Essay on the significance of a Twitter hashtag
In July of 2013, the noted historian and humanist, Anthony Grafton, was interviewed in The Daily Beast about his writing practice. His answer was revealingly candid. At the beginning of each weekday, Grafton said he would be seated at his desk by 8 a.m. and would work until noon. Four days a week, he’d begin with revisions, and then proceed to the creation of new prose. Years earlier, he had drafted his manuscripts by hand, but he’d been using a MacBook Air more recently, and its aluminum skin made for a neat contrast with the early modern bookwheel that held his dictionaries and weighty reference texts. “If I’m writing full-time,” he admitted, “I’ll get about 3,500 words per morning, four mornings a week.”
Days after the Daily Beast interview, L.D. Burnett, an American cultural and intellectual historian in the Humanities/History of Ideas Program at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a blogger for U.S. Intellectual History, challenged Grafton to a race. Marking out the words she needed to write to finish her book, Burnett set a daily pace, matched to her own best effort, and set out to get the job done. Then, Claire Potter, proprietor of the “Tenured Radical” site and a Facebook friend of Burnett’s, coined the Twitter hashtag #GraftonLine and encouraged her readers to join in. Soon, a Facebook page was created. And, just like that, Anthony Grafton had become the éminence grise of a new and unusual writing group, one that spanned the gap between senior faculty and graduate students, public and private universities, friends and strangers. By summer’s end, #GraftonLine had become a capacious proper noun, as much a play on measurement – a more positive “Mendoza Line” – as it was a synonym for ambition and drive.
Collaboration is old stuff, and technology – not merely Twitter and Facebook, but also personal blogs, Dropbox and Google Drive - is making it both easier and different. Steven Lubar, director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, pointed me to @ProfessMoravec, who works with shared documents and Twitter, and encourages a crowd-sourced model of composition. On her personal blog, Claire Potter has been exposing her methods, revealing not merely how she writes but also how she assembles and archives her materials. At Historiann.com, Ann Little ably summarized her own experimentation with a full-throttle, early-morning #GraftonLine. John Fea locked himself up in a hotel room and generated over 30,000 words in one weekend. And me? Well, the #GraftonLine arrived in my Facebook feed at just the right moment – a big deadline was looming and my writing had stalled, so I owe a book to it.
#GraftonLine is unusual not merely because it crossed ranks and positions, but also because the participants spanned disciplines and subdisciplines, periods and fields. Though the great bulk of the group was, at first, a gaggle of historians, it expanded, slowly, to include others. And while the “GraftonLiners” may have occasionally shared passages and pages via email or Dropbox, the great motivator of the larger group wasn’t really collaboration or even friendly competition, but a sort of innocent parallel play in a workplace wrecked by the neoliberal assault on higher education. In an uneven landscape, the drive to finish any piece of writing can be disturbingly isolating, but #GraftonLine thrillingly maximized the day-to-day accomplishments that matter the most – the most, that is, when you are deep in the grindhouse, making incremental progress each day towards a very distant goal. “One step at a time” sounds clichéd for a reason. But “1000 words this morning!” or “just 300 today” doesn’t read as hackneyed at all, especially when it is sanctioned and applauded by a dozen “likes” on Facebook. The posts tagged with #GraftonLine aren’t false-fronted “humble brags”; they’re calls for acknowledgement, respect, and enthusiastic sanction.
We should think about this practice differently. “What we need,” Lubar wrote to me, “is a wristband like the fitbit that instead of measuring the number of steps we walk, measures the number of words we write, and automatically tweets it.” In the best possible way, as Lubar suggests, #GraftonLine used the same affective registers as “Map-My-Run,” a popular Facebook application that tabulates the distance and speed of your daily jog and posts it directly to your feed, generating applause and encouragement. In a Darwinian world, this little bit of “fun” encouraged participants to cheer total strangers, though many were potential competitors for the same tiny pool of jobs and access points. “One of the things I like best about #Graftonline,” Burnett told me, “is that it's an opportunity to be kind, to be encouraging, to affirm people. It's friendly.”
“I followed it from the start,” confessed Grafton in an email, “and enjoyed seeing people pop out of their cells and the spirit of comradeship that seemed to develop.” “I firmly believe,” he continued, with self-deprecating wit, “that one of the most important things prominent scholars do is to serve as the objects of affectionate ridicule for their colleagues, especially but not only the younger ones, and the challenge seemed like a healthy and productive way to make fun of me and to bring people together at one and the same time.” For Grafton, the humanizing effect of the #GraftonLine is compelling: “Given the harshly competitive world that young scholars inhabit,” he admits, “any system that mitigates loneliness, provides information and thus makes the mysterious processes of research, writing and publication more transparent is positive.”
“I'm not sure,” Burnett confesses, “how most senior scholars would react to a grad student saying, "Dude, it is on like Donkey Kong!" But he was very gracious, and has been very encouraging to the group.”
There are moments when we realize just how radically the world has been transformed by technology, and this – for me – is one of them. I remember when my father – an early adopter of new gadgetry – brought the first computer to our house: a big beige thing, as big as an old microwave, with a tiny screen, featuring bright green text on a dark background. I remember my first Tandy laptop, the sound of the dot-matrix printer, and the feel of an old floppy disk. I remember computers before the internet, when you had to use the backspace key because there was no mouse. But I also remember writing before the Internet, when card catalogs were vital, when you couldn’t cut-and-paste, when outlining was a necessary first step because you were crafting something on a typewriter, and if you made a mistake, you’d have to retype the whole page, and just maybe the pages that followed.
I recall, too, what it meant to write before email, before Facebook and Twitter. It is something of a revolution, this abridgment of a writer’s solitude – deemed a prerequisite for imagination – with the public, sincere enthusiasm that greets each new tally.
I’m equally struck, though, by what hasn’t changed. #GraftonLine may have allowed for a positive, collaborative writing experience, but it also left the usual writing mode - often isolated and lonely – entirely intact. “We check in with each other to report on our battles with the blank page,” Burnett summed, “but each of us has to fight those battles alone.” The phenomenon has created a positive public context for what is often a private act, which is, I think, the best side of the Twitterverse.
But if #GraftonLine was a fairly ecumenical phenomenon, drawing in graduate students, freelancers, adjuncts, and senior scholars in the tenure stream, it didn’t in any way disrupt the great structural divides that currently threaten higher education. It wasn’t meant to fix anything, of course, because it began whimsically, like all soft revolutions. Participation didn’t require a digital humanities lab. All you needed was a certain kind of prose-producing machismo, a willingness to lay it out and measure it up. This Fast & Furious, all-gas-all-the-time sentiment was – and still is – a part of its newfangled charm and humor. And, for as long as it lasts, we should take pleasure in it.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is chair of American studies and professor of Africana studies at Brown University. On Twitter, he is @mpg734.