About a week ago, in the between SGA phone calls and Juxta testing, I found myself looking at another digital product: Twitter. In particular, I found myself reading tweets and retweets, blog posts and articles about what has since become known as #twittergate. (I have to take a moment here to thank Annie Swafford, who initially brought the discussion to my attention.) In this ongoing debate, a series of scholars first took to Twitter to express their thoughts about the acceptability of live tweeting academic conferences. (Adeline Koh has created a storyfied version of the tweets here.) Those in the opposition argued that tweeting is rude, that it distracts presenters, and that it makes public ideas and research intended for a limited audience. On the other side of the divide, supporters of such tweets argued that presenting at a conference already makes one’s ideas public, that live tweeting makes great thoughts available to those not able to attend a conference, and that using Twitter takes advantage of digital media to expand – and therefore improve – the academic conversation.
The debate quickly became a prime subject for discussion on multiple blogs and in several articles (see examples here, here, and here). Many of the respondents to these pieces and on Twitter viewed the kerfuffle as – at bottom – a question of scholarly etiquette. What should one do or not do in the company of one’s scholarly peers? How should one comport oneself at conferences, online, or around fellow academics?
For me, however, as a newbie to the digital world and, in relative terms, to the academic world as well, the issue appears to be less about decorum than about scholarly discussion in general.
It would be naïve to say that Twitter is the province of the young, but I find it telling that many of the most invested participants in this discussion are graduate students and junior faculty. For those still making their way into the world of academia, Twitter and other forms of online media can provide a way into a larger scholarly conversation. Unlike traditional print publications, Twitter allows anyone with a phone and a hash tag to comment on and react to scholarly concerns directly, immediately, and in a way likely to be noticed by the community at large. Several commenters have posited that such Twitter users may be self-servingly looking to make a name for themselves either among scholars or with the general public. I would argue, however, that the goal of many young academics is less crafty: we look not to dominate a conversation, but to gain a foothold in it in the first place.
Although an infrequent Twitter user myself, I am privy to the concerns of those struggling to become part of a larger academic community because they are, in many instances, my own. Digital media present us with an opportunity to take advantage of the quickly changing rules of discussion, which are being hammered out in real time, and have not yet cohered in ways that would limit our contributions. To me, then, the question is not about decorum, but about how to support and expand a fruitful conversation.