Bethany Nowviskie

uninvited guests: regarding twitter at invitation-only academic events

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[Subsequently published in Hacking the Academy.]

Over the past several years, I have been privileged both to attend and to help plan a number of invitation-only conferences, institutes, and symposia related to my field, the digital humanities. I use the word “privileged” not because of the exclusivity of these events, but because I know from personal experience how very hard their organizers work to set conditions leading to meaningful experiences and outcomes.

In recent weeks, I’ve attended two private events — UVa’s Shape of Things to Come conference, on scholarly editing and matters of sustainability (#uvashape), and the Re:Enlightenment Exchange (#reenx), a set of dialogues hosted by NYU and the New York Public Library. On Wednesday, I’m heading to another invitation-only gathering, Playing with Technology in History (hashtag TBD: #pastplay?), and we’re gearing up at my shop, the Scholars’ Lab, to host a second round of our NEH-funded training program, the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship (#geoinst) — by application only; deadline long passed. I’m also helping to organize the 8th annual meeting of the Mellon-supported Scholarly Communication Institute this summer (#sci8-to-be).

Most likely, you’re not on our guest list.

Invitation-only gatherings are often designed as specific interventions in a certain scene or sub-discipline, and therefore a lot of care goes into identifying and recruiting participants who are either positioned to make a desired intellectual contribution to the immediate proceedings, or to synthesize and take the work of a group forward after the lights go out in the auditorium. Other events are imagined as learning experiences or sites for advanced training, and participants may be identified (and excluded) based on level of need, or on the relative merit of their applications to attend.

Organizers know — and generally regret — that pragmatic concerns and financial constraints result in the exclusion of a multitude of interesting people and perspectives. Closed events are not crafted with the goal of keeping “the wrong people” out, but of bringing enough (or, more accurately, a manageable number) of the right people in. These things need to be worth the investments they require — both of funds (often quite scarce for humanities undertakings) and other “costs of opportunity” — including the work the organizing group is therefore not engaged in, and the invaluable time and energy of all participants.

But goal-oriented, laser-like focus and a predetermined guest list naturally put an event in danger of over-determined (predictable, excessively conservative, even tedious) conversations and outcomes. This is a risk of which good organizers are conscious and against which they press. The most common way to work within attendance constraints and still leave a crack in the door is to think of invited participants as ambassadors of certain communities. Many symposium attendees will adopt a representative stance even without being asked to, as soon as they realize that they are the only [whatever: literary theorist / material culture expert / digital historian / etc.] in the room. And some moderators will make desired personae explicit. (I use that word deliberately, because this kind of representation is necessarily masquerade, and no-one seriously thinks it compensates for absence — however, ritual and performative aspects of academic interaction are often particularly highlighted at smallish events.)

At the same time, there’s room elsewhere to ramble, and ways to include a broader set of voices. Traditional professional society meetings are rarely closed, but typically finance “openness” through membership and conference fees and — often — by sacrificing the degree of attention to product and coherence that can can be paid at a smaller, more carefully crafted gathering. Or you could build your own conference, on the fly. In our DIY U, Edupunk era, we’re experiencing an explosion of “unconferences.” The premier model in the humanities is THATCamp, which originated at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This is a do-it-yourself digital humanities conference, at which a hat is passed for donations, only the loosest practicable vetting of attendees is done, and participants collaboratively set the discussion and demonstration agenda at an opening session and “vote with their feet” thereafter. That is to say, they take continual responsibility for their own conference experience by freely floating — at any point — to other scheduled sessions or spontaneously creating new sessions that strike them as more useful. (Some of my most productive and stimulating professional experiences of the past few years have taken place at unconferences.) And many events are now streaming passive audio and video live, or experimenting with venues like Second Life and Google Wave as substitutes for the expense of physical presence and embodied interaction. In the past year, I have even unexpectedly “attended” an event or two that combined live-streaming with the DIY sensibility, when a local participant realized the proceedings would be of interest to a larger group, called out, “Anybody mind if I broadcast this?,” and set up a spontaneous Ustream.

And then there’s the pervasiveness of Twitter. Readers will have noticed that the litany of invitation-only gatherings in my second paragraph was punctuated with Twitter hashtags, which are themselves a public invitation to aggregate perspectives and join in conversation. A hashtag is a small piece of metadata, agreed upon by Twitter users informally (by virtue of collective use!) as an appropriate marker for a particular concept or moment. Some hashtags are jokes, some are prayer beads, some are signifiers for emerging perspectives and nascent online communities (see #alt-ac, a topic taken up at #reenx), and some mark Twitter messages as relevant to the discussion at a conference or other event. Each of the hashtag links above will — depending on the ebb and flow of networked conversation — lead you to current or archived tweets stemming from a referenced gathering, or maybe even indicate to you that no-body has been chatting under a particular rubric lately. I’ve taken a variety of approaches in those links, to demonstrate a few ways of accessing Twitter conversations, and to highlight the degree to which tweets are both ephemeral in that they are part of a fairly volatile landscape of protocols and interfaces, and capturable, as part of our cultural record. Whatever you see when clicking on those links is unlikely to be what I saw when I chose to publish them here — and it’s not unlikely that a link or two will break. However, the Twitter back-channel conversation for at least one of those conferences (#uvashape), is to be published by Rice University Press. And the Library of Congress has just announced an initiative to archive the entire Twitter corpus — an amazing resource for future scholars interested in subjects like: international and local reaction to historical events; the emergence of new tools for communication; language change over time and in communities at a variety of scales; the mediation and construction of personal and national identities; or the texture of everyday life in the 21st century.

Twitter has played an important and occasionally transformative role at every academic gathering I have attended since early 2008. It has provided useful (and sometimes surprising) demonstrations, for conference and meeting participants, of the engagement of broad and under-represented communities with issues under debate. It has brought divergent perspectives helpfully into play, sharpening discussion and leading to proposals with broader reach and impact. In a time of dwindling travel budgets, it has allowed key, already well-networked community members to participate in meetings from afar, with little technical overhead and less disruption to their working lives than formal, virtual participation would require through an interface like Second Life.

That participation can take a number of forms.

It might add something to the conversation in the room. This could be a positive contribution, such as the expression of a view, or sharing of a resource. I was able, at the recent Re:Enlightenment Exchange, to bring in a concept relevant to our in-room discussion of 18th and 21st-century financial markets, because Tom Scheinfeldt, who had to leave the meeting early, had linked to it and mentioned the link on Twitter. These contributions might also be salutary in their criticism: an early, acid comment by a non-participant in the Shape of Things conference was introduced into the in-room conversation by Matt Kirschenbaum, with the desired effect of spurring us out of tired patterns and into new areas of inquiry. I have also seen parallel discussions emerge, in which the majority of interlocutors are not present at the meeting. Steve Ramsay has become famous for provoking these at digital humanities conferences, beginning with a conversation during a critical code studies panel at #dh09. Some friendly jokes I made about the under-representation of women at one invitation-only event resulted in a partnership with Bill Turkel that later brought a soft circuits workshop to a regional THATCamp. Twitter hashtags also permit face-to-face discussions to continue, by providing a coherent and lasting identity for a transitory event (such as #geoinst, the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship, which has come to be known by its hashtag). Twitter provides a mechanism for users to refer back to important conversations or to weave threads together from multiple, related gatherings.

Twitter also allows invited conference-goers to spread a wealth of ideas being voiced behind closed doors. These ideas are shared with established but evolving networks, which (at the conferences I attend — but every one is different) largely consist of students and colleagues in higher ed and in the worlds of academic publishing, libraries, museums and archives, information technology, and humanities centers, labs, and institutes. I have seen Twitter use at academic conferences promote valuable exchange among university and k12 educators, and contribute to and demonstrate value in the public humanities in an immediate and tangible way. If Twitter itself — as commonly used by academics — operates as a gift economy, then conference hashtags are little beacons of that generosity.

But it’s not all sunny in closed-conference-open-Twitter-land.

I’m writing this essay because of two, conflicting tensions, which are commonly expressed by both sets of my interlocutors — sometimes even simultaneously — in online and face-to-face communications during private conferences. The voice from Twitter cries: “Elitism! Hypocrisy! How can you be discussing [pick your poison: the public humanities, the future of scholarly communication, the changing nature of the disciplines] in a cloister? Who are these privileged few? And why weren’t we all invited to attend?” (To be fair: in my experience, messages of thanks to those who have tweeted, for broadcasting the ideas of the gathering to a wider audience, far outweigh any complaints — but a strident complaint or two, often from colleagues from sadly under-funded institutions, is invariably present.) It is to the complaining Twitterati that I have addressed my long preamble on the aims and necessary limitations of smaller gatherings. Sorry, guys — really. It’s usually about the money and the focus, but sometimes it’s even because they couldn’t manage to book a larger room.

And of course my lengthy disquisition on Twitter was meant to level the playing field for those senior colleagues (yes, this divide is largely generational) who have not engaged with Twitter and who have indicated to me how troubling they find its use in academic settings. For it is the anti-Twitter reproach from within the conference room that I most want to address.

I suspect conference followers and participants on Twitter — whose presence Margaret Atwood likens to “having fairies at the bottom of your garden” — have no idea how magically disruptive they are. If they sense it, they may still be surprised at the character of that disruption. Several times now, I have heard the technology the Twitter community embraces and explicitly figures as democratizing and personalizing described in terms of alienation, invasion, and exclusion. These face-to-face conversations about Twitter are so fraught that delicacy cannot accord with 140-character limitations, and therefore they do not make it into the online record. Sometimes, indeed, they only come in a private, kindly-meant word over drinks or in shared taxi-cabs after the Twittering has ceased. Other times it gets heated and publicly awkward.

Five problems with Twitter use at closed gatherings have been expressed to me:

The first is dismay that its application was not evident to everyone from the outset of the event. A small group of us deliberately heightened this response at a recent gathering, when we (who had been invited to talk about the patterns of activity common to digital humanists and alternative academics, and the institutional implications of their activity) decided to “pull the curtain” on a hashtagged Twitter conversation that had been going on unnoticed by the majority of the fairly traditional scholarly crowd. The criticism is fair, that Twitter changes a conference dynamic in ways that may be invisible to some participants. The possibility of its presence probably should be addressed at the outset of closed conferences for a little while, in order that any requested ground-rules can be discussed and agreed upon, and to make participants aware of the option to engage. (Some professional societies (#mla09) and membership organizations (#cni10s) have begun promoting Twitter hashtags or even publicizing them well ahead of a conference event.) Regardless, you can basically assume that if people have open laptops or handheld devices at a gathering, and still seem alert, they’re note-taking or tweeting — not reading email or playing games. At least, not much.

The second issue is related: a feeling that Twitter use is exclusionary. At the outset of a closed conference, some people may have access to it and others may not. I have figured Twitter as a democratizing medium; however, participation in it is not universal. For most people in academic settings, this a choice. Because accounts are free and easy to set up, the only reason you can’t rapidly remedy the problem, if you wish to, is that you may lack a laptop or smartphone. When you first set up your account — especially if you do so in the middle of a rapid-fire exchange — you are likely to be a little inept and lost. This is a sinking feeling you might recall from your early days of grad school, or your first academic conference. It passes quickly, as you learn the lingo and cultural codes.

Next comes the concern that Twitter damages one’s ability to engage and converse in the room, or that it lowers the level of discourse. Attentional demands may be a problem for some, as Twitter use is a learned skill. (Personally, I am better at it this year than last.) As to the latter issue, I will address only deliberate rudeness, because I worry that statements about “lowered discourse” are simply code for “discourse with people not like me,” and suspect that no arguments of mine will shake the foundations of that view. A recent essay by danah boyd exposed rudeness in backchannel chatter as a real concern, with immediate and dreadful implications for speakers at popular conferences. But it is important to say that Twitter use does not inherently promote inattention or bad behavior. And I’ve never witnessed a nasty backchannel in an academic setting — where we generally do share notions of fairness and propriety. More frequently, there’s a little lag between the themes expressed in a Twitter conversation and the topics being discussed in the room, which can cause participants to divide their attention, but which can also evolve as an interesting counterpoint to later discussions.

Privacy concerns related to Twitter use at closed gatherings are a real issue. Often the greatest virtue of an invitation-only event, for participants who represent administrative units or high-profile organizations, is the opportunity to speak a little more candidly than they can in public. In my experience, Twitter users are sensitive to these moments and either moderate their observations and reportage accordingly or refrain from tweeting at all. If, as it seems, we are moving into a period in which always-on, networked communication becomes the norm, even at private academic events, it is the responsibility of participants to remain sensitive to desires for confidentiality or discretion — and, in the moment, speakers may need to make these desires a little more plain.

Finally, the need for privacy is not the same as a wish for control. I am fairly unsympathetic to an ownership frustration I have heard from a small number of scholars, manifesting as a desire that ideas they express at conferences — even well-attributed — not be circulated via Twitter. I have come to understand that this concern stems less from a kind of proprietary interest over the ideas (that is to say, it is less a matter akin to copyright), than from a sensation of the loss of control. The level of control we used to feel over the distribution and reception of scholarly statements was only ever an illusion made possible by the small scale and relative snail’s pace of print publication. It was also enabled by authority systems that — while they have performed a salutary function of filtering and quality assurance — are under scrutiny in an age of electronic text, because of their incongruence, economic instability, and cumulatively stifling effect.

One manifestation of this lack of control is the acknowledged “telephone game” of Twitter — the degree to which repetition with a difference can lead to partial or missed understandings. And sometimes offhand, minor points that slip right past the sanctioned, face-to-face conversation can make it big online. That’s human interaction, for you. The Twittering fingers tweet, and having tweeted, twitter on. Or live-blog, or take notes in wikis, et cetera. And although it can be helpful when speakers are plugged in enough to be able to influence conversation in both offline and online streams (not even necessarily simultaneously), it is simply folly to think that we can control what’s being said about us on the Internet. That was never what scholarly communication was about, anyway.

I’d offer three strategies to address concerns about the immediacy of Web publishing of conference proceedings via Twitter:

The first is something we’re always doing anyway: simply working to express our ideas as clearly as possible in the room, and to listen actively for feedback that may suggest misunderstanding or lack of conveyed nuance. Good luck with that (sincerely!).

Perhaps a more implementable suggestion for speakers and conference participants concerned about these matters is that they publicly request their names not be attached to tweets or blog posts. This strikes me as most valid when it touches on issues of privacy and confidentiality — but be aware that when your name is used on Twitter, it is likely done in an innocent spirit of attribution. If your ideas are cited, chances are good that the writer approves of them and wishes to lend you a microphone, or at least that he or she thought your statements interesting and worthy of further discussion. If, on the other hand, your perspective is represented in a critical way and you are cited as its source, it’s probably because you are known to be on Twitter and presumed to be as able to defend yourself there as elsewhere. In other words, I have heard some anxiety expressed about personal attack, but — while contentious conversations have been opened up on Twitter in a familiar spirit of academic debate — I cannot recall ever seeing a specific (much less ad hominem) hostile response to a colleague who lacks a presence on Twitter or might be thought defenseless in that medium. There’s not a lot of passive aggression in an environment that trades on professional identity, necessarily precise language, clear attribution, and open exchange.

Most of what I’ve said is relevant to public as well as invitation-only academic events — but the turmoil around conference use of Twitter over the past year has seemed most acute at private gatherings. It clearly relates to the ethos of the academic Twitter demographic — mostly consisting of tech-savvy, early-career scholars or #alt-ac professionals — and the expectations and longstanding traditions that inhere in private events. Invitation-only meetings often involve more established scholars and administrators who have put in their dues under a very different set of academic protocols and for whom networked communication is important, but not necessarily ever-present.

These groups need to find ways to move forward together within the new norms of scholarly communication, and in a way that enhances shared work and promotes meaningful interconnectedness. Which brings me to the final strategy I’d suggest we all adopt: simply to (continue to) participate.

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26 Responses to “uninvited guests: regarding twitter at invitation-only academic events”

  1. Jo Walsh
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 8:02pm

    As someone fairly new both to Twitter and to alt-ac i found this usefully insightful – thanks, Bethany.

    I was surprised to see “formal” invite-only events circulating among colleagues. You explain well the desire to hyper-focus on specific areas with a selected group. Is there a scale issue here – selection would be unremarkable in a workshop of 20 people or less, but surprising in a conference of 50 or more?

    Great if you can be clear about the selection and why it’s important to the effort. Less so if participants are picked because they have a certain status and history, where others in their research group or institution might contribute or connect more, or give more back to their colleagues and others via twitter, blogs etc.

    As even invite-only academic conferences are as clear about “fairness and propriety”, “necessarily precise language, clear attribution, and open exchange” then both participants and observers can only gain by having their ideas discussed, challenged and strengthened.

  2. Jim Groom
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 9:36pm

    I’m not sure twitter really puts us at conferences (or even gives us access to it) as much as some may suggest, just like I’m not sure Twitter really moves the conversation as much as it advertises it. A perfect example is your comment stream of re-tweets, just looking at it kind of suggests the power of twitter as an advertisement and promotion medium—but their also seems very little conversation around it. I guess this gets saved for the invitation-only conferences that we can all experience by twitter proxy :)

    But when you think about it, when I have several peoples in my network saying READ THIS! READ THIS! (and after reading it the push is certainly well-deserved) I have very little discourse and conversation around the topic. Who is re-blogging it, tracking back, actually interacting with the idea rather than pushing them back out. I hate when I get annoyed by these things because I start to sound like an old man when it comes to twitter, but at the same time your post demands some more involved discussion and thought rather than serial retweets. And I wonder where twitter fits in here, I’m not necessarily a twitter hater, I use it regularly, but at the same time I see the means through which an inside/outside congeal around this technology and the idea of networks become closer to clubs that promote one another. All that said, I know there is no one way to use twitter, and everyone has their own agenda and that makes sense, but I still bemoan a bit of what twitter has done to blogging and commenting—even though I know it is an untenable position.

    Anyway, here is to bucking the retweet trend in your comment thread :)

  3. Gardner Campbell
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 9:43pm

    Brilliant. Thank you.

    I do hope the emerging alt.academic scene doesn’t become another site for coolhunting, High Theory, and black-leather in-groupness. Unfortunately, the private conferences can lend themselves to a self-reinforcing A-List of academic celebrity du jour. That particular dragon always has one eye open. Cf. an important new book by Grant McCracken, “Chief Culture Officer.”

    That said, once again, brilliant and eloquent post–and thanks.

  4. Gardner Campbell
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 9:59pm

    A postscript:

    I keep hoping the digital humanities movement will recognize and celebrate the power it holds to disrupt–usefully disrupt–higher education itself. Sometimes I come awake at night worrying that the whole thing could collapse into another moment of conspicuous academic self-congratulation. Perhaps I’m simply feeling less a part of these discussions than I’d like to be–or perhaps it’s a larger fear that the discussion will inevitably turn into a new version of the worst experiences of grad school and the profession itself.

    At any rate, Twitter’s democratization brings in not only those academics (alt or otherwise) who weren’t invited, but also those whose voices exist in other spheres of intelligence and thoughtful analysis outside of academe. Doug Engelbart, the father of interactive computing (and one of the wisest and boldest of computing philosophers), abandoned the idea of entering academia after earning his Ph.D., as the entire system seemed design to thwart (or ignore, or deride) the goal of augmenting human intellect.

    Night thoughts, to be sure. I hope they’re helpful.

  5. JHoward
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 10:32pm

    Really thought-provoking post, Bethany. I’m wondering whether the problem some people have with Twitter at conferences isn’t akin to the problem they have with unfamiliar forms of scholarship: It seems both unserious and threatening at the same time and they don’t quite know what side of the tracks it comes from. For instance, I recently had a conversation with a source who wanted to dismiss conference comments shared via Twitter as “gossip”–even comments made in a public Q&A exchange after a panel. As a reporter, I don’t consider the Twitter stream from a conference the only or most authoritative record of that conference, and it can’t substitute for other kinds of coverage and analysis, but it adds a dimension that the old ways of sharing and commenting on such proceedings lacked.

  6. Mark Sample
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 10:53pm

    @Jim Groom – I appreciate what you mean about the “comment stream of re-tweets.” As you point out, listing retweets and referrals from Twitter in a list of blog comments “suggests the power of twitter as an advertisement and promotion medium” instead of highlighting the possibly democratic and dialogic nature of Twitter.

    I can appreciate these points because I’m using the same WordPress plugin (BackType Connect) on my own blog that Bethany uses here. My own readers have pointed out the irony of a list of seemingly mindless retweets on a post all about new forms of academic publishing.

    But the fact that this stream of Twitter posts comes from a simple plugin that can be turned on and off in a jiffy suggests to me that it’s misleading to call these tweets advertisements or promotions. At the very least, they count as referrals, which are on the whole much more honest than what you’d find on Digg, Stumbleupon, etc.

    But I’d go even further and argue that all these referrals provide a great deal of information. Since they link to the original tweets, there’s a sense of provenance, as well as a significant metadata to work with. You can observe that there are three major parallel retweet streams, which suggests something about networks and fragmented audiences. You can see that quite a few Twitterers actually forgo the retweet button and preface Bethany’s URL with their own insight or annotation. And you can click the icon on the top of the page to end up at BackType’s own aggregation of the conversation generated by the post, which includes comments from Twitter as well as other major social networking sites.

    Yes, it’d be wonderful if more readers left actual comments. These will always push along the conversation more than a 140-character aside will. But I don’t want to disregard the power of Twitter to serve as a Renaissance manicule, pointing to interesting moments in a text (Kari Kraus suggested this manicule idea, appropriately enough, on Twitter).

    Twitter is like any media form, trending toward tedium and duplication (just as our academic conferences do, as Bethany argues). But I still think Twitter offers more affordances—flexibility, agility, transparency, openness—to escape the trend than most media forms, especially the forms academics rely upon.

  7. Scaring Off The Grad Student Twitterati « Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style
    on Apr 25th, 2010
    @ 11:01pm

    […] was being live-Tweeted, and that that phrase, no matter the context ,would read as incendiary.  As Bethany Nowviskie points out, most of those critiqued on Twitter at academic conferences are also *present* on Twitter and able […]

  8. Jim Groom
    on Apr 26th, 2010
    @ 11:05am

    I just looked up manicule and hand no idea it was that little hand that points out the important parts of a text, and I can see here that these pointers are in many ways referring us to an important post. I definitely see the potential and power of Twitter as a recommendation engine, and I knew when I pushed publish that my initial comment may come off as ornery. And like you note, I enjoy Twitter for the mundane and quotidian conversations, and I came here as a result of all those retweets.

    At the same time something Bethany suggests in this post kind of scares me about how we see this different forms of media more generally—rather than Twitter specifically—and that is the professional nature of these publishing tools. How they are increasingly becoming a way to frame our professional identities and place us within a group/community/network (I know I am conflating these terms unfairly) that is driven by our professional interests. I am increasingly balking at the idea of professionalizing these spaces because I was hoping one of the results of twitter might enable us to rethink professionalization. And this is not to say it can;t, but the more I see it used a a promotional tool, the more the issues of self-selecting networks, groups, crowds begins to ape some of the same issues we claim is ossifying traditional publishing. In other words, the codification of these networks and their relationship to texts and the promotion of them seems to reproduce much of the old dynamics we suggest these media are reinventing. Gardner’s comment starts to point to how we are thinking digital humanities in a manner that is specifically academic, and I think the manicule of the retweets here would go a long way to reinforce that point.

    And to be fair, I seem to be having my own struggles with this idea of professionalizing these social media, and quantifying the impact it has on one’s career. Twitter started for me in March of 2007 as an intimate series of personal relationships versus what it has become (of my own doing) hundreds of professional contacts. Fact is, the more Twitter has become a space for professional contacts, loose relationships, and more generalized networking a la Facebook, the more its impact has eluded me. And don’t get me wrong, the professional contacts, recommendations, and relationships I have made there have been more than good to me, and I have personally benefitted greatly as a result. At the same time I think I am overly sensitive to using this space as one for promotion, closing ranks, and generally controlling the message rather than being controlled by it, or at least within it.

    Makes me wonder how much the idea that the LOC will not archive all tweets will subtly change the dynamic of how we think and use twitter constantly know this is an historical record (or as you noted on twitter, a literary one). Out of just about every service I have used over the last five or six years I have constantly had the most strained and painful relationship with twitter due to the facet, as Bethany notes, that “share notions of fairness and propriety” often make this space far less interesting. And, more than that, criticism of moves (like say Profhacker to the Chornicle) becomes mute because everyone is afraid and mindful of proriety. This is where the network breaks down for me, the idea of owning the mean of production and controlling one’s voice outside these networks and larger media spaces seems far more important in my mind then one’s professional profile. And I have done just about everything I can to damage my profile in an attempt to let go of prorpity that, while having its place, often times puts us in ours.

  9. Amanda French
    on Apr 28th, 2010
    @ 9:47am

    Yikes, now I want to contribute to the meta-conversation about Twitter and professionalization almost more than I do to the post, and the moving finger of my increasingly hectic professional life has moved on, so that I’ve forgotten what my original responses were.

    So, Jim — yes, Twitter has become far more professional than it used to be, and what I post to Twitter has therefore changed a lot, and I mourn that a bit. Basically I keep all my complaining to offline fora, though I try to limit even that, on the principle that everyone’s just doing their best and I need to practice compassion and understanding.

    But the thing is that Twitter created a professional network for me that I never had before, so I forgive it its professionalizing tendency. Twitter is more proper and professional than it used to be, yes, but conferences are *less* proper and professional than they used to be because of Twitter. And I think that’s good. It’s absolutely a note-passing technology, and the brave among us do use it to criticize that needs criticizin’.

    I need to think hard and long about what you’ve been saying about excessive propriety and disciplinary self-congratulation, though, Jim. I’m particularly prone to both.

  10. Boone Gorges
    on Apr 28th, 2010
    @ 11:28am

    @Jim – Bethany’s “share notions of fairness and propriety” caught my eye too, and I think it’s interesting that you make the connection with the kinds of behavior on Twitter that you mention (criticism of ProfHacker moving the Chronicle to be specific). You seem to position the tension as one that emerges at the intersection of Twitter as a “proper” space and the kind of radical individualism that you champion. I see it slightly differently.

    Twitter isn’t really a “proper” space. Twitter is instead an *open* space, where ‘open’ is intended along several vectors. For one thing, it’s open because anyone can read your tweets. By extension, one can track certain keywords as they’re mentioned on Twitter, as I’m sure the ProfHacker folks follow words like ‘ProfHacker’. As a result, you can know at an instant when someone’s talking about you. This first type of openness makes possible a second type: a kind of attribution and cross-referecing culture that makes academics drool. Mechanisms like retweets and @-mentions allow the writer to alert others when they’re being referenced. Taken together, you have a space where everyone can hear everything, and there are decent filters for finding the stuff that interests you.

    The problem of Twitter that Jim is alluding to is less that it’s becoming professionalized than that the radical openness and hyper-audibility of Twitter makes traditional distinctions between personal and professional networks far more porous. What’s uncomfortable about this is that we don’t have the social tools, mores, conventions to deal with the merged network. We have ingrained and long-standing (though largely unspoken) rules about what can be said over a beer after a conference, and the extent to which it’s permissible to loop that conversation back into a more public one. But when Jim challenges PH’s move to the Chronicle (just to stick with the example) in the unified space of Twitter, and George bristles, it’s hard to know which set of rules to fall back on: the over-a-beer rules that say to push the envelope because we’re friends, the conference panel rules that say not to push a question too hard when it’s obvious that it’s a personal sore spot for someone, or whatever.

    I’m skeptical that moving the conversation to personal blogs is going to solve the problem, as Jim suggests. Just because you own the infrastructure of your personal space (to whatever extent you actually do, but that’s another matter) doesn’t change the fact that the kind of openness I describe above – where public really means public, and everyone can hear everything – is coming. Because Twitter is a single service (and can maintain its own internal search, etc), it’s emerging there first. But when people can monitor the whole web like they monitor keywords in a TweetDeck column, the Bava will be functionally like a Twitter account in terms of its openness. The need for social conventions doesn’t go away just because it’s “your space”.

  11. Briefly Noted for April 28, 2010 : Found History
    on Apr 28th, 2010
    @ 9:08pm

    […] "Uninvited Guests" — As I tweeted when it was first posted, Bethany Nowviskie’s “uninvited guests: regarding twitter at invitation-only academic events” is “*the* must-read Twitter-at-conferences post.” But it’s more than that, of course. It’s […]

  12. Jodi Schneider
    on May 15th, 2010
    @ 1:24am

    Thanks, Bethany, for shining a light on some of the discussions and difficulties!

  13. Managing the Backchannel in the Classroom | Hack Education
    on Jun 29th, 2010
    @ 10:18pm

    […] Nowviskie, “Uninvited Guests“: This post examines how Twitter can enrich and disrupt “closed” conversations. […]

  14. Gardner Campbell
    on Aug 27th, 2010
    @ 1:15pm


    Still hoping to find you engaging the comments here. Your tweet today linking to that dismal (and largely accurate) piece on academic publishing has many connections to what’s been said here, in your post and in the comments. For me, the questions have more to do with attitudes toward professionalization (the “academy” that’s really a largely self-certifying business, not that that’s always bad) and ideas of learning, education, and knowledge construction than they do with the ironic contrasts between academic book markets and more general-readership markets. The two are connected, of course, but it’s really the underlying attitudes and assumptions I’m interested in thinking about at this point. And that brings me back to this post, and this comment stream, and the question of civility within a context of humility and honesty and real curiosity (not just scanning for info relevant to one’s own career path).

  15. eternal september of the digital humanities « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Oct 15th, 2010
    @ 12:04pm

    […] centered around colleges and universities, a large influx of new students each September had disruptive effects on its established, internal standards of conduct, or netiquette. About thirty days in, newbies had […]

  16. English Major 2.0 - ow English Majors Think: About Boundaries and Codex Space, For Example
    on Nov 15th, 2010
    @ 11:23pm

    […] gives us an example of what this means. She raises questions about privacy and authority in “uninvited guests: regarding twitter at invitation -only academic events.” In the post, Nowviskie considers the phenomena of tweeting at closed academic events. […]

  17. Weekend Reading: Athena Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
    on Feb 20th, 2011
    @ 10:10am

    […] on Twitter at conferences: First, Bethany Nowviskie, on Twitter at posh, invite-only conferences, and then Anne Helen Petersen on “celebrity gossip, academic […]

  18. Session Proposal: Building a Better Backchannel » THATCamp CHNM 2011
    on May 20th, 2011
    @ 2:21pm

    […] questions, dissent, and amplification, usually taking place in real-time (but not always real-place) on Twitter. Even scholarly conferences that are not strictly digital, such as the Modern Language […]

  19. Building a Better Backchannel (THATCamp Report) - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
    on Jun 13th, 2011
    @ 11:02am

    […] questions, dissent, and amplification, usually taking place in real-time (but not always real-place) on Twitter. Even scholarly conferences that are not strictly digital, such as the Modern Language […]

  20. N I N E S - News
    on Oct 12th, 2011
    @ 11:05am

    […] humanists have of course found academic uses for Twitter, and might take exception to this particular example. But Pinker’s larger point is an accusation […]

  21. Twitter in universities – update | Goldsmiths Learning & Teaching News
    on Nov 22nd, 2011
    @ 12:21pm

    […] Bethany Nowviskie regards Twitter at invitation-only academic events, Brian Croxall’s post on the absent presence, and opinions on Twitter at conferences (all from Hacking The Academy). Some ideas for using the Twitter backchannel during your conference presentation. […]

  22. Open-Thread Wednesday: Best Practices for Live-Tweeting at Conferences? - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
    on Oct 3rd, 2012
    @ 10:01am

    […] the concerns of #Twittergate have made for intense debate, many of its issues are not new. Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie) blogged about using Twitter at invitation-only events in 2010 in a blog post that was later […]

  23. Twitter and Safe Academic Spaces | Words Are My Game
    on Oct 13th, 2012
    @ 8:25am

    […] for starters: Yes. Yes we are. Just because this isn’t a new topic (and posts by Bethany Nowviskie, Ernesto Priego, Jay Rosen, Kelli Marshall, and J.J. Cohen illustrate exactly that) […]

  24. A proverbial storm (now complete with links!) | For lack of wit
    on Feb 4th, 2014
    @ 9:49am

    […] of questions on how to feel about tweeting at invitation only events (such as conferences, here’s at least one opinion on it). For someone who doesn’t use twitter, it was an interesting quandry to […]

  25. Digital Humanities and Your Brain | Patrick C. Fleming
    on Aug 20th, 2014
    @ 8:07am

    […] humanists have of course found academic uses for Twitter, and might take exception to this particular example. But Pinker’s larger point is an accusation […]

  26. Week Four – reading summaries | Digital Humanities as Critical Theory and Critical Practice
    on Jun 13th, 2015
    @ 5:26pm

    […] (Links to an external site.) […]

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.