Tweeting at you Live from Console-ing Passions!: The Politics of the Backchannel


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.

My luggage arrived 5 hours later.

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).

I meant “Joan” not “moan”

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.

One tweeter lamented not being able to be at two panels at once.

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 asked another tweeter a question about a point raised in a panel, during the panel…

…and she replied.

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.

My tweet about Friday’s tweet up

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.

My simplified tweet about Marsha Cassidy’s smart, nuanced paper “Betty Vomits: Mad Men, History, and the 1950s Body.” I am sure that this is NOT what she meant.

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:

McPherson responds.

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.

2. Negativity

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.

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18 thoughts on “Tweeting at you Live from Console-ing Passions!: The Politics of the Backchannel

  1. Sing it, girl.

    [Tempted to leave that as my only response, but I figure I’ll elaborate: as a grad student who is entering into the world of media studies from another discipline, backchannels were a huge way for me to get a sense of what was being discussed, how it was being discussed, and what I’ll eventually expect when I get to a conference of my own. While it can certainly be misused, I think the benefits far outweigh any potential harms.]

  2. i definitely agree with your final comment. some people think twittering during panel’s is rude. they should absolutely be encouraged to say that at the beginning of the panel.
    its also funny because i had a strange reaction on reading the tweets after my own panel. on the one hand, i was mildly annoyed that i wasnt able to be involved in the conversation as it happened. on the other, i was able to respond once i sat down with my laptop afterwards.
    and for as much of a tizzy as Tara McPherson’s potentially out of context comment raised, i think the vast majority of tweets did a pretty good job of representing the papers.
    in any case, very nice post and it was great to meet you this weekend!
    m.

    • Mabel it was lovely meeting you too! And I enjoyed your tweets about my panel (though again, it is a little strange to be on the “outside” of that conversation).

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  4. As someone who did not attend Console-ing Passions, I enjoyed following the tweets from across the country, and you have nicely summed up the many positives and few drawbacks of the backchannel. It seems that many in the media studies universe will look back on this conference as one in which the uses, misuses, and etiquette of conference Tweeting were negotiated.

    Regarding your penultimate point, I also appreciated the overwhelming spirit of collaboration and positivity–no doubt an outgrowth of CP’s feminist leanings. In contrast, when following SCMS (which I did attend) on Twitter, I noticed that while the overwhelming majority of tweets were helpful and informative, they were punctuated by one or two Twitterers who took a, shall we say, negative approach toward almost every presentation. And I do wonder if they had the gumption to raise their issues in person or if they were simply and passively using Twitter as a receptacle for complaints. So, you’re spot-on when you suggest that comments, questions, and disagreements should not be relegated solely to the virtual space. Anyway, thanks to you and all of the CP Twitterers!

  5. The haphazardness of the Tweeting makes it wonderful, but also kind of crazy and deeply confusing to follow, I find. I wonder if there are ways for those of us Tweeting conferences to build in a little more strategy, or dare I say regimentation, to the process. For instance, and to offer a very small example of what I’m talking about, if everyone on Twitter put out the 140 ch. (or 280 if you wanted a sequel) summary/teaser of their paper at an agreed-upon time each morning, it could help people decide what to go see.

    And yet, I also wonder how we could use Twitter to ensure we fight a nasty generational divide and a tech-have/have-not divide that Twitter otherwise risks opening up like a sore wound. I love how it offers me access when I’m not there, or extra layers of depth when I am there, but I’m haunted by the absences and by a sense of a whole swath of scholars being unrepresented and unincluded. So how could we work to offset those problems? Ideas anyone? Is there a manifesto for ethical use of Twitter in conferences that anyone could offer?

    • Hi Jonathan
      I agree that some kind of “manifesto” of Twitter etiquette or at least a short list of guidelines is necessary. I decided to write this post after having wildly diverging conversations with conference attendees about the backchannel. Some (like me), thought it was brilliant, and others were very nervous or annoyed by it. I found that these differences were not always demarcated by age–my colleague at ECU, Anna, who is my age (and has commented below), expressed her reservations all weekend long. Her paper was coming up on Saturday and she was worried about how it would be portayed on the backchannel. Other attendees, who have long been tenured, were so excited by the possibilities of the backchannel that they set up a Twitter account that weekend.

  6. Great analysis, Amanda! I’ve come around to the idea of it now, having seen my own panel tweeted. Now I just wish there was some way to read the tweets in order….

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  8. Yes! You do a great job of addressing both the positive and negative aspects of tweeting conferences. I enjoyed the conversation of my own panel on Twitter, but one comment left me frustrated that I could not address it satisfactorily and that it was not mentioned in the q&a. If I wasn’t following the conference on Twitter, I would have missed valuable criticism that truly enriches my project. And isn’t that what presenting papers at conferences is all about? Improving upon our work and engaging in rich discussion?

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but encouraging those tweeting to participate in q&a or engage with the presenters personally is good advice. I also appreciate Gray’s suggestion that panelists summarize their key arguments briefly. Though if misinterpretation takes place after one hears a 15-20 minute presentation, it will surely still surface in a 140 character tweet.

    All that said, following the conference twitter feed was fascinating and certainly stimulated dialogue both online and off. The conference was especially rich this year, which makes me lament that we have to wait two years for another! I feel we could have another conference on the insight and conversation from this one!

    • Yes, I could not agree more. I think a good rule of thumb for live tweeting at a panel is–if you wouldn’t raise this point/question/critique at the Q & A then don’t do it on the twitterstream. Of course, that means I couldn’t raise my hand and say “Betty vomits because she’s an asshole!”

  9. My mistake! There is a 2011 conference…just too far away for little ol’ me! Good news, however, for those able to attend!

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