more on conferencing twittering

In the ‘questions and comments’ section of the final plenary at MIT5, David Silver made two comments about how the conference might be improved next time. He presented us with two problems:

1. The incongruity of the conference theme and the conference format. That is, should a conference that was investigating collaborative forms of cultural production and questioning the figures of the cultural ‘expert’ and the author be organised around the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ model of discourse, or should it become more like the thing it studies?

2. Taking advantage of the free wireless, the ‘audience’ was twittering, blogging and surfing too much during sessions and suffering from continuous partial attention, and maybe we needed to learn how to unplug.

Leaving aside the fact that being ‘plugged in’ and in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’ seems an entirely apt description of any good conference I’ve ever been to…

It seemed quite clear to me that the second ‘problem’ is an emergent and entirely rational response to the first one as well as an instantiation of precisely the kinds of ‘media transformation’ we were all busy discussing, describing and questioning. As far as I could see over people’s shoulders, and certainly in my own case, most of the time the twitterers were using their laptops and the internet to annotate, share, get background on, critique, and fact-check the papers they were listening to – and yes, they were also sometimes ‘playing around’ and socialising.

So as far as I’m concerned, on the one hand conferencing twittering, IM-ing, surfing and blogging is a user-led innovation that *amplifies* what is good about an academic conference – massive downloads of information, the collision of perspectives, and the intensive social engagement. On the other, such behaviour represents a material critique of what is not so great – the parallel sessions, the non-interactivity, and the dominance of particular top-down modes of engagement.

Of course, as with any emergent phenomenon, the ethics and most effective applications of these practices are still being worked out, but where they get worked out is in practice.

Why am I blogging this now instead of marching down to the microphone on the day? Well, I was twitching to say all of that at the time, but had an attack of girlish shyness. Which is funny, given that the next comment was from someone (didn’t catch the name) who thought the conference might have been a bit masculinist and that we needed to think about innovative ways of creating access to voice for those who didn’t necessarily have the bravado to engage in antagonistic modes of discourse.

So what I’ve done here is to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by alternative modes of communication to respond without having to stand at the microphone with my heart beating in terror, as she did.

11 thoughts to “more on conferencing twittering”

  1. excellent point, jean.

    (before i forget, i actually made three points: i also said MORE LIBRARIANS!)

    when you say, “It seemed quite clear to me that the second ‘problem’ is an emergent and entirely rational response to the first one as well as an instantiation of precisely the kinds of ‘media transformation’ we were all busy discussing, describing and questioning,” i say, “ahh! true.” i still hold on to my idea that we need to learn to log off (or we need non-neo luddite critiques of technology) but i think your point is spot on.

  2. yes, i forgot the librarians! shame on me, but maybe that’s because I totally agreed with you about that and so didn’t feel like engaging in any antagonism on that point 😉

    and btw, I should admit that at the same time I am more and more engaging in strategies like shutting the lid of my laptop, or even leaving it at home when I really need to concentrate on something that requires deep engagement (like reading articles properly, or making an extended argument in writing) – and it’s interesting that it takes that much effort.

  3. Nice thoughts, Jean. Might we imagine a way that we could build an online parallel conference that harnesses the dispersed threads of “attention” into a shared site? If there had been a conference-wide wiki in place that we all could have been adding to with our blogging & twittering, might that have addressed both of David’s points?

  4. I too have to escape the internet from time to time. But it’s not so easy when all my research for a given topic is in my links or elsewhere online. It can be a struggle to log off the portions of the web that aren’t useful to me, but I think the problem is more in me than in the machine. Hard to say, I guess. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion.

  5. Jason’s idea is a good one, and already tested – at several non-academic conferences the parallel realtime digital archiving notion has already become a reality, and with resources like Campfire, IM, a fairly simple Wiki, and (ugh) Twitter, even a relatively small dept. like MIT CMS could have such a setup. I’m not sold on the merits of such an approach in academia in general, distressed as I am by the unreflective quality of so many panels, but then again this is one mode of distraction that might help more than it hurts. Still…

    On the other, such behaviour represents a material critique of what is not so great – the parallel sessions, the non-interactivity, and the dominance of particular top-down modes of engagement.

    …such behaviour also indicates an unwillingness to do the relatively simple work of paying attention to presentations of months or years of research. All I know is, there were several speakers at MiT5 who were, when they spoke, easily the most interesting thing in the room. Encouraging background chatter often sounds better than it is – or do you encourage Twittering and note-passing in the classroom?

  6. At the Futures of Entertainment event we hosted at MIT in November 06 there was an official request for us to set up some ‘back channel’ IRC chat people in the audience could participate in. FoE was a single stream conference in the Bartos media lab space used for most of the plenaries at MiT5. The way I see it, the twittering that was going on (and I was particpating in) was a naturally occurring version of this request. In addition to twittering, I sat in the plenary sessions logged into the stream in Second Life so I could discuss the points that were made with others while the session was running. Partial attention, yes, but less annoying than leaning over and mumbling to my neighbour. I also found myself turning on Bonjour so I could be discovered by, and discover others attending the conference I didn’t know – it was a little dizzying at times to see people update the rooms and sessions they were attending.

    I think you’re right Jean, that this sort of recording does amplify the intent of academic conferences but it still seems to be a transitional activity. I remember a comment on a live blog of one of the sessions (oh hey, Captain Apocryphl has just joined us) that the number of open laptops in the audience came as a surprise. All the more reason i think Jason’s suggestion for some site where these things can be both centralized and disseminated is a good idea.

    Oh and yes, more librarians please. And more archivists.

  7. Thoughtful counter-points, Jean. I lugged around my MacBook with the intent to liveblog/Twitter, but fell instead back to my original “laptop,” my notebook. This had more to do with the fact that I’d been up crazy late writing my paper the previous two nights than anything else, and was frankly tired of staring at the screen and typing. That said, it also has to do with my own conference habits, which have long involved pen and paper, and a particular kind of (physical) presence. Nothing luddite (neo- or otherwise); it’s just how I swing, I suppose. Hell, I don’t even have an IM account.

    Still, the ginormous point about all this (and it’s been touched on by a number of blogging attendees) is a sort of disconnect between modes of engagement. Perhaps the default humanities conference presentation model (take turns holding forth for 20 minutes, then talk for another 20 or so) is becoming increasingly untenable and even undesirable. I’ve now given enough of them in my career (21. Twenty-friggin-one!) that I have hard time telling them apart. And we all know how hard it is to drag ourselves to any more panels on the last day of every conference we’ve ever attended.

    The Flow conference last fall in Austin was an attempt to disrupt this mode, with mixed results (only once, from my observations, did all of the panellists hold to the “two-minute schpiel” rule suggested by the conference organizers). I’m not entirely sold that the answer is that everyone multitask on their laptops, but since this really is a transitional time, I’m up for trying anything.

  8. jason, I think it’s always a good idea to have some kind of central online ‘place’ that would enable people to connect to the various communication streams that are converging around the conference – by pulling in RSS feeds, maybe? But more and more (especially after the BSG wiki paper!) I think the wiki format is good for a different purpose – collaborative (as opposed to truly collective) knowledge construction. I wonder if aggregating twitters might just create overload and also intimidate people into twittering only well-formed comments for public consumption.

    Wally, given the falling attendance rates at ‘sage on the stage’ lectures at my university, I think most lecturers would just be so grateful they were there that if they were twittering about the lecture they wouldn’t mind. (just, maybe not the lecturer’s bad hair). But seriously, as I said, the ethics and norms for best practice for this kind of stuff are still being worked out, through practice, and through discussions like this one.

    And yes, absolutely, if I’m presented with a complex, well-formed argument based on quality research, I’m going to sit and listen as attentively as I can. And I very often do just that. But also, sometimes, with the aid of a notebook – and as I also said, most of what the twittering people were doing was effectively a form of social notetaking. Do we want to admonish people for taking notes with pen and paper?

  9. Could you expand on the “more librarians”, please? 🙂

    And is anyone reading (or finished reading) Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge?

    CW the Librarian

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