Four days and over 7000 tweets! That’s a whole lot of book history compressed in 140 characters. The staggering Twitter feed stems from the 2015 SHARP conference held in Montreal two weeks ago. For those who are not well versed in book history, SHARP equals The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and the bewildering twitter feed can be found at #SHARP15. For me this was the first time in a conference where social media was embraced to this extent, and, as so many others, I first found myself doubting and questioning the social media hype in an academic context, and then, celebrating its potential for spreading the word about the latest discoveries in book history – and about the terrific weather and ice cream we had in Montreal.
Live-tweeting is at the moment a hot-topic among scholars, dividing academia into two opposing camps. Reflecting the Montreal experience, I find myself hovering between the two extremes. On one hand, I recognize the benefits of widening participation and sharing knowledge (a fundamental principle in science). I also admire those who can simultaneously listen academic papers and turn them into informative or witty tweets! I sure do not have skills for that. On the other hand, I am aware of the risks that live-tweeting may involve because the ethical guidelines for it are yet to be clearly defined. The following random thoughts about tweeting are my modest attempt to make some sense of the twitter-matter. All the examples are drawn from the tweets that my paper generated in the conference. Since Twitter is a public domain – a fact that the writers of the tweets acknowledge – there should not be anything questionable or unethical in using them here as illustrations to my points.
To tweet or not to tweet?
The bewildering amount of tweets in Montreal shows that social media is changing the modes and pace of scholarly communication. Next to the traditional publishing channels – refereed journal entries and monographs – tweets, blogs, and host of other forums – provide competing means for transmitting information. While they have a different status than peer reviewed publications, social media is embraced by those who are no longer willing to wait months, even years, before their ideas get published. The new platforms that encourage self-publishing are used to promote ongoing projects and preliminary discoveries, but the actual results of the project are still released in journal articles and monographs.
Live-tweeting in academic events is part of this changing landscape of scholarly communication, but differs from ordinary tweeting in two crucial points that render it an easy target for debates. First, unlike tweets that promote the research of the one who writes them, live-tweeting at conferences focuses on delivering information and news about research done by someone else. The tweets, in other words, spread news about interesting ideas that someone else has come up with. Second, the tweets are also un-authorial in a sense that the one whose paper is tweeted about has no control over the content of the tweets that describe her work. In short, academics assume a role of a reporter who interprets the work of others to a social media audience while still listening to the paper and tweeting about it. Indeed, tweets don’t just pass on information, but because of the immediacy of live-tweeting, their interpretative nature is often forgotten. This makes them both an interesting and a challenging genre of scholarly communication. The fact that it is nearly impossible to remove material that is once posted on internet together with the lack of clear guidelines for ethical live-tweeting are enough to make many question this latest edition to the conference rituals.
Much of the criticism for live-tweeting in academic conferences seems to derive from the peculiar nature of these events. Conferences are considered as a semi-public space where scholars can present their work in progress without a fear that the unfinished ideas will leak out to the public. Understood in this sense, conferences are situated between the private office and public sphere of an academic publication. If a conference paper was written in a faith that its contents will not reach the wider world outside the conference venue, it can be terrifying to discover that the unpublished material is circulating in social media without any authorial consent. It can also be disappointing to find out that the juiciest quotations or “scoops” are turned into tweets before they have appeared in a scholarly publication. Tweeting certainly breaks the illusion of conferences as confidential and closed events.
Another common reason to oppose tweeting at academic conferences is the fear that the spread of information about ongoing research projects may render scholars vulnerable to idea thefts. Without downplaying the risk, the chances for ideas being stolen from tweets seems low. Considering the information overload in Twitter, the number of tweets posted from conferences, and the ambiguity of the tweets, it is unlikely, at least in disciplines like history, that tweets can be misused. It is hard to see that anyone could draw out extensive hypotheses or conclusions from tweets like these:
Historical topics are so extensive and context-bound that a tweet or two cannot reveal enough information for anyone to hijack the project. This is, of course, not to say that such unfortunate things could not happen, and the bottom line is that stealing ideas is always unethical – no matter where and how it happens.
For me a much more legitimate reason for doubting the live-tweeting is the fact that tweets tend to curiously misrepresent knowledge. Reading the tweets about my own paper was like playing the game of Chinese telephone. Obviously, when complex historical phenomena are condensed into 140 characters, the nuances and context get lost and the risk for oversimplifying history is real. As many participants in Montreal seemed to use Twitter as a public notebook, the nature of tweeting means that the short messages are posted during the presentation and they therefore represent only a small glimpse of the paper. They are, sorts of, reports about the progression of the ideas in a paper. Patching up a bigger picture from tweets requires that multiple tweets are being posted during the session, and that they are tagged so that they can be easily grouped together. Yet, even then it may be a tough job to put all the different pieces together. Here’s a sample of tweets about my paper which may, or may not, be helpful in tracing what I was talking about in the conference. To make the task easier, I arranged them according to the order the points appeared in my paper. If you need more help, additional tweets about the same can be found here, here, and here.
Jumping on the twitter bandwagon?
Many of the benefits of tweeting are so obvious that they do not demand explaining. Openness, dialogue, communication, debate – without these scholarship could not advance, and tweeting takes the transmission of scholarly knowledge to a whole new level. One tweet can multiply the attention a paper attracts in a conference. Live-tweets at academic conferences are also a great boost for a presenter, as the tweets are usually encouraging, positive, and enthusiastic. Most importantly, as they are often written without authorial intervention, their marketing potential is higher than when the author herself tweets about her work. They confirm that an audience of experts finds the paper so interesting and scholarly valid that it deserves to be promoted in Twitter. I take here – unashamedly – an advantage of this by posting tweets about my paper instead of writing a summary about the brilliant and important points it makes! I bet you are all now, after reading the tweets, totally convinced that it was a great paper – and disappointed that you missed it.
Twitter is also great in opening up conferences for those who cannot participate them “live.” This struck me in Montreal where I noticed that there were many book history puffs who followed the conference through the twitter feed and commented on the papers by tweeting. The tweets about my paper revealed that someone had indeed followed my paper this way. I was quite amazed about this, and, at the same time, immensely grateful for those who made it possible with their active tweeting, and to the one, who found my topic interesting enough to comb the twitter feed to read all the titbits about my paper.
Although I doubt that I join the Twitter community soon, I can see myself checking out tweets that are posted from interesting conferences. It seems, though, that this is not always so simple, because conference organizers might not be aware of the twitter hype and forget to create a hashtag for their event. Without that it is pretty much a mission impossible to follow through Twitter what is going on in a conference. Hopefully the organizers of the 3rd Finnish History Congress in October will respond to the needs of the 21st century historians and create a snappy tag for the gathering so that those who, just like me, cannot travel to Joensuu, may still take a peek into the sessions and keynotes via social media.
After reading the tweets about my paper, I noticed yet another benefit of Twitter: they are an immediate response to my paper. The tweets bring me into a new kind of dialogue with the audience by showing what caught attention, what was thought to be interesting and worthy of tweeting, and also, what was not paid attention to. They demonstrate the power of juicy quotes and creative use of language:
Tongue twisters are fun and it’s great if the audience enjoyed my quotes and use of language, but the tweets also show – painfully – how important it is to nail down the key arguments. Indeed, the tweets tell a lot about my paper, but largely ignore its main argument. This certainly gives me something to think about when preparing next conference papers. Analyzing the tweets certainly helps me in developing the ideas of the paper as well as in improving my skills in writing conference papers. This certainly makes tweeting something to be embraced in scholarly events!
The growing pains of academic tweeting
As tweeting at academic conferences has exploded, conference organizers and scholarly societies are now thinking whether they should establish guidelines for ethical academic tweeting. I warmly second this motion. It goes without saying that the rules of polite social media conduct apply also for academic tweeting. All tweeting should be respectful, transparent, and sincere. Moreover, tweets that distribute titbits about lectures and papers should identify the source of their information. In this historians seem to have room to improve.
Carefulness, accuracy, and precision are all age-old scholarly virtues and they should not be compromised even when tweeting. Rule number one, then, is: spell correctly the name of the speaker. This sounds simple, but judging on the tweets from Montreal, it was not just me who talked there about paratexts in Victorian histories. Also some Gerritzen seemed to be talking about the same topic. So I plea for you, fellow historians, please follow correct spelling in your tweets. It is not just polite, but also helps to link the information and its source.
Rule number two: always attribute the presenter. Historians (and any scientist or scholars) should know that sources must be indicated and tweets about conference papers do not make an exception in this. Without a clear attribution, readers can assume that the information comes from the one who posted the tweet, not from the speaker. The conference and session hashtags are not sufficient identifiers of an author, a name is. In conventional scholarly publications, presenting someone else’s research as own work is called plagiarism. I don’t see any reason why this should not be the case in tweets that profess to be trustworthy reports about someone else’s research paper. Tweeting is a novelty in academic conferences, but all the enthusiasm and eagerness should not overshadow the fact that scholarly etiquette requires meticulousness in identifying sources and crediting fellow scholars for the work they have done. Historians purport to be the masters of footnotes. The same skills and techniques should be applied when tweeting.
Rule number three: respect those who forbid tweeting about their papers. Since tweeting is at the moment a controversial issue in academia, not everyone is thrilled about the idea that their thoughts are spread in the twittersphere. If a presenter wishes to ban tweeting, then that is what the audience will do. Sit down, listen, and use a notebook, not twitter, for making notes.
Other rules? Are there any other essential rules that the academic tweeting guidelines should include? I would be more than happy to hear about your opinions about this.
Ice-cream, Twitter and identity building
Lastly, something about ice-cream. Tweeting is social and tweeting in academic conferences is primarily motivated by a wish to broadcast and share information. Second to this, there are tweets that are personal – and often witty – comments about the papers and talks. Yet, there are even third kind of tweets which indicate that tweeting is not limited to social media, but has an important role in identity building at a conference itself.
Thanks to some early random tweets about the tropical climate in Montreal and the yearnings for ice-cream it caused, a “SHARP ice cream” (@sharpicecream) soon entered the twitter feed. The anonymous ice-cream van reminded the participants about the pleasures of ice cold treats and advised speakers to “chill.” In no time, the absurd ice-cream van had created a parallel textual realm for the conference inspiring numerous responses in Twitter and real life. As the conference participation is no longer limited to being present at the location, also those who followed the conference via Twitter, joined in the party.
The silly tweets can be interpreted as a classic case of forming a community and building an identity for it. The tweets are like the nonsense quotes and phrases that kids learn at summer camps and use for identifying themselves as members of a certain group even long after the holiday is over. The ice-cream tweets were similarly important in creating a sense of community for the participants of the book history camp. The sugary titbits created a reference point and set the conference apart from the other SHARP activities. From now on, the Montreal conference is tagged with ice-cream and the participants (in and out Montreal) identify themselves by referring not just to Leslie Howsams’s and Robert Darnton’s keynote lectures, but also to a frozen yoghurt and strawberry sundae.
To conclude, it is more than appropriate to encourage everyone to enjoy some ice-cream. If I tweeted, I guess I would now post something like “it’s about time to have the 1st Cherry Garcia of this summer!”