Twitter @ Console-ing Passions 2010

As Amanda, Annie, and Melissa have blogged, there was a robust twitter "backchannel" at this year's CP conference on TV, feminism, etc., and this produced some beneficial and some not so beneficial effects. I composed most of these thoughts, some in my head and some on "paper," before reading their intelligent remarks, and those in their comments too. But I wanted to share this anyway because I do think some of my ideas are fresh even if others are a bit redundant with what's already being said. I feel strongly that twitter is adding greatly to academic discourse, and that this has been a pretty egalitarian phenomenon. I love it that I am getting to know more people this way than I did before, and that many of them are graduate students, some of whom I was pleased to meet for the first time this weekend. I don't want to come off sounding too cranky about it, but a few aspects of conference twittering in this day and age seem like they could use improvement, which is what you would expect from any emergent phenomenon. So in reference to Annie's post in particular, I would really hate if any of the criticism of twitter were to have the effect of scaring off anyone from participating.

Of approximately 130 conference participants, maybe around two dozen posted tweets during the proceedings in Eugene (others contributed from afar), and a smaller number produced large volumes of "live-tweeting," i.e., moment-by-moment reporting from the panels. I was especially impressed with the volume and quality of live-tweeting produced by @annehelen and @l_e_s, as well as @castabile, @princesscowboy and others. The benefits of this work are apparent to anyone who has trouble being in two places at once. You can hear about panel B which you skippd in favor of panel C, and can keep up witn the conference from afar if you can't make it in person. At first when my twitterfriends started doing this it looked liked way too much unwelcome information (If I wanted to know what was going on at NCA, I would have gone to NCA godammit!), but I have come to appreciate the value of having these real-time missives from the conference. Among other things, it establishes a community of interest that's more specific than the conference community, and that extends beyond the conference to others looking in from afar. And it preserves the conference, capturing the ephemeral live presentation and archiving it online. In this last sense, the backchannel functions to keep the minutes of the conference as it happens.

Much as I like it, however, and despite some attempts, I have not found that I care to do this kind of conference twittering myself. I don't like typing on a compact device like an iPod and don't like lugging a heavy MacBook around with me if it's not necessary. Worse for me and more important, I am a terrible multitasker. If I start crafting a tweet while a presentation is underway, I will have to tune out of some of the presentation to get my thoughts straight and make sure I have spelled and phrased things correctly. (To quote a tweet by @melodyisazombie, "what is the consensus on tweeting and still remaining an active listener? i cannot do both, personally.") I suppose I could become more casual about it, but this really isn't my nature. Someone said you can think of it like taking notes, but at least I make a distinction between taking notes for myself and taking notes in public. To do the latter, I have to turn on my internal censor, and it takes too much cognitive energy to keep him satisfied. (The same is true for me, by the way, while watching TV: I can't tweet while watching without stopping watching.)

Another reason I have avoided too much conference twittering is that I like the honest, raw immediacy of response in the instant, but many of the things I am thinking during a conference presentation are admittedly snarky or crabby, and I don't want to show this side of myself to the world. I still have the mind of a graduate seminar participant, eager to poke holes in every argument. But I don't think real-time, public hole-poking online is a good way to build scholarly community. I also fixate on presentation style, like when people read papers without looking up at the audience, or show slides in a room with bright lights that make them hard to see, or mispronounce words or over-rely on cliches. I certainly don't want to read tweets that pick on these things. And I also find myself given over to the occasional wild enthusiasm. I heard one paper at the conference I liked so much I wanted to tweet, This is the best paper at this conference! It probably wasn't that good.

I also have some questions about the ethics of this practice. The backchannel is conducting a fairly robust and critical discussion as the conference panel is unfolding. It concerns me that the people giving the papers might be unaware of this. They may be unaware that people are live-tweeting the conference at all. They are also likely unaware of what is being posted in real time, as it might come off as impolite to be sitting on a panel keeping tabs on the internet (maybe this etiquette will change?). I'm concerned about the practice of giving feedback to presenters who are unable to receive it, and are probably not aware of it being given. Moreover, a significant fraction of the people in the room might be unaware of this conversation going on, and it seems possibly a bit disrespectful to them to be engaging in questioning and commentary without their knowledge. Many of them, indeed, probably think it's a odd idea for people to be using twitter during the conference. Many non-users have somewhat hostile attitudes toward these new media platforms. I agree with Amanda's proposal that the existence of the backchannel be made more evident to all conference participants.

Another ethical issue that I see is the reliability of the the twitter format for summarizing conference papers. Many tweets are admirably accurate and pithy, briefly getting to the heart of the matter. But they can also be superficial or fragmentary. If you're not physically present and you get only the twitter version, you can easily form impressions that are different from the meanings intended by speakers. This happened to me a lot as a participant from afar during SCMS, when I would read the statements tweeted from the conference and wonder how, without the context of the full paper, I could really understand assertions that sometimes struck me as off or just incomplete. (I said as much in my comment to Jason's post on his SCMS presentation.) After the first two days of massive CP tweeting, I went back and combed through my paper to try to eliminate any phrase that I thought might make me look bad if decontextualized in a tweet. It's good if being tweeted makes us speak with greater clarity and persuasiveness. But mixed with a bit of disappointment that no one tweeted from our panel was a bit of relief.

Which brings me to another matter: those doing the twittering are the ones to determine which parts of the conference are covered by twitter. Some panels were attended by many of the twitterati. This gave the false impression, for instance, that the conference was dominated by discussions of Mad Men. At the same time, there were a number of panels that were covered little or not at all by the twitterati, thus giving no sense of their contents to the world outside the conference, and no archival presence online. My own panel was on Distinguishing Television, with Elana Levine, Phillip Sewell, and Caryn Murphy. I thought it went really well but as far as the backchannel is concerned it never happened. I noticed this especially at SCMS this year -- the TV and new media scholars seemed much more interested in conference twittering, and the majority of the conference, which is devoted to film studies, was largely unrepresented. If conferences are to be documented this way, it might make sense to organize the documentation to cover the whole of the proceedings. But conference twittering is not really organized, and this is part of what is exciting and fresh about it. I'm not sure institutionalizing conference twittering will preserve the things we like about it.

I see an easy solution to some of these problems, and it's not very novel. Make it a convention of conference presentations that all work is posted to the internet in full and made accessible to anyone simultaneous with the presentation. This way the live-tweeters will be relieved of the more secretarial dimension of their work, the better to engage on the level of questions and replies. And this way the partial understandings and misunderstandings can be minimized. This shifts the model of conferencing from presenting to presenting-plus-publishing, but it could serve to promote higher quality presentations (because they have to be in a publishable written form to be presented), or even better to limit the time spent reading papers and maximize the time spent engaging in scholarly exchange, and also to better archive the contents of a conference. Many scholars already publish conference papers on sites like Scribd and on blogs. But if conferences can centralize the publishing on their web spaces this makes things easier and more logical for many participants.

Conference tweeting might be most salutary and effective in revealing a need to make all of the knowledge produced at conferences available beyond the four walls of the presentation room. Here's hoping this happens soon and in a way that expands our open access to all scholarly work.


melody said...

I second your call for conference papers and presentations to be posted online. I was discussing this with other conference goers. Technically, it does not seem *too* difficult to add an upload interface to the cptv website. It would be so awesome to be able to go download the papers I want, instead of tracking everyone down by email (half of which never email me back). Your idea is so simple, yet why do conferences shy away from this?

Jason Mittell said...

I agree that more public posting of work is ideal, and that the model that the Media in Transition conferences have used works quite well (all abstracts online, and if you want to publish a paper you can). The one danger that I see in mandating or even encouraging online posting of papers is that it reinforces the "paper" as the dominant conference presentation. Many people have moved away from reading a fully written essay, opting for a more conversational or multi-media presentation that doesn't necessarily "post" well online.

On the flip side, I know that there are many scholars (mostly senior) who feel very skeptical about posting full versions freely, thinking that it might either be ripe for plagiarism or eliminate future publication options. The more we can demonstrate that these are not grounded fears, the better.

(So can you post your presentation? I'd love to read it!)

michael z newman said...

Thanks for the comments. I anticipated that someone might ask me to post my own paper, and it's coming. As for variations in format, I would say that posting slideshows works too, and I have seen you (Jason) and others do that routinely. At CP this year the reading of a paper was the norm, but I like other formats even if they pose more challenges for online sharing. For informal presentations, maybe a blog version of 1000 words or something like that would be a welcome addition to the slides. At least this way the general thrust of an argument is made clear even if some of the specifics can't be captured.

melody said...

Funny how I did not read my paper, but the paper exists. I tend to write a paper (for class or just to organize my thoughts) and then parse down the content to an extemporaneous presentation. Therefore, I am not sure if every non-paper reader would not have a paper. I know you are not making such a stark claim, I just wanted to show the possibility that many people do drag around papers even if they seem like all they prepped was a PP.

dkompare said...

Great thoughts on the backchannel, and on the metaphysics of conferences in general. Lots of discussion about this at SCMS (sadly, almost none of it tweeted, of course!), and my guess would be that there's going to some significant changes coming over the next few years there in regards to how presented work is made available before, during, and after the conference.

I also want to point out that although many of us have now eschewed the "read-verbatim-for-20-minutes" model, many (probably most) out there still use it and even prefer it. The trick will be to get them to also participate in these new tools, at least as far as (say) uploading 1000 words, or an abstract, or hell, even a video of their presentation.

John Vanderhoef said...

Great thoughts as always, Mike. I too support conference attendees uploading their papers/presentations to a central conference portal. There are so many panels and papers I wasn't able to see and rather than emailing each and every scholar, it would be great to simply jump online and pick and choose.

Although in a less than desirable format, I've posted my paper on my humble blog: www.pressstarttodrink.blogspot.com

amanda said...

I already made my points re: Twitter and conferences on my blog and in Annie's comment section but one last point to think about is what non-academic Twitter users think about live tweeting--must seem very strange at best and elitist at worst. My brother and his old college roommate follow me on Twitter and were replying to my tweets with "Tell them it's just a TV show" and "Can you ask if Joan's boobs are real?" And a comment on blog post was "I have yet to read a more boring string of illiterate nonsense. Please never waste my e-space again." I am assuming this poster was referring to the #cpuo Twitter stream and not my post (illiterate? humpf!)? Basically, what I'm trying to say is that it's interesting how Twitter can bring together these many different conversations into one virtual space.

Erin Copple Smith said...

This is really right-on, Mike. You've outlined basically all of my feelings about conference tweeting. Yes, I'm on Twitter, but, as you say--I simply cannot manage to live-tweet a panel. And I don't really like the idea of folks talking electronically behind the backs (or, actually, in front) of the presenters, who are incapable of responding at the moment, and may never find it and respond later.

One conference-goer told me that someone had tweeted about a perceived omission from her analysis--but never actually asked the question during the Q&A (and there was plenty of time for it--I was at the panel). She felt like if the individual had asked her the question outright, it would have resulted in a more productive and lively Q&A for both of them, as well as the rest of the audience.

Twitter is certainly a valuable tool, but I agree with you (and others, of course) that we need to be thinking about best practices and uses, too.

Jonathan said...

My preferred model for paper posting is that of emailing a person and asking if they'd share. I don't usually write up a paper -- I either have PP slides (which I prefer to be illustrative, rather than more like transcriptions, so they don't travel well), or a paper with phrases and disjunctures that only I get. But when I've been contacted directly and asked for a paper, I can sometimes go one better and point someone towards published work of mine (and of others) that gets at what I'm saying, and/or it can kick off a discussion about what I discussed, and make a new contact and friend. Ditto when I contact others for their work. So I'm still a fan of that system.

That said, I realize you pitched that idea within the context of trying to shift tweets away from the "secretarial," as you say, and more towards comments and engagement. And I'd much rather see the latter too.

annie said...

In response to Erin's comment above (and the generalized question of Tweeting/being an active listener) I'd say that each of us has to decide whether or not we can do both at the same time. I, for one, can type without looking at the screen, and found it easy to listen to the speaker and Tweet at the same time, but by no means am I saying that this should be an expectation for everyone -- or that that necessarily makes me a 'better' conference goer in any way.

With that said, I don't think we should assume that just because someone is typing that they're not listening or engaging. In fact, it's quite similar to taking good ol' analog notes with pen and paper.

And as for the question of making back channel questions visible during the Q&A -- I think that it actually gives potential questions a chance to be affirmed and given momentum (for example, I was thinking about abjection in connection to the 'Betty Vomits' paper; when I tweeted about it and Liz and another Tweeter responded that they, too, were thinking about it, I was given further encouragement to voice my question). But there's simply not enough time in every Q&A for every question brought up on Twitter to be aired -- and that, in some ways, is the problem and promise of the backchannel. A presenter might feel like they were unable to defend him/herself, but he/she may also take to Twitter and talk through the issues post-panel.....or simply approach the Twitter 'in real life' and talk it through, as I know Kyra did with me and my questions concerning how Betty resembled Don's mistresses.

Again, to reiterate what we've all been saying both in the comments here and elsewhere, Twitter is a double-edged tool, and it'll take further contemplation of how we want it to work -- and what that will look like -- in order for it to ameliorate the conferencing experience.

Erin said...

Annie, I definitely agree that SOME people can multitask this way--I just can't! :) And, I admit, I feel awkward about doing it, too, as I feel that I'm being rude.

This sense of rudeness doesn't transfer onto others, though--I don't perceive other live-tweeters as rude, since I understand that some people (yourself included, as well as Liz and others) can be just as engaged while managing to tweet.

Just wanted to emphasize that my concerns were related to my own personal hang-ups, and not projected onto others nor intended to be a critique.

Racquel Gonzales said...

Thanks for articulating all the thoughts I've been grappling with Twitter far more nuanced than I described in Annie's blog. To channel the fellow commentors, thinking about what we want out of conferences, both during a panel and keeping the conversation going after, can allow us to consider Twitter as well as hopefully urging us to explore other avenues of exchanging scholarship, perhaps in ways that enable scholars who don't want or can't live-tweet to still be involved in online conference conversations.

Simply, these discussions don't have to start and end with Twitter, but should prompt us to consider modes of conference engagement in person and online.

melody said...

let's remember what is most important here: the followers of my twitter account increased intensely in the last few days!