I’m not going to the big medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo this year (actually, I’ve never been, but that’s another post). In the past, I’ve followed along with the few relevant sessions with more and less attention and interest and fury via audience members live-tweeting the talks; that is, reporting, with varying degrees of skill, on what has been said by the speaker. There is a presumption of live-tweeting at the big medieval conferences; that is to say that the general consensus in medieval social media is that speakers who don’t want their talks live-tweeted must actively opt out. I’ve never liked that formulation, but I’ve found that in the last year it has made me increasingly queasy as I have followed conferences through that medium that I could not attend in person.
So I’m opting out of opt-out live tweeting: I will no longer follow the Twitter stream of live-tweeted conferences; ideally, I would go as far as to say that I will not knowingly participate in conferences where opt-out live-tweeting is the norm, although I don’t know how practical a stance that is. If nothing else, I’m curious about the value of putting an opinion that runs counter to the prevailing culture out there. Is it possible I’m not the only one who doesn’t like the current state of affairs?
To begin, a caveat: I’m Twitter friends/colleagues with several people who have written in defense of opt-out live-tweeting, and I like and respect them; we just disagree on this particular issue.
As much as Twitter has become a fairly standard, fairly mainstream part of the academic toolkit, there’s still a huge generational divide. Even if any given conference has an official hashtag, there’s still a certain segment of the audience who are just going to think you sound idiotic for starting out a paper mentioning Twitter in order to opt out, and that segment is not one that I’m willing to lose. As much as I chafe against some of the narrowness of the old guard, I still value its careful philology and its expertise. I am even proud of the fact that I have been able to earn at least some of the old guard’s respect because I’ve been well trained and can do good, careful work. I don’t want to alienate them by talking about Twitter in a conference talk; but at the same time I don’t want to risk that work I’m not ready to be in print (or, “print”) being treated as fair game.
Yet even in a room full of people who are comfortable with Twitter, with digital and open-access publication, with a whole host of new media, participating in an opt-out conference means speaking to a room full of people with a very particular idea about drafting, about intellectual property, about what the purpose of a conference is; and I find myself in disagreement with those prevailing views. The problems with opt-out live tweeting are not just down to a generation gap or the perpetual battle between luddites and early adopters; instead, they have to do with differing views about the writing process. Even if I opt out, I am speaking to a room full of people who understand my preliminary work as something very different than I do. The audience’s expectations have changed and I’m not sure that’s the audience I want to address.
I continue to be struck in particular by the profound hypocrisy manifest when the same people who argue that all academic papers, by default, are live-tweetable also argue that academic citation of tweets must be opt-in, with the explicit permission of the tweeter. Why is my actual, blood-sweat-and-tears, hours-and-hours-and-hours of work less mine than an off-handed comment I make in 140 characters? Or even where an academic conversation takes place on Twitter, why is that more proprietary than a book chapter that I might present in a seminar? My work is mine to publish — whether in print or digitally — and not for some tweeter in the front row to do it first and through his or her own filter. My work is mine and I should not have to beg the exceptional indulgence of a conference audience to keep it that way.
It’s a question of control, but it’s also a question of perfectionism. In a profession where we all suffer from impostor syndrome, opt-out live tweeting is profoundly insensitive to people who feel at all self-conscious about presenting their ideas or who might not be confident about a particular interpretation or idea; I’m less likely to take advantage of conferences as places where I can seek feedback on work in progress if I know that my partially-formed ideas are going to travel far beyond the confines of the room. The last chapter that I wrote of my book benefited tremendously, and more than the others, because I was able to work through some problems I was having with the material in two seminars where I was invited to present. While I am pleased with the final outcome, I would be dismayed if my draft versions were available via somebody else’s Twitter feed.
Opt-out tweeting is detrimental to the open sharing of work and information. I don’t generally take a territorial stance about my place in the academy, but now that anyone can put my words and ideas into writing before I do, I feel I have to. I don’t want to operate in an academy where I have to take a proprietary stance about my work because it might be published on Twitter before I am ready for it to be out in the world and in print, yet here I am. For me the value of conferences is to talk to people whose opinions I value, and smart people whose opinions I do not yet value because I have not yet met them, in a lower stakes situation that will ultimately improve the final work. It may be that when academic publishing changes so that things like versions are more a part of the final product, then live tweeting conference papers will be less of a problem. That may never change (per the other concerns I have raised) but for now, where the publication is king, I don’t want someone else taking control of how my work is first put into writing. Even if people follow all of the suggestions here (in what, I think, is the most considered approach to opt-out live-tweeting I’ve seen), the stakes of drafting are irredeemably raised.
One of the most-circulated discussions of academic medieval live-tweeting tries to reassure concerned presenters that “live-tweeting a talk is your scholarly ally, not an enemy,” but I don’t see it as black and white as all that. Things are rarely a question of heroism or villainy; I certainly don’t see live-tweeters or live-tweeting as my enemy. I might not even object to live-tweeting my work in all circumstances, if I were to opt in; but that, for me, is the crux of the matter. Even if it were that simple as allies versus enemies, the opt-out factor will never not be a problem because of the ways in which it has changed expectations about versions, work-in-progress, and the authority of the audience versus that of the scholar. I don’t see live-tweeting as the enemy. On the contrary, opt-in live-tweeting would be great, both in terms of its concrete effects of sharing information that scholars actively wanted to share that way and in terms of climate and attitudes towards drafts. In that way, it could be a real scholarly ally rather than a threat.
The live-tweeting opt-out has become the norm and I don’t really expect to be able to change that. It’s gotten as far as the Chronicle of Higher Education. I know that I’m in the minority on this matter — or at least in the minority of people who are on Twitter but perhaps not a minority of conference-goers overall. Ultimately, the consequences of this are on me. I don’t really think that the world of medieval studies will miss out on much by not hearing from me (although that’s another post entirely); but I’m willing to miss out on hearing new work and connecting with colleagues to avoid putting myself in this kind of situation. I know whose opinions I care about and who I trust, and in what venues, to share my work without having it passed it along to the rest of the world without my permission.
I’m pulling back from social media in general. (It may not be permanent, but I’m off Facebook entirely these days.) I think that maybe I’ve gotten everything out of it, professionally, that I could. I’ve met some wonderful colleagues and had some spectacularly productive encounters with serendipity. But I’m finding that the norms of the academic social media community are increasingly ones with which I’m not comfortable, with opt-out tweeting of people’s work just being the most prominent amongst those. I don’t realistically expect to change the norms or the culture, but I think there’s some value in expressing a contrary opinion and making clear that the apparent monolith of academic live-tweeting enthusiasts might not represent every academic tweeter. I think that live-tweeting without explicit opt-in permission is profoundly disrespectful to speakers and presenters, and I will not participate in academic events and forums where my work is so disrespected; nor will I participate in disrespecting the work of others by following along with or retweeting the live-tweets of any future conferences. With opt-out live-tweeting, I can’t know whether any given speaker is really okay with his or her talk being shared that way, so I’m opting out as a participant-voyeur. I can’t make it to Kzoo this year, so I’m just going to sit this one out rather than trying to plug in digitally to people who may or may not wish to be so plugged in; and that’s okay.