The Eternal Sunshine of Twitter


I appreciated Day One of the Digital History workshop. Thank you to our instructors, the graduate assistants, and to all my fellow participants. I left with much to think about. One piece that we did not discuss was how Twitter has changed the purpose and nature of academic conferences. I am less concerned about conferences’ social/communal functions, which require people to come together in a physical space for a shared experience. What concerns me, instead, is what it means to have one’s ideas, presented at conferences, tweeted in a much more public, and permanent, context.

I see academic conferences as workshops, where presenters and the audience work together to test out ideas, find their flaws, and refine them. Their purpose is tentative. Is this a workable thesis? Does the evidence really lead to the conclusions that I am drawing from it? What have I missed? This kind of tentative engagement depends on boundaries: the physical boundaries of the conference room, and also the boundedness of the community that hears and comments on my work. It takes trust to try out an idea, especially a controversial one. Conference papers were never anonymous, but it was clear to all that the purpose was to refine and to improve. The published version might turn out very different than the conference version.

Today, I am aware that my comments are tweeted. I was surprised when I learned that my ideas were being translated into one-liners (and my one-liners being repeated!) for a broader, anonymous audience. I became concerned when I realized that I was, in a sense, having my work published without my permission by my colleagues.

I am more aware that what I say in front of a concrete and contextualized group of people at a conference might be published for the world to hear. It is not just that my words might be taken out of context. That is a risk of all publication. It is instead that something that is not publication ready will now be linked permanently to my name. It seems less tentative. And the conference seems less like entering a safe space for exploring ideas, and more a place where one where one’s ideas must be ready for global readers.

Is that what we want to happen? What does that mean for the nature and purposes of conferences? Will it have a silencing impact on new ideas? Will it mean that rough drafts will need to find alternative places for critical peer review? Does it mean that the very nature of publication has shifted?

Of course, conference comments were always, in a way, public. They were spoken before strangers. They were, if one chose, included in conference proceedings. They were shared and even cited. But there was a sense that one was speaking to a discrete group, and that the presentations were amendable in ways that articles/books/chapters were not. Politicians defend the back room as a place out of the limelight where deals can be made, even if it threatens the accountability that comes with sunshine. But if academic work sees the light before it is ready, what does that mean for the culture and nature of academic conferences?

In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen urges democratic citizens to come together in public spaces and to own their words, to talk with each other as adults. The publicity of the public sphere—where speech is decidedly public—takes courage on the part of the speaker, and empathy on the part of the hearer. Yet not all spaces are the public sphere. Is there any distinction worth making between public speech and writings, and what takes place within the bounded physical spaces of a conference room?

In short, does Twitter shut down conversation or enable it? Or better put, what kinds of conversations does Twitter threaten, even if it makes other kinds possible?

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