I didn’t think my foray into academic blogging would begin with what I jokingly dubbed #Twittergate, but in this fast-paced digital age, much is beyond our control. The very question of control animated a conversation about the ethics of live tweeting from conferences on Twitter last night and this morning. If you missed it, check out Adeline Koh’s Storify, “What Are the Ethics of Live Tweeting at Conferences,” and Tressie Cottom’s “An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine” for a primer.
Over the last week, I managed to keep abreast of proceedings at four conferences I couldn’t attend because attendees were tweeting from sessions. While these tweets only provided a small taste of conference sessions, I welcome any opportunity to hear about academic conversations occurring in other spaces. In fact, having attended three MLA Annual Conventions, where a conference backchannel on Twitter is fairly well-established, I simply did not recognize that conference live tweets would be such a source of contention.
The debate over live tweeting at conferences is, in many ways, about control and access: who controls conference space, presentation content, or access to knowledge? These three aspects of the conference experience reveal a host of possible and legitimate complaints about academics who tweet from a panel’s audience: it’s rude, it prevents authentic engagement, it misrepresents the speaker’s words, it benefits the tweeter not the speaker, it disseminates the speaker’s work beyond the enclosed space of the conference room. Yes, live tweeting a panel could be all of these things.
Yet, live tweeting from a conference could be polite, engaged, promotional, and accessible too. As a junior scholar and a woman of color, the relationship between control and access in the academy is never far from my mind. Spaces and people can feel off-limits, and where we can speak, even what we can say, is mediated by the dialectic of control and access. From the perspective of economics, a conference Twitter backchannel allows many of us to access knowledge from conferences we are not able to attend. Moreover, it allows us to make connections and participate in conversations that we are otherwise unable to access. Regarding dissemination, it allows our own presentations to reach an audience beyond conference attendees. This is particularly important for panels that may not be as well-attended as those featuring academic superstars. I also know I’m not the only PhD candidate who has had the opportunity to discuss my work with some of these very superstars simply because they generously engage with us on Twitter. Through the backchannel, we are granted access to spaces and audiences that otherwise might be off-limits to us.
At the heart of the debate about live tweeting from a conference is whether a conference talk is a public conversation. My understanding of “public” is that an audience member should be able to discuss my talk outside the confines of a conference room – whether at a coffee station or on a Twitter feed. Indeed, my hope is that someone would want to talk about my work further. The very nature of public conversation is that we trade control for access, risking misinterpretation for dissemination. The beauty of the Twitter backchannel is that I can participate in that conversation later, while there’s only so much coffee I can drink. I am naturally a bit risk adverse, but this is a risk I’m willing to take.
Certainly, I feel for a scholar who has discovered herself on a Twitter backchannel unaware. So too am I sympathetic for the scholar who finds her talk ravaged by tweets. This is not an argument against a backchannel, however, but argument for further discussion about the ethics and etiquette of live tweeting at conferences. As conference organizers, panel chairs, and academics with strong opinions about conference backchannels, we are the ones who can lead the conversation, strategizing about how we can best balance control and access.