Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MLA 2011 and the Great Twitter Debate

First, go read the great post and comments over at Roxie's World about the role of Twittering at the recent MLA. Go ahead; take your time. You'll be glad you did.

It seems to me that Twitter does three things really well.
  1. In normal times (i.e., not during a convention) it points you to other media and allows the Twitterer to promote him or herself in a gentle way: "Go read my blog post! My article! This link!"
  2. In normal times, it conveys external news along with approval/disapproval/excitement about something that's currently happening: "Go read this article! Can you believe that a politician said this?"
  3. In conference times, it's a way of collectively live-blogging a session that conveys some of the excitement and ideas of the session.
The debate over Twitter is about the last one of these. There's too much to condense, but here are some of the questions raised, with apologies in advance for overstating some complex issues:
  1. Did the preponderance of tweets from digital humanities sessions create a sense that those were more exciting sessions that the ones that didn't get covered?
  2. Did the fact that the tweeted sessions seemed to dominate the news coverage skew the sense of what was happening elsewhere at the convention?
  3. Are some sessions just more tweetable than others, or do people at the untweeted sessions need to get with the program and (there are hints of this among the comments) be less stodgy?
  4. Alternately, you know those bumper stickers that say "Hang up and drive"? There are some comments that suggest that tweeters put the computer away and just listen.
  5. Finally (and this is a contentious one), does the tweeted/nontweeted session divide create another category of insiders and outsiders?
As someone who was there, went to sessions, and read the Twitter stream, I'm of several minds about this. On one hand, it was exciting to see commentary going on in real time, although I wondered in some of those sessions whether the presenters were disturbed by seeing people staring at laptop screens instead of at the front of the room--and whether others in the row were disturbed by the clack of keys. (Probably not.) It was also exciting to see accounts of presentations I didn't get to see because of commitments elsewhere.

On the other hand, in some sessions, the papers were so amazing and complex (yet eminently listenable) that I could barely take adequate notes on them; a tweet couldn't possibly have done them justice. This is not to say that papers that can be tweeted are too simple; I'm just agreeing with Roxie's typist's point:"Still, I admit to thinking that some of what is untweeted is really untweetable -- Certain kinds of presentations, certain modes of argument simply don't lend themselves to that kind of quick and dirty distillation, and I don't think that's bad." Sometimes, you're just sitting there in an intellectually stimulating stream of good ideas, and you just have to let your mind go with them.

So: Twitter at MLA-- yea or nay? It depends. It was great for what it did, but I don't think we can ignore the reservations that Roxie's World has specified, and I don't think the answer is necessarily "more Twitter for all!" To pull out one of my hoary old blog mantras, one technology or medium isn't going to work for everything, and expecting it to be useful in all situations (like those of the complex listen-only papers) is to strain it beyond what it can usefully do.

And anyway, you know that someone will sooner or later tweet a message to announce where the full version of those listen-only papers has been published. That's the power of Twitter.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Thanks so much for the link and for carrying on the conversation, Undine. We seem to have touched on something with this issue that folks are interested in and conflicted about, I suppose because we are still deeply uncertain about the ways in which new techno tools are changing our work lives and our relationships. All I can say is that if Twitter has fueled this much discussion, it can't be all bad!

Anonymous said...

I was bothered by the clacking keys during presentations, but I also valued the tweets. So what to do. Quiet keyboards have a ways to go, but could do the trick.

undine said...

Thanks, Roxie SL! Your post articulated a lot of things I'd thought but hadn't been able to put together in a coherent way.

Natorim--good to know! Maybe iPads will help? Typing on a screen doesn't make any noise, but maybe that will be distracting in its own way.