Monday, January 28, 2013

On Twitter (and its Discontents?)

Although the Digital Humanities Symposium hosted by GW this past weekend was about multiple aspects of the field—innovative applications like the gorgeous Tempest app, open source online projects like the Map of Early Modern London, as well as pedagogical endeavors like the Global Shakespeares project—I personally spent much of my time thinking about the role of social media, and specifically Twitter, in academia. As I’ve said a few times now, my recent acquisition of a tablet meant that this was the first time I’ve ever really been able to engage in the digital aspects of a conference. Throughout the two days I had Twitter open pretty much all of the time, and I was surprised by the complexity of my feelings about it. In his talk, nicely timed at the end of the first day of the conference (and readable here), Jeffrey Cohen made a strong case for “a nonhierarchical and wall breaching nomadism assisted by social media’s tools.” Although the bulk of his presentation was about his experience as a blogger at In the Middle, Jeffrey’s also projected a livestream of the #gwdh13 Twitter feed during his talk, highlighting the importance of this other form of digital conversation.

I certainly found myself experiencing a small version of this “wall breaching” at the conference. I am terribly shy, and the kind of small talky, in-person networking that happens at conferences (indeed, the very term “networking” itself) is the stuff of my nightmares. It was extremely gratifying, then, to find myself in conversations through Twitter that I would never have had the courage to initiate otherwise. Turns out, Twitter was also a lot of fun (!), a creative outlet and a way to pass an hour stuck at the registration table. Furthermore, Twitter helped me as a listener. I am an extremely visual learner, and I have a hard time at conferences where listening comprehension is the primary required skill. Twitter thus served unexpectedly as a kind of evolving handout, helping me to keep up with key points.

I also have some real reservations about Twitter. Some of its downsides have been nicely documented by others—for instance, see Ryan Cordell’s invaluable post on the ethics of Tweeting at conferences—but I think it’s worth raising a few more concerns. I’m uncomfortable, for instance, with the way Twitter encourages us to discuss a presentation as it unfolds. What do we lose, I wonder, when we articulate and—crucially—publish reactions to a presentation before it has finished? It reminds me of my worst weeks in seminar, when I haven’t managed to finish the reading and am trying to articulate something useful based on whatever I’ve managed to get through. This is probably really old-fashioned of me, but I also wonder: don’t we owe the speaker our undivided attention, or at least the simulacrum of our undivided attention? What is it like to speak to an audience that is scrambling, sometimes competitively, to share and analyze your every sentence? I also worry that the stakes of social media may be somewhat different for fledgling academics in ways that perhaps we haven’t totally thought through. Every time I tweet or post a comment on a blog I think, “Well, there goes my career.” Unfortunately, I think the same thing when I’m not tweeting or commenting enough, and that brings me to my final concern: to what extent is social media becoming mandatory, just another hoop to be jumped through for anyone who wants to have a shred of a chance at finding a job? Do we want that, especially when social media requires a certain degree of access to devices—like my own iPad mini—with serious environmental and human rights concerns attached to them? I bring up these issues not as a condemnation of social media, which I largely find to be everything Jeffrey says it can be, but as open questions. 

Creative Commons photo from here

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