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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · June 22, 2015

Wearing the Blue Ribbon: Observations from the Tweeting Trenches

conferences 7 min read

Casey Schmitt, PhD candidate in History at the College of William and Mary, provides this reflection on live-tweeting the OIEAHC-SEA conference. Casey was one of two students who were brought to the conference by the OIEAHC as a way of encouraging a lively exchange on Twitter. Both students wore blue ribbons that designated them as Tweeters.

Casey writes:

Traveling back from the joint annual meeting of the OIEAHC and SEA this past weekend seems like a perfect time to reflect on my experiences as an official conference tweeter. Before I do, however, it’s only fair to admit that before this weekend I had little experience using Twitter as a means of academic discourse and exchange. Sure, I use my Twitter account to share relevant news and blog posts, but I went into the conference intrigued and intimidated by the idea of trying to communicate complex papers in 140 characters or less.

As a junior scholar, a principle reason why advisors encourage us to attend conferences is to hear historians present their newest work. It is in this way that we meet fellow graduate students to be on future panels with and more established scholars with whom we can correspond about research questions or professional development. But, for many graduate students, the cost of attending a conference – especially in a major city like Chicago – can be prohibitive. To my mind, this is where live Twitter at conferences becomes especially meaningful. For graduate students unable to attend, Twitter allows coverage of the panels, hopefully providing enough information to connect scholars with similar research interests across the country (dare I say world) – regardless of their travel budgets. Although short, those 140 characters do allow tweeters to explain the focus of a paper that might not be clear from the title.

That said, I did wonder throughout the conference – as I furtively tweeted on my phone hidden under the table – about the audience for those tweets. I came to the conclusion that 140 characters is enough to exchange information with fellow academics, especially people steeped in many of the same historiographic debates and with a shared lexicon. For example, a tweet about a panelist’s take on the Black Atlantic means more to someone who has read and followed the discussion of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. Unlike Michael D. Hattem’s astute point about secondary school teachers and the general public using hour-long podcasts to engage in the field, I never felt like my tweets could have wider relevance than among fellow early Americanists. In this sense, I’m not sure where I stand on the claim that Twitter can “democratize” large conferences – at least not beyond a highly-trained group that shares an extensive vocabulary. Or, perhaps, I’m just not that good at distilling complex ideas yet.

There was, however, one problem with being an official tweeter and also a very junior scholar (aside from the sidelong glances tossed my way by individuals who no doubt assumed I was watching YouTube videos or checking my Facebook page). In a way, I felt as though my tweets could not wade into the realm of critiques and debates – not because I don’t think of myself as capable of engaging critically with the ideas of more established colleagues – but more because career uncertainty is a strong motivator for reticence. In the end, my tweets served more as a mirror for what was actually said than as a critical appraisal of those points. And, as a means to encourage historians to engage in productive dialogue, I think the #OISEA2015 was an overall success.

But here’s where I’m sold on the use of live tweeting at conferences – it wasn’t just my lone graduate student voice providing 140 character snippets about the proceedings. There were other official tweeters as well as non-official voices in the mix, many who did a much better job than I. Among those tweeting were individuals at all stages of their careers, some more than willing to directly challenge the conclusions of panelists. In this sense, the thousands of tweets at #OISEA2015 reflect the collective mind of conference participants – not a bad source of information for those unable to attend. And, as we all get more comfortable with the medium, that collective Twitter voice will only increase in size and sophistication.

Casey Sylvia Schmitt
PhD Candidate
The College of William and Mary


Casey, that is a salient point. Unfortunately, I don't see any way around that at the moment. Presenters will have to adjust to not getting distracted by a few people typing on their phones. As more and more people understand what live-tweeting is (and why it's worth doing), I would think the distraction aspect will diminish. After all, it's one thing if you look at someone doing that and think they're like a student texting in class. But it's quite another if it's a live-tweeter spreading your work amongst the internets. In that sense, I guess it's kind of the equivalent of reporters at a press conference writing or typing the answers of the person giving the interview.
Michael D. Hattem  •  June 25, 2015
Casey, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Live-tweeting is HARD, and as Michael says above, it's a service to the profession to get the word out on the new content being generated before the conference attendees' eyes and ears. I was very glad that you and others were there as official "LTers" to help ensure coverage amid the perennial problem of multiple panels and a limited number of people willing to take on the responsibility of reporting. I was shocked at how draining and difficult LTing is when I first tried it, and I thank you for the amount of thought and effort you and other put into it to create a rich conversation. One thing about your point on critique: the power dynamic you highlight for junior scholars is a major issue, and I'm very glad you bring it up. One thing that I hope can ease this a bit is the following a simple etiquette rule that has been making the rounds at conferences recently: if it's not something you'd say during a Q&A session in a panel, don't tweet it. This goes especially for those of us tenured folks who might get more excited about being right than about the service that LTing is supposed to do: share other scholars' work in a way that attracts (hopefully) positive interest. That doesn't mean that every paper has to sound brilliant or that individual objections or questions should be silent, but it means that on Twitter, as in many other public settings, those who engage the medium are in the business of dealing with reputations—our own and others'. I was very happy with how sympathetic and thoughtful the conversation was on Twitter during the conference, and I hope as the "don't flame others" norm becomes more explicit, the culture of critique within LTing will have space for grad students, adjuncts, and others not protected by the magic girdle of tenure to raise questions that need to be asked without fear of reprisal. After all, as an organization and a profession we need to be invested in promoting your career, too.
Chris Phillips  •  June 24, 2015
Thanks for your reply, Michael. I couldn't agree with you more on all points - especially in being so honest about how much attention one can pay to a paper while simultaneously tweeting. During the papers that pertained the most to my own research, I have to admit that I tweeted less. Moreover, I think you are absolutely right to see live tweeting conferences as a service to those unable to attend. Another concern I had during the conference - and one I did not cover in my post yesterday - involved being a distraction to those presenting their papers. My efforts to live tweet reflected a respect for their work, but I do worry that using my phone might have given presenters the opposite impression. Other than typing under the table, I'm not sure how to remedy that particular problem. Overall, however, I'm pleased that this is a conversation being had among scholars.
Casey Schmitt  •  June 23, 2015
These are really valuable thoughts on the process of live-tweeting conferences. For the record, when I talked about Twitter "democratizing" conversation, I was talking specifically about fellow academics within the field. I highly doubt the general public will ever be monitoring academic conferences on Twitter. But just making the ideas offered or conversations begun at conferences available to those of us who are economically-challenged graduate students or junior faculty or those marginalized from the field in other ways, such as status (e.g., adjuncts), is a huge step toward creating a more inclusive and cohesive "field of early American history." In that sense, I'd like to make one other point. One critique of live-tweeting I saw recently was, "How can you pay attention to the panel if you're tweeting?" And, that's actually an excellent question. The fact is that it is hard to get as much out of a panel if you're live-tweeting than if you aren't. But that is a sacrifice that the live-tweeter makes in order to perform what should be considered a service to the field. I don't live-tweet in a thorough or consistent manner every conference I go to, but, for example, I knew that the MHS conference on the Revolution was an important conference about a topic I care deeply about and so I was willing to make that sacrifice to make the questions and conversations raised at the conference more visible, as were half a dozen others. Finally, I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned your tweets "being a mirror" rather than providing commentary (as well as with your point about reticence, which is its own topic). The primary task of live-tweeters, to my mind, is to do exactly that. That is not to say that you shouldn't offer commentary at all, but I think the main task of a live-tweeter is to convey accurate summaries of papers, panels, and discussion. Commentary can follow in replies but it's impossible to have substantive conversation without first having accurate and objective summaries. This is an excellent piece on the experience and benefits of live-tweeting and hopefully it will help get us to a place where live-tweeting is seen as a service to the field and, hence, no longer worthy of disapproving "sidelong glances."
Michael D. Hattem  •  June 22, 2015

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