It is not the most divisive issue in academe, but the question of tweeting from sessions at academic conferences has been a consistent source of discussion over the last several years.
For proponents, live-tweeting panels offers a way to share the current state of a particular academic conversation with people who cannot be in the room where the panel is, either because they are in another panel at the same time or because financial or physical barriers prevent them from being present. For opponents of live-tweeting panels, one concern is that sharing work in progress will allow anyone on the internet to co-opt that work and claim it as their own.
As a result, many conferences have guidelines for if and how attendees should live-tweet panels, if they wish. For example, at the recent Society of Early Americanists’ recent biennial conference in Eugene, Ore., which I attended, posters in conference rooms and public areas listed “Five Tips for Live-Tweeting the SEA Biennial Conference.” They included:
- “Respect the speaker: Please ask the speaker before live-tweeting their presentation.”
- “If the speaker asks you not to share anything online, be sure to respect the request!” and
- “Be careful with criticism: be respectful -- if you have any criticism, it may be better to approach the speaker and have an in-person discussion.”
The other tips to use the conference hashtag and to use quotation marks only when quoting directly make sense. But the language of the ones I’ve quoted above seemed oddly patronizing and jarring in such an academic context.
The posters indicated they were using language adapted from a similar poster for the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, also taking place that month. This poster, in turn, indicated it was adapted from this 2017 blog post by someone identified as working in author marketing for Wiley, an academic publisher.
It is not clear why or how two major academic organizations adopted that particular set of guidelines for their conferences. (Full disclosure: I served on the program committee for SEA but was not aware of these new Twitter guidelines until I saw them at the conference.)
But such guidelines, and the way they are articulated, should concern scholars. There are many scholars with well-founded objections to live-tweeting of their conference presentations, and those wishes deserve to be respected. A very simple expedient that has emerged at other conferences is a table tent on the presenters’ table with a “no tweeting” symbol on one side and a Twitter logo on the other. This approach allows individual scholars on a panel to opt in or out of being live-tweeted, and it also saves live-tweeters and presenters a series of questions as a panel is about to begin.
But the admonition at recent conferences to obtain the consent of the speaker before the panel is, frankly, unworkable. A prospective tweeter may not be able to identify and locate the speakers on a panel before their talk. And accosting speakers in the moments before a panel starts distracts the speakers and may interfere with the timely start of the panel. In the case of the SEA, the posters appeared to me to have the effect of significantly reducing the number of panels that audience members recapped.
Losing such recaps reduces the impact of the scholarly conversations that take place at conferences. And, more important, it makes those conversations less accessible to scholars with financial or physical barriers preventing them from attending. If scholarly organizations want to be inclusive in as many ways as possible, a robust culture of live-tweeting panels is one way to do that.
The other guideline -- which is, essentially, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” -- may be animated by a generous spirit. But it ignores key distinctions between public and private conversations. If a conference speaker makes a statement that is wrong, misleading or otherwise objectionable, finding a way to make a private reproach after a panel may or not be feasible because of the flow of people in and out of the room. There may be differences in rank, precarity, age, gender, size or race that would make a commenter prefer not to have an in-person encounter with a speaker.
More important, a public statement warrants a public response. An audience member, not a panelist, provoked a recent racist incident at a classics conference, but the immediate reactions, responses and reflection happened largely through the medium of Twitter.
Finally, the overall language of many Twitter guidelines can be tough to figure. A sponsoring organization may be offering policies but calling them tips. Tips for conference goers might include suggestions for lunch spots near the convention or affordable ways to get to and from the airport, but articulations of conference social media policies are not tips.
In a similar vein, the language of respect in the guidelines SEA and ASECS used is often a mixture of paternalism and concern trolling. Take, for example, the admonishment to “Be careful with criticism: be respectful -- if you have any criticism, it may be better to approach the speaker and have an in-person discussion.” There is no indication why this approach might be better -- and, more important, better for whom. It’s not hard to infer that one impact of this policy would be to discourage more junior members of a scholarly organization from making critical remarks about the presentation of a more established scholar out of “respect.”
It is well worth the time and effort for scholarly organizations to consider and reconsider how to integrate new technologies into scholarly conversations. Those conversations, however, must be thoughtful, and members of each specific organization should drive them. They should not be hastily appropriated from another conference’s guidelines or articles or blog posts written by someone outside the organization. Such guidelines have often not worked effectively at previous conferences, and I encourage leaders of upcoming ones to think carefully before promulgating them.