Note: all tweets quoted in this post are mine, unless otherwise indicated.
I just returned from 4 days in Eugene, Oregon for Console-ing Passions 2010, a conference on television, audio, video, new media and feminism. Console-ing Passions (aka, CP) is consistently one of my favorite conferences and dfter 3 ½ months of maternity leave it was invigorating to have some personal and professional time (not to mention 3 great nights of sleep). The panels I attended—from discussions of “post-racial” television to vomiting in Mad Men—were smart and thought provoking. Also smart and thought provoking? The “backchannel” of tweets that documented, augmented and critiqued the various papers over the conference’s three days.
There was much grumbling (at least on Twitter) about SCMS’s lack of Wi-Fi this year and the consequent inability of attendees to tweet at the conference. So there was much rejoicing when CP’s gracious host, the University of Oregon, made sure that all conference participants were given access to the university’s Wi-Fi. The CP home page also provided a hashtag for the conference–#cpuo—which enabled the backchannel to open up as early as Wednesday, the day before the conference started. Various twitterati announced their arrival times and chronicled their (positive and negative) travel experiences.
I live-tweeted through most of the panels I attended—first on my laptop and then, when that battery died, I moved to typing one handed on my old school I-Touch (hence, my many typos, and poor use of punctuation).
Through the first day of tweeting I was delighted to see so many folks who weren’t at CP joining in on in the online conversation. Despite this atmosphere of intellectual exchange, I discovered, over the course of the conference, that many folks at the conference were uncomfortable, and even annoyed, with the Twitter backchannel. Indeed, I believe that the presence of this back channel—and the various responses it provoked in conference attendees—is one of the most interesting discussions to come out of this year’s Console-ing Passions. Here is what people were saying—both for and against—this year’s very rich (and very controversial) backchannel:
The Uses of the Backchannel
1. For those who cannot attend
I was unable to attend this year’s SCMS in Los Angeles but was grateful for the few tweets that were broadcasted over the course of the 5-day conference (I was also an avid reader of Antenna Blog‘s informative daily recaps). I was pleased to see regular film/tv/media tweeters like d_kompare and fymaxwell engaging in the discussions on the backchannel. Sometimes their comments were merely appreciative while others raised useful questions:
2. It enriches the dialogue by multiplying voices
In an ideal world, the comments from absent twitterers, such as the one displayed above, would then be posed to panelists by during the Q & A session. In this way, scholars who are unable to attend the conference can still be a part of the conference dialogue. In fact, some tweeters at CP were able to “virtually” attend more than one panel at a time–by reading the tweets being broadcasted from the various rooms.
3. Extend and invigorate Q & A
Panel Q & A sessions are always rushed, even when panelists keep their papers within the proscribed time limits. What I enjoyed most about the CP backchannel was that the audience was able to have an on-going discussion of the papers, before, during and after the Q & A session.
I also felt that in several instances the tweets helped the twitter community to formulate better questions for panelists. For example, during Thursday’s Mad Men panel there was a lot of talk on the back channel about the papers were not satisfactorially addressing depictions of race and class depictions on the show. These sentiments were bandied about by tweeters and this culminated in one person standing up to ask that very question during the Q & A. This question—and the intelligent responses it provoked from the panelists—ended up being the most interesting (at least for me) part of the Q & A.
4. Digital Archive
Finally, the backchannel offers a flawed/funny/smart/critical archive of the entire conference—from the arrival of panelists in Eugene to the (tipsy) tweets coming out of Friday night’s reception.
Think of it as the most detailed conference recap you can find.
The Misuses of the Backchannel
1. The Complex is Simplified
As all academics know, the less space you are given to make your point (as in a conference proposal), the more simplified your argument becomes. The 140 character limit of Twitter has the potential to transform a subtle, elegant argument into something that is too simple, too binary.
And without the context of the rest of the paper, simplified, isolated tweets can lead to the complete misrepresentation of a speaker’s argument. For example, Tara McPherson’s plenary paper “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination” was subject to a series of engaged and enthusiastic tweets (I am disappointed that I missed this plenary). However, one of McPherson’s statements, made during the Q & A, was retweeted by numerous people:
Some tweeters championed this bold statement while others were troubled. Regardless, McPherson felt that her comment was taken out of context and that she was being somewhat misrepresented on Twitter:
This conversation culminated in a blog post by TV scholar Jason Mittell (who was not able to attend this year’s conference) in defense of Lost studies. McPherson also commented on Mittell’s post, which lead to an interesting conversation about what happens when statements become part of the public discourse. You can read their very interesting exchange in the comments section of Mittell’s blog.
Being misrepresented on Twitter is one thing—indeed, it is par for the course in academia. But being trashed is quite another. I have yet to read the entire #cpuo backchannel, but so far I have not encountered much negativity towards the various panels or panelists. I did encounter moments when a twitterer disagreed with a panelist or had some big questions to ask but I think this kind of tweeting is both healthy and necessary. It only becomes problematic when those disagreements and questions remain in the realm of the virtual, rather than the actual. Be critical and raise questions on the backchannel, but if you do, make sure you raise your hand when the Q & A begins. Otherwise, these comments can become the equivalent of the anonymous Amazon.com book review—difficult to trust because there is nothing at stake in the criticism.
Given how much people enjoy the twitter backchannel (myself included) I believe that it’s presence at conferences is only going to become stronger. Having said that, I do think the twitterverse and the academic community need to work together to come up with a series of protocols governing the use of the backchannel at conferences. Perhaps panelists can request that their work not be tweeted or maybe twitterers should identify themselves at the beginning of a panel so that speakers know when and if their work is being discussed online. But the issue must be addressed to ensure that everyone who presents their work at a conference feels comfortable with the arrangement.
But now I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.