What are the rules for scholarly engagement online? Should there be any? Some of the great things about social media in the past few years have been its leveling effect, its irreverence, and its real-time discussion capability. That last in particular has become handy at conferences with the rise of live-tweeting, where participants create a backchannel discussion or broadcast to those not able to attend the occurrences of a conference. It’s been incredibly helpful and interesting for those of us on Twitter, but there’s also been pushback from non-users about what people may be saying about their work outside their field of vision. So should tweeting have rules?
This year, the Omohundro Institute is offering such a set of recommendations about Twitter etiquette, or, to use the portmanteau, “Twittiquette.” For the record, in my position with the Institute I was involved in the preparation of the guidelines, so I want to offer a little further background on where I came from in trying to think about them. (I also cannot say that I speak for the Institute, the Director, or the Council on this. It’s just me.)
To start, I’m an active user of Twitter, as most of you reading this post already know. I’ve promoted its use for academic engagement, and have thought about ways to use it in the classroom (stay tuned, students). I’ve live-tweeted from conferences and benefited greatly when others did so. I’m sold, in other words, on Twitter and social media.
But I always try to keep in mind that Twitter is a subset of academia, and a relatively small one at that. In my nine-person department, for example, only a few other people have accounts, and they barely use them. So I’m it, for an 11% engagement rate. And I don’t think that’s out of the ordinary for departments—when I was interviewing on the job market, most of the departments that interviewed me would have been making me their first Twitter user. To make a long story short (too late!), there are lots of people who have no idea what goes on there. Many of them are intrigued, well-disposed, or otherwise positive about it, but they nonetheless don’t participate. And yes, some of them are frightened by the technology, worried about collegiality, or concerned that they might be taken out of context (or worse).
The Twittiquette document therefore has several audiences, and by necessity I assume none of them is particularly happy with the result. That does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that it’s the right way to go, as is the mode these days in political journalism. So here are some of my starting assumptions for how we should think about how to improve the proposed guidelines.
- Twitter is good and helpful, and encourages debate and discussion.
- We should start from a place where tweeting is welcomed, encouraged, and assumed to happen.
- Lots of people aren’t on Twitter, and they therefore don’t participate in the conversation that goes on there.
- I want more people to use Twitter.
- I want more people to feel comfortable using Twitter.
- I want more people to feel comfortable about people who use Twitter doing so.
- Conferences are not entirely public spaces, and their audiences are on at least some level a selected group of readers/listeners. (As someone noted in a FB feed about the Twittiquette, people will often circulate papers with written admonitions about citation or quotation.)
- Twitter is a super-public space.
- To people who don’t use Twitter, it can look like the Wild West (even if it’s not, at least most of the time).
- To the extent that we can make the not-Wild West, we should.
I know some people won’t agree with some or all of these provisions, and I hope we can engage in a conversation in various spaces (my Facebook feed seems to be the place to start today). And I firmly believe the Institute’s acknowledgment that the process should be iterative. Only a small circle had seen the document before today, and I want us all to be able to take advantage of the benefits of crowdsourcing (including, however possible, those who don’t use social media). So please share your thoughts, here, on Twitter, on the original OI post, of some other place.
 That includes the stipulation that guidelines are coming one way or another and so the discussion is what they look like.
“That includes the stipulation that guidelines are coming one way or another and so the discussion is what they look like.” Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.
As someone whose Twitter use initially sprung from a different well than the font of academic discourse (my interest in the Scottish Independence Referendum), let me concur that Twitter can feel like the Wild West (or better yet, a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque desert wasteland filled with poisonous critters) in certain contexts. My experiences in that debate have always made me sympathetic to folks who have been reluctant to engage with Twitter.
At the same time, I think *academic* Twitter has been almost wholly a positive for the field, and so I find myself enthusiastically agreeing with the idea that we should encourage greater participation with it and through it. I found the OI’s Twittiquette guidelines mostly anodyne and reasonable, especially the provision that presenters should be able to request that their talks *not* be live-tweeted by those in the audience. If this encourages otherwise reluctant scholars to take more risks and present more unformed arguments in the safe knowledge that their audience is primarily an academic one, than I don’t see much harm in that. But I do think that it should be an active request that someone has to make. An opt-out system here ensures a good balance between the scholarly desire to not be taken out of context and the academic imperative to have our arguments reach as many eyes and ears as possible.
And let’s be frank: scholars often feel they are taken out of context even when they publish extensively-cited articles and monographs. Twitter is merely a more immediate and abbreviated version of that in this case, to my mind.
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