Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who Gets a Voice on Twitter?

by Boyda Johnstone (@BoydaJosa), a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University.

A few months ago, medieval twitter blew up. In a guest post on this blog, Dorothy Kim called medievalists to tweet the MLA and argued persuasively that “twitter, as a multimedia communication platform, functions like the space of marginalia in medieval manuscripts.” And Jonathan Hsy after #kzoo2014 posted a Buzzfeed-style article outlining the ways in which twitter is “not just a diversion or pastime for conference attendees but can actually be a useful tool.” Both bloggers built on the official conference-tweeting guidelines established by Roopika Risam before the 2014 MLA Convention. I’ve been on twitter for quite a few years, and after having read these posts and followed remotely on twitter some of the conversations at Kalamazoo, I was excited at the prospect of engaging in the twitter conversation during the New Chaucer Society biennial conference in Reykjav√≠k, Iceland, held between July 16-20, 2014.

And my experience tweeting this conference was so much better and more enriching than I’d even anticipated. As a graduate student at a conference with many well-respected scholars, twitter allowed me to find my voice, helped me feel like I was part of the intellectual conversation. Discovering an alternative digital discussion happening across tablet, smartphone, and laptop; gaining new perspectives through the reactions and analyses of others; finding cross-currents and cross-connections with other panels in other rooms; gaining followers; meeting people in person who, amazingly, recognized my name from Twitter; feeling more confident speaking to more senior scholars in person due to our digital interactions.

On a more personal and/or practical level, twitter kept me awake and alert through multiple presentations, encouraged me to become a more active and engaged listener, helped me hone my critical and analytical skills, and helped me imprint ideas and arguments more firmly in my memory. I loved that I could follow fragments of the conversation in other panels as well, or catch up on panels I missed, which is important in such an intensely scheduled conference. Together, we NCS tweeters created a beautiful polyphony of fragmented, fascinated, confused, and curious thoughts and ideas, a multiplicity of voice and response that is crucial, I think, for ethical scholarship. Many of us are dedicated in our teaching and in our work to encouraging and uncovering active readerly engagement with texts, so this kind of polyphony has pedagogical and academic ramifications as well.

However, twitter also has its limitations, and I noticed a few problems as I observed the physical and virtual spaces around me. And so to the question: who gets a voice on twitter? As Hsy noted, not everyone has a twitter account, or possibly even the wireless technology to follow along in a session. In actual fact, the “multiplicity” of twitter voices was really only 15 or 20 people in a conference of 500, and of those 15, only a handful were tweeting regularly throughout the panels (though many more chimed in after the conference). Not everyone who has a twitter account interacts with it in the same way: some people need time to let arguments simmer and distil before they can actively respond to them, and so they can’t necessarily engage with sessions in real time; some people concentrate and learn better when just sitting and listening rather than dividing their attention among many different outlets; some people have political and/or personal objections to publicizing themselves online in such a way (for the NSA or future job committees to read). As much as we need to be listening for twitter’s variegated vocalizations online, those marginal responses to real-time scholarly activity, we also need to be listening and looking for the various degrees of silences surrounding the more vocal tweeters, and we should never fool ourselves into thinking that the sounding voices are more important than the quiet.

More to the point, we urgently need to maintain ‘Best Practices’ for twitter that exercise awareness of issues of representation, privilege, access, and attribution. My panel at NCS was wonderful: my paper felt good to deliver, the three papers spoke to each other in interesting ways, and we had a riveting discussion in the Q&A that left me wishing we had more time to talk. In short, I really couldn’t have asked for a better session. However, if you search the hashtags #ncs14 and #6d, you will find...nothing.

According to twitter, this productive session on Chaucer’s House of Fame—and its shimmering, vanishing surfaces of ice and glass—didn’t even happen, an ephemeral event that, if the future archive depended solely on the Library of Congress’s official twitter catalog, will be completely forgotten. While I fear this complaint may sound whiny or like a kind of humble-brag, it is simply a fact that I am a graduate student being trained in a struggling profession, and the future is uncertain. I would ideally like to secure a permanent, nonprecarious job, and if we are increasingly depending on twitter as an outlet for recognition and remembrance, the twitter archive of conferences such as this one is important to me.

On the other hand, if someone had been tweeting my paper and panel, there are a few guidelines I would have wanted that person to follow; for the other harsh reality is, we young scholars at a prestigious conference need to be careful not to allow our ideas to slip out of our hands, to lose their attribution and find homes somewhere else. One great thing about conference twitter etiquette is that if one’s ideas are properly cited, they are henceforth archived and remembered as yours, not someone else’s. And at this conference, I noticed that not everyone was observing such best practices: ideas and individual tweets were still floating around on twitter without attribution to their progenitor, mostly due I think to oversights and overexcitement (I even found myself doing this once or twice as well, admittedly). I think I speak for all graduate students and young scholars present at this conference when I say that this loss of attribution is a hugely pressing concern.

So, I’d like to outline and reiterate, firstly, one thing that I think needs to happen on Twitter during conferences such as NCS, and secondly, six things that should happen to ensure ethical scholarly practices, for students and faculty all. While Hsy, Kim, and Risam have already outlined most of these guidelines, they bear repeating from the perspective of an emerging young scholar. I welcome any further additions, objections, or insights.

What needs to happen: with a few understandable exceptions, every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea (formats such as “[tweet proper] [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end]” are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions later). This means that if you choose to tweet a number of the presenters’ (or questioners’) ideas in a row, every single tweet should contain the name of the idea’s progenitor. Imagine what would happen if one unattributed tweet amongst many suddenly went viral: suddenly it is the tweeter, not the presenter, who receives the credit. Scholarly chaos ensues (....no, but really.). If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing and grappling with the ideas of others in our scholarly work, and should not be difficult.

What should happen:
1.     Try not to overtweet. Others have said that tweeting is like note-taking, but I would complicate this notion a little bit; note-taking tends to be much more profuse than the summative actions of tweeting should be. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). While I wish my paper had received an enthusiastic tweet or two, I do not wish that the entire thing had been published online in 140-character portions. Again, the currency of the idea is volatile and unstable, and issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

2.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you; remember Kenneth Burke’s famous claim that when entering into conversation, you should “listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.” One of the most exciting twitter experiences I had at this conference occurred when I and co-tweeters in a different session, in a different room, realized that we were having parallel discussions about manuscript paleography/codicology that could speak to one another in productive ways. This new awareness could trigger further conversations and cross-pollination of ideas outside the panel sessions, and would not have occurred if we weren’t looking and listening for the tweets of others as well as our own.

3.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture (ie. do not bend far over the table on your phone lest you resemble a bored, texting undergraduate), try to make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, try to convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Remember, again, that not everyone tweets, not everyone has read the previously cited manifestos on conference tweeting, not everyone is technologically savvy. I have heard stories of people in sessions becoming offended at the tweeting postures of others, perceiving them as rudeness; and although I don’t want to victim-blame, being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

4.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. The degree of panel representation depends in large part upon who happens to be sitting in the room and how prolific of a tweeter he/she is. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out an underrepresented panel to broadcast it online.

5.     Be aware that tweets cannot encompass complex arguments. In one of the most well-attended sessions at NCS, 8A on the question of the “Agential Object” in critical theory, an audience member (unfortunately and somewhat hypocritically I don’t know who it was!) pointed out that one of the problems with new methodologies is that we as scholars tend to want to translate them into functional machines that allow us to pump out scholarship and articles as fast as possible. Similarly, when tweeting, we must be aware of the dangers of domesticating complex ideas into facile 140-character boxes. Judith Butler, in her essay “Ordinary, Incredulous” in The Humanities and Public Life (Fordham UP, 2014), argues that we need to be wary of breaking down complex arguments into the language of instrumentality, because that kind of simplification can cheapen and indeed betray our very calling as critical humanities scholars. To avoid this problem, treat tweets as imperfect containers of ideas that—as panel 10D on “Monument, Edifice, Container,” organized by Elaine Treharne and Noelle Phillips, taught us in regard to medieval manuscripts—possess fragments, ruptures, limitations, even as they present exciting possibilities for distilling ideas into graspable and memorable bits.

6.     Finally, with this last problem in mind, be aware of the form of your tweet. As this is the first time I have ever tweeted a conference or panel, I don’t entirely feel like I have the authority to say this, but in my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components. Local so that there’s something educative or some substance for your claim, but global so that outsiders looking in—and those whose twitter-feed is currently being bombarded by tweets from excitable Chaucerians—might derive some kind of general application from our conferencing. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument. And also, tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content are arguably more fun and engaging to read.

This last suggestion brings me to my final point, as the question of how we present ourselves on twitter to the wider world is, again, about privilege and voicing: we scholars at this exotic academic conference (if I may include myself amongst this group), some of whom have letters after our names and stable institutional positions, are always already privileged by the very nature of being here, and by nature of belonging to institutions that in many cases still support such expensive events. As much as we’d like to believe that it is the virtue of our scholarship that has brought us to such a place, in actual fact there are powers and institutions that have contributed to bringing us here, that have given us a voice. Using twitter as a digital resource means that we are not only speaking to other people at the conference, but also to those who could not make it, who were not accepted, who have been cast outside the academic institution, who deride the academic institution, who have no interest in the academic institution, or who have never been able to get into the academic institution for various personal, material, political, geographic, or economic reasons. And as we are increasingly called (rightly) to make our work legible to audiences outside the ivory tower, and (less rightly, perhaps) to justify our work to such institutes as funding organizations, we need to become more conversant in how to package our ideas for the looking and listening nonacademics around us who, well, may not fully understand this weird and wild field of medieval literature. This stuff is going online, friends, and others are listening: please be aware of who is getting a voice.

*I am grateful to Zachary Hines, University of Texas, for his valuable feedback on this entry.


Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Boyda (and great that we finally got a chance to meet IRL at NCS, by the way!). Lots of great stuff here, and one of the most practical ideas I like here is the idea of a "designated tweeter" at sessions so more of them get represented in the conference's twitter-presence... I think the question of who/what gets tweeted is increasingly important; we want the online spaces to be multi-vocal and to do the best we can to amplify voices that aren't as often heard/acknowledged. Our efforts to have more guest-postings at ITM are part of this too! Thanks so much for this.

Boyda Johnstone said...

Thanks so much, Jonathan! (sorry just saw this, not sure when you posted it; and great to meet you IRL as well!) I thought your earlier article was excellent and I'm excited to tweet future conferences with you :).

Laura Saetveit Miles said...

Pretty sure we met in person after simul-tweeting one session or another :-) Good points here!