Twitter and Safe Academic Spaces

Dedicated to the women who kept on reading my thoughts, even when our ideas were discounted.

I considered not writing this post.

I considered just shutting up and letting the discussion about Twitter and academics that emerged late on Saturday, September 29th, 2012 speak for itself. It started when Josh Guild mused out loud on Twitter “Still waiting on that ‘ethics of live tweeting in the academy’ convo.” What ensued over the next 24 hours was exactly that: a conversation about live-tweeting conferences and ethics, a lively, intellectual conversation that I was a part of. The next days after that the conversation was hastily rehashed in an Inside Higher Ed post titled “The Academic Twitterazi” and many of the people who had participated in that lively conversation had been almost ignored.

I considered keeping my thoughts on the matter because the energy I was putting into handling (and ignoring) the negative reaction and outright dismissal on Twitter was too much for me to handle at times. (Tressie Cottom did an excellent job drawing attention to that dismissal and how that ties into broader issues of racialized and genderized power.) Not that negativity and dismissal was the tone of all of the tweets on the #Twittergate hashtag, but those were the ones that affected me.

But days after, I saw a tweet in my timeline, referring yet again to the conversation I had on Sunday with several of my tweeps about live-tweeting academic conferences. The tweet said something about along the lines of “What, are we STILL talking about tweeting at academic conferences?” And I was done. I knew I couldn’t stay quiet.

So, for starters: Yes. Yes we are. Just because this isn’t a new topic (and posts by Bethany NowviskieErnesto PriegoJay RosenKelli Marshall, and J.J. Cohen illustrate exactly that) doesn’t mean that the use of Twitter in academic conferences does not deserved to be analyzed in closer detail now. In fact, three of the women who participated in that weekend conversation blogged last week about power dynamicscontrol, and the idea of academic branding as it relates to live-tweeting conferences.

I am not here today to debate what to livetweet and how to livetweet an academic conference. Several academics have blogged about exactly that. I am not here to debate whether academics should be on Twitter or not. As far as I am concerned: different strokes for different folks. I enjoy being on Twitter. If you don’t, that’s okay.

What got me thinking during that conversation on Twitter two weekends ago, and what’s still on my mind today, is the idea of conferences as a private space for testing ones ideas.

The next day, @eetempleton and I discussed what she called the dissonance of tweeting. For her:

Later that day @briancroxall and @janineutell pointed out: are conferences public spaces?

All of this leads me to these questions: who sees the academic conference as a safe space? Why? What is it about the space of the academic conference that seems opposed to Twitter?

Firstly, a confession: I don’t subscribe to this view of conferences as a safe space for test-driving ideas. I have always felt that my ideas needed to be ready-to-wear when I went to a conference. On the other hand, Twitter for me is my trial-and-error space. Since joining in May 2009, I have tweeted many half-baked ideas, many research topics, many tweet-length chunks of my work, and my followers have responded with plenty of thoughtful and encouraging tweets. Whether it was something I was missing, something that sounded neat, or something that could be better explained, I always learned from those Twitter exchanges. Twitter helped make academia tangible, real to me. I had heard of these kinds of exchanges as a graduate student—ironically, I was always told these exchanges would occur at conferences—but I had never really felt what it was like to go out into the world, share my research and engage my audience until Twitter. Maybe that says more about me as a graduate student than about Twitter.

As a graduate student I heard that conferences were the place to be. I was supposed to go to conferences, present my work, exchange contact information, attend other people’s panels. I have attended my fair share of conferences, but for each one I don’t remember feeling as energized and engaged as I did when l I attended the EMP Pop Music conference, the first conference I went to after signing up on Twitter and after disappearing for a two year conference hiatus. I live-tweeted panels as an impulse: I saw my fellow academic tweeps do it, and since I had learned and enjoyed the live-tweeting of others so much, I wanted to do the same for those on my timeline. Perhaps my followers grew tired quick of my flurry of #Popcon tweets, but I thought this was my obligation as an academic on Twitter.

However, I was made aware during my conversation that weekend that others may see the conference as a space where they can safely share their ideas, without the prying eyes/tweets of others (even though the notion of who is seen as “prying” is problematic). I think many of us need to respect that others may be uncomfortable with us tweeting about their papers, no matter how wonderful they may be or how enthusiastic we may feel about their work. For them, I, the live-tweeter, may have made a decision they were not ready to make. And this is what made me think on Sunday: what makes the conference panel safe? For whom is it safe? Who can claim it as safe, and who is left out? This brings to mind Tressie Cottom’s post “An Idea Is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine”, the first one to appear after the kerkuffle (as IHE has called it), a post that deftly points out how power and control intersect ideas about what conferences are and are not.

Aaron Bady discusses in his excellent blog post for The New Inquiry, “My Norm is More Normal Than Yours: Academic Tweeting and Loose Fish,” how live-tweeting creates a situation in the academic conference that did not exist before, and in this way brings up all sorts of questions and assumptions about tweeting and about conferences. Moreover, Bady explains that the public/private binary (which has been invoked in the conversation, specifically in the sense that academic conferences are supposedly “public” when in reality there are all sorts of fees and expenses that prevent many from attending these events) is not as clear cut as it seems:

“The claim that there has always been a clear sense of the divide between private and public is not only always false, but it tends to mask (in an ideologically informed way) the much more complex and messy social reality we actually live in, one in which different kinds of information flow are appropriate for different places, and in which the dividing lines are constantly in flux and constantly being debated.”

Something that Bady addresses and that has come up several times in my timeline is whether conferences are public or private. Even though some of us who have reaped the benefits of talking about our work via Twitter may feel there is nothing to fear, others may think of Twitter in terms of archiving, in terms of its so-called “longevity,” and in terms of its searchability online. Just think about the announcement by the Library of Congress that they would keep an archive of every public tweet. Contrary to the “published” feeling of a tweet, a conference panel with only four or five attendees may seem like a safe space for them to try out ideas. Twitter, especially for the folks who don’t use it or are novices, may seem as a dangerous place to toss a half-baked idea, especially when with the click of a mouse that tweet can be stored in someone’s favorites. In this sense, do conference fees, flight expenses, hotel rates become the price some pay to enter that safe space?

I think the idea of whether a conference is a private (by invitation, payment only) or a public (you present your work to a bunch of people) is also under consideration here, along with the ethics of live-tweeting. And the truth is, those who are bothered by tweeting see conferences as private spaces and Twitter as a public/published space. In a sense conferences are private. They are not genuinely public spaces. They involve money, vetting, and work. Not everyone can just walk into a conference. The Twitter conversation that spurred this post revealed that the ethics of live-tweeting conferences is not just about tweeting. It’s about assumptions about conferences along with expectations of privacy—but it’s also about the lack of access to that same space for trial and error that many academics hold dear as well as legitimate and valuable. If this is so, Twitter enables many who do not have access to those spaces of legitimacy (either because of cultural capital or because of financial straits) to become a part of the conversation.

Mind you, I am not saying we should ban Twitter from conferences or that we should all be live-tweeting. As a general rule, I stay away from telling people what to do. What I am asking for is a reconsideration of why some prefer the space of the conference more than others, and how some digest the information presented differently than others. What I am asking for is a reconsideration of how and why we use Twitter at academic conferences.

So, back to that tweet that spurred this post: are we still talking about livetweeting conferences? Yes, yes we are. And I claim the right to expand the discourse. If that bothers some, we’ll all have to deal.

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  1. Being actively involved in a social media club, I find that I want to share lots of information that is being presented when I’m at live events. I think nothing of sharing a great quote, or a photo that helps to illustrate something. However, the events I attend do not involve new concepts or trial work.

    Perhaps, I’m naive with this thought, but I wonder why a presenter cannot mention that they do not feel their ideas are solid and request that information discussed in the conference isn’t shared with the outside world? Admittedly, they could lose out on a lot of great feedback, but that is the presenters choice. The attendants will still have the option to have in person discussions after the presentation and, since they would not be able to quote verbatim, they should be able to bring the ideas to twitter.

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