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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · June 20, 2015

The Twitterverse and the Twitter Averse

conferences 6 min read

The following is a brief essay by OIEAHC Director Karin Wulf.

The OI-SEA 2015 Joint Conference has been by almost every measure a great success. A rich, multi-disciplinary program so full of exciting panels that I noted several times I wished I had Hermione Granger’s time turner so I could attend them all. Gorgeous Chicago, with social outings and events and even weather to please all comers.

But in the midst, a kerfuffle about social media. I know, the irony. The OI has made enhanced use of social media a key objective over the last two years. We’ve supported social media by hosting The Octo, a blog aggregator, and by encouraging tweeting at our conferences. We have officially designated tweeters, too, because we do think offering folks who are not at the conference a quick means of keeping up, offsite, is valuable, as is the in-conference communication offered by Twitter.

We also have been trying to listen to folks who are social media and particularly Twitter-averse. Some have a philosophical opposition; “how can you be paying attention to the session if you’re tweeting?” or “I find it too distracting when I’m speaking and so many people are on their devices.” That’s a matter of preference, I think.

I take more seriously, though, the concern among some that the social media universe, and especially the Twitterverse, is not a safe space. I use that phrase advisedly. I have heard this especially from graduate students concerned that their early in production work will be characterized and digested before they’ve had time to develop it. Even more seriously, people worry that the arguments they make and the opinions they express in the midst of conference conversation will be misrepresented in ways that can not be corrected—and that will be forever captured for the record and even for their potential employers. Some now tell me that they won’t ask provocative questions from the floor for fear of being twitter- fodder. The specter of Stephen Sailita has been mentioned to me more than once.

I don’t share these particular concerns; I tweet (often poorly), and I’ve been mischaracterized here and there. Mostly, I see Twitter as a positive good for conferencing. I do take very seriously, though, that the expanded audience for remarks at a conference has come upon us in a relatively short number of years. Even five years ago no one was expecting that a question they asked would be reported much farther than an email or a remark to another colleague. Now the audience for a version of that comment is limitless. And the caution some feel about being exposed to that size audience is both fair and deserving of our support, too. Over the years, intensifying in the last ten, people have declined requests to video or audio record panels and plenaries for posting for the same reason, and we’ve always respected that. The difference with Tweeting is that it can be an invisible practice, and one that’s so common.

The OI’s answer to this concern was fairly innocuous; weeks before the conference we communicated with panel chairs that “No Tweeting” signs would be available for anyone on their panel who wanted to keep their words and their work out of social media. We thought of this as a version of Chatham House rules, increasing the space for free and open exchange. Astonishingly (*sarcasm*) many panel chairs didn’t pay close attention to this issue, and the No Tweeting signs instead became a discussion in and of themselves.

The OI is far from the only organization, academic or otherwise, struggling with the complex issues of social media and hearing passionate arguments from opposing views. We will continue to welcome ways to increase communication in and about our conferences, and being a part of the Twitterverse is one of them. We will also remain committed to respecting those who are Twitter averse. Lastly, we will hope for a fruitful discussion about the opportunity costs of different approaches to maximizing intellectual exchange, though I suspect this will be a conversation that will develop more slowly that one can tweet it out.


I appreciate the OIEAHC's attempt to embrace social media. It is refreshing to see an organization willing to discuss it and figure out how it can best be used to convey historical ideas. The Twitterverse is getting more complicated as technology develops. It's not just tweeting that academic conference-goers have to worry about anymore. Twitter has devised a new app called Periscope, which has a competitor called Meerkat. These apps allow users to livestream video and audio on Twitter. I haven't tried these apps, but just like tweeting, I imagine these will be invisible (or mostly invisible) actions as well. I appreciate that graduate students and others have concerns about their ideas being misinterpreted or stolen, but social media is here to stay. In fact, it seems to be evolving to make people more social and information more widely available. I wonder if developing social etiquette guidelines around what it means to be a good colleague vs. what conference-goers can and cannot tweet offers a possible solution. Social media and technology has made our profession more collaborative. I think this is for the better. However, as in all professions, there are historians who don't treat their colleagues well. There is no reason why someone who tweets at a conference or elsewhere can't delete and submit a corrective tweet when they have mis-tweeted someone. I have done this. Perhaps suggesting a process for correcting mistweets might be helpful. Thanks to Storify, and other apps, organizations like OIEAHC can catalog and organize conference tweets. Perhaps organizations could have designated "Storifyiers," people who organize and/or select the most relevant tweets. Conference-goers could be given 1 or 2 weeks to look through the tweets and request/submit a correction. These tweets could then be organized into the Storify summary of the conference. I also wonder if some of our colleagues are "Twitter-averse" because they don't understand how to use the platform. Perhaps having a pre-conference primer on how to use Twitter and how to tweet at conferences would be useful and beneficial. These are just ideas and perhaps others will have better ones that we can use to make social media an even better tool for fruitful discussion.
Liz Covart  •  June 22, 2015

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