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.