Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Tweeting conference sessions: it's not all about the tweets

The recent kerfuffle about twittergate asks some questions that have come up at Chez Undine and other blogs after the 2011 MLA Conference:

  • Is it rude to tweet someone's remarks at a conference? [I don't think so.]
  •  If so, is that because of the content of the tweets or the distraction of having someone sitting there tapping away while the presenter is talking? [Distraction.]
  • Is there an expectation of privacy at a conference session? [Hmmm. Yes and no, but read the comments, such as Mark Sample's, at IHE.] 
Kathleen Fitzpatrick weighs in with some sensible advice: respect the speaker's preferences, but do tweet if possible, being careful to distinguish your ideas from the speaker's words.

This is all sound advice, but it misses something that those who are upset about tweeting (and I'm not, for the record) don't see. After watching this phenomenon at a few rounds of conferences over the past couple of years, where some sessions were tweeted and some not, I can tell the upset presenters this:  having someone tweet your session is a compliment, since only the sessions that tweeters consider to be cool or interesting will be tweeted at all.  It's like being a musician and having a non-satiric Weird Al Yankovic pick your song to record. 

That was hugely apparent at the last MLA, when during some sessions several tweeters would come in and sit at the back tables reserved for them while at other sessions those tables sat empty except for the discarded water glasses of a previous session.  

There's an interesting dynamic at work, I think: genuine curiosity about certain subjects makes people want to tweet those panels, but in watching the tweets and the tweeters, I also sensed an air of reclaiming the conference and reconfiguring it in a different way, establishing an alternative hierarchy to the more traditional groups of old-guard scholars  and creating a community through tweets.

I could be entirely wrong about this, but focusing on the act of tweeting may be looking too narrowly at the subject. There's a complex culture of tweeting behavior at conferences that would make a great study for some sociologist or anthropologist. 


CarlD said...

"I also sensed an air of reclaiming the conference and reconfiguring it in a different way, establishing an alternative hierarchy to the more traditional groups of old-guard scholars and creating a community through tweets."

And I think this is really astute. So we can read back the defense of that traditional hierarchy off the negative reactions to tweeting, but in a broader sense see this as a typical generation-gap effect, and in a broader sense still just notice that each new turn of the techno-cultural wheel creates a threatening dynamic of deprivileging and anomie for the gurus of the old way.

undine said...

Thanks, CarlD, but I think you just said it better.