cat memes, as hilarious as they are! It does so many other things. It can also comprise a deliberate note-taking strategy (e.g., via live-tweeting). It can work as a dynamic teaching tool. It can broadcast information for people who cannot physically be part of a conversation (whether they are in another session or not even at a conference). It can capture some of the dynamic flow of conversation (face-to-face or virtual). And it can help to create an archive of links and ideas that can be processed into more meditative blog posts or otherwise advance discussions.
We are at an exciting point in the use of twitter at Kalamazoo and other academic conferences, and I hope that people will continue to find creative ways to use it!