The Modern Language Association has now issued its official, authoritative, and precisely calibrated guidelines for citing tweets – a matter left unaddressed in the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook (2009). The blogs have been -- you probably see this one coming -- all a-Twitter. The announcement was unexpected, eliciting comments that range from “this is really exciting to me and i don’t know why” to "holy moly i hate the world read a damn book." (Expressions of an old-school humanistic sensibility are all the more poignant sans punctuation.) Somewhere in between, there’s this: "when academia and the internet collide, i am almost always amused."
Yet the real surprise here is that anyone is surprised. The MLA is getting into the game fairly late. The American Psychological Association has had a format for citing both Twitter and Facebook since 2009. Last summer, the American Medical Association announced its citation style after carefully considering "whether Twitter constituted a standard citable source or was more in the realm of ‘personal communications’ (such as e-mail),” finally deciding that tweets are public discourse rather than private expression.
The AMA Style Insider noted that a standard format for Twitter references should “help avoid citations sounding like a cacophony of Angry Birds.”
How long was the possibility of an MLA citation format been under consideration? Was it a response to MLA members needing and demanding a way to bibliograph tweets, or rather an effort to anticipate future needs? Rosemary Feal, the organization’s executive director, was the obvious person to ask.
"The release of the tweet citation style,” she said by e-mail, “came in response to repeated requests from teachers, students, and scholars (most of them received, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Twitter). We debated the particulars on staff for some weeks. We're certain that the format we've announced is just a first step; user needs will change over time, as will technologies.”
Having exact, authoritatively formulated rules is clearly an urgent, even an anxiety-inducing matter for the MLA’s constituency. “Every time people asked me on Twitter about citing tweets,” Feal said, “I told them MLA style was flexible. Just adapt the format.” And as a matter of fact, the current MLA Handbook does have a format for citing blog entries – which would seem to apply, given that Twitter is a microblog.
“But because people wanted something very specific,” Feal said, “I asked staff to think about it…. Our hope is to remain nimble enough to respond to circumstances as they develop.” In that case, it might be time to start brainstorming how to cite Facebook exchanges, which can certainly be recondite enough, if the right people are involved. At least the Twitter citation format will be part of the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook -- though Feal indicated it would take at least another year to finish it.
Directing scholarly attention to the incessant flow of 140-character Twitter texts can yield far more substantial results than you might imagine, as explained in this column almost two years ago. Often this involves gathering tweets by the thousands and squeezing them hard, via software, to extract raw data, like so much juice from a vat of grapes. Add the yeast of statistical methodology, and it then ferments into the fine wine of an analogy that’s already gone on far too long.
So let’s try that again. Social scientists have ways of charting trends and finding correlations in tweets en masse. Fair enough. But recent work by Kaitlin L. Costello and Jason Priem points in a different direction: towards Twitter’s role in the more narrowly channeled and discussions taking pace within scholarly networks.
Costello and Priem, who are graduate students in the information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have been gathering and analyzing information about academics who tweet. Their findings suggest that Twitter has become a distinct and useful -- if exceedingly concentrated -- mode of serious intellectual exchange.
In one study, they examined the departmental web pages at five universities in the United States and Britain, compiling “a list of all the scholars (defined as full-time faculty, postdocs, and doctoral students) at each one, yielding a sample of 8,826.” Through a process of elimination, they were able to generate a pool of 230 scholars with active Twitter accounts. Out of the initial pool, then, they found one scholar in 40 using Twitter – not a lot, although it’s definitely an underestimation. Some in the pool were removed because Costello and Priem could not establish a link between faculty listing and Twitter profile beyond any doubt. (In the case of people with extremely common names, they didn’t even try.)
The most striking finding is that the scholars who used Twitter were almost indistinguishable from those who didn’t. Status as faculty or nonfaculty made no difference. Natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists were represented among the Twitterati at rates nearly identical to their share of the non-tweeting academic population. Scholars in the formal sciences (math, logic, comp sci, etc.) proved less likely to use Twitter than their colleagues – though only slightly.
A large majority of tweets by academics, about 60 percent, were of a non-scholarly nature. A given tweet by a faculty member was about twice as likely to have some scholarly relevance than one by a nonfaculty person. While the share of traffic devoted to strictly scholarly matters is not enormous, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated – especially since a significant portion of it involves the exchange of links to new publications.
In an earlier study (archived here) Costello and Priem conducted interviews with 28 scholars – seven scientists, seven humanists, and 14 social scientists – as well as harvesting more than 46,000 of their tweets. For each subject, they created a set of the 100 most recent tweets containing links that were still active. (A few didn’t reach the 100 mark, but their data was still useful.)
Six percent of the tweets containing hyperlinks fell into the category of what Priem and Costello call “Twitter citations” of peer-reviewed scholarly articles available online. One of their subjects compared linking to a scholarly article via Twitters to citing it in a classroom or seminar setting: “It’s about pointing people in the direction of things they would find interesting, rather than using it as evidence for something.”
At the same time, tweeting plays a role in disseminating new work in particular: 39 percent of the links were to articles less than a week old -- with 15 percent being to things published the same day.
The researchers divided citation tweets evenly into two categories of roughly equal sizes: direct links to an article, and links to blog entries or other intermediary pages that discussing an article (usually with a link to it). Not surprisingly, 56 percent of direct links lead to open-access sources. About three-quarters of the indirect links went to material behind a paywall. “As long as intermediary webpages provide even an abstract-level description,” write C&P, "our participants often viewed them as equivalent.”
One scholar told them: “I don’t have time to look at everything. But I trust [the people I follow] and they trust me to contribute to the conversation of what to pay attention to. So yes, Twitter definitely helps filter the literature.” Another said, “It’s like I have a stream of lit review going.”
At this level, Twitter, or rather its users, create a quasi-public arena for the distribution of scholarship – and, to some degree, even for its evaluation. Costello and Priem suggest that harvesting and analyzing these citations could yield “faster, broader, and more nuanced metrics of scholarly communication to supplement traditional citation analysis,” as well as strengthening “real-time article recommendation engines.”
On October 16, she made one of her papers available through the UCL online repository. Two people downloaded it. She tweeted and blogged about it on a Friday, whereupon it was downloaded 140 times in short order, then re-tweeted it on Monday, with the same effect. “I have no idea what happened on the 24th October,” she writes. “Someone must have linked to it? Posted it on a blog? Then there were a further 80 downloads. Then the traditional long tail, then it all goes quiet.”
In all, more than 800 people added the article to their to-read collections in a couple of months – which, for a two-year old paper called "Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation Via Amateur Digitisation," from the journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, is not bad at all.
That may be another reason why citation formats for Twitter are necessary. One day, and it might be soon, an intellectual historian narrating the development of a theory or argument may have to discuss someone’s extremely influential tweet. Stranger things have happened.
Sometimes I get a little fancy in the final comment of a student paper. Usually my comments are pretty direct: two or three things I like about the paper, two or three things I think need revision, and two or three remarks about style or correctness. But once in a while, out of boredom or inspiration, I grasp for a simile or a metaphor. Recently I found myself writing, "Successfully rebutting counter-arguments is not unlike slaying a hydra.”
I started with great confidence, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure I knew what a hydra is: a multiheaded creature? Yes. But how many heads? And can I use the word generically or do I have to capitalize it? Would “slaying the Hydra” be the correct expression?
Since I have no Internet connectivity at home, never have, and don’t miss it, I grabbed my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary from 1965 — the kind of dictionary you can get for free at the dump or from a curbside box of discarded books — and looked up hydra. On my way to hydra, however, I got hung up on horse, startled by a picture of a horse busily covered with numbers. I knew a horse has a face, a forehead, a mouth. A nose, ears, nostrils, a neck. A mane, hooves, a tail.
Pressed for more parts, I might have guessed that a horse had a lower jaw, a forelock (which I would have described as a tuft of hair between the ears), cheeks, ribs, a breast, haunches, buttocks, knees, a belly.
I don’t think I would have guessed flank, loin, thighs, and shoulders, words I associate with other animals, humans, or cuts of meat. I know I wouldn’t have guessed forearm or elbow.
What I’d thought of as an animal with a head, a mane, a tail, hooves, and a body has 36 separate parts, it seems, all enumerated in a simple design on page 401 of my dictionary. Had I not forgotten the precise definition of a hydra, I may never have learned that a horse also has a poll, withers, a croup, a gaskin, a stifle, fetlocks, coronets, pasterns, and cannons. (The withers are the ridge between a horse’s shoulder bones.)
Hoof is defined and illustrated on the page opposite the horse, an alphabetical coincidence. That picture too caught my eye, now that I was in an equine frame of mind. For the moment, I wanted to learn everything I could about the horse. The unshod hoof, it turns out, has a wall with four parts — the toe, the sidewalls, quarters, and buttresses — a white line, bars, a sole, and a frog, behind which lie the bulbs.
Eventually I returned to my original search. A Hydra with a capital H is a nine-headed monster of Greek mythology whose power lies in its regenerative abilities: if one head is cut off, two will grow in its place unless the wound is cauterized. With a lower case h, the word stands for a multifarious evil that cannot be overcome by a single effort. After all this dictionary work, I’m not sure hydra is the word I want.
I've been thinking about dictionaries lately. The writing center at Smith College, where I work, is transitioning from paper schedules to an online appointment system, and yesterday we spent part of the morning moving furniture around trying to create room for a new computer station dedicated to scheduling. One of my younger colleagues suggested getting rid of the dictionary stand, which, he said, "nobody uses." I bristled. It’s a beautiful thing, the dictionary, an oversize third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, just a hair over 2,000 pages. For more than a dozen years it’s resided in a cozy nook on a well-lit lectern below a framed poster publicizing the 1994 Annual Katharine Ashen Engel Lecture by Murray Kiteley, then Sophia Smith Professor of Philosophy. The poster was chosen as much for its elegance as for the lecture’s title: "Parts of Speech, Parts of the World: A Match Made in Heaven? Or Just Athens?"
For years I had an office across from the dictionary and never used it myself, preferring the handiness of my taped-up 1958 American College Dictionary by Random House. The American Heritage is too massive. It takes me too long to find a word and I get easily distracted: by illustrations and unusual words. I continue to find my college dictionary completely adequate for my purposes. I’ve never needed a word that I couldn’t find in it.
Another colleague within earshot spoke up for the American Heritage, claiming he used it once in a while. "Maybe," I thought. More likely, he didn’t want to contemplate the loss of the big dictionary while he still mourned the loss of the blue paper schedules. The dictionary stayed: words, that’s what a writing center is about, and the dictionary is where they live.
I cannot remember the last time I saw one of my students using a paper dictionary, much less one carrying one around, not even an international student. Have today’s students ever instinctively pulled out a paper dictionary and used it to look up a word or check its spelling? Is a paper dictionary as quaint as a typewriter? Have things changed that much? I wonder. Is it partly my fault? It’s been many years, after all, since I’ve listed "a college dictionary" among the required texts for my writing course.
I doubt my students use dictionaries much, of whatever kind. You have to care about words to reach for the dictionary, and I don’t think they care very much about words. At their age, I probably didn’t either, though I think I did care more about right and wrong. I was embarrassed when I used the wrong word or misspelled a word. I still remember the embarrassment of spelling sophisticated with an f in a college paper, something a modern spell checker doesn’t allow. But it does allow "discreet categories" for "discrete categories," another unforgettably embarrassing error — this one in graduate school!
My students appear cheerfully to accept whatever the spell checker suggests, or whatever word sounds like the one they want, especially if they’re in roughly the same semantic domain. They are positively proud to confess that they’re bad spellers — who among them isn’t? — and really don’t seem to care much that they have used the wrong word. Words don’t appear to be things you choose anymore. They’re things that pop up: in autocorrect, in spell checkers, in synonym menus. They are not things you ponder over, they are things you click, or worse, your laptop decides to click for you.
When I meet with a student about her paper, we always work with a paper copy. Even so, more often than not I still have to remind her to take a pencil so she can annotate her draft as we discuss it. Toward the end of our meetings, we talk about word choice and the exchange often goes like this:
"Is this the word you want?"
"I think so."
"I think here you might have meant to say blah."
"Oh, yeah, that’s right" and out comes the pencil — scratch this, scribble that, lest it affect her final grade. No consideration, no embarrassment. I used to pull out the dictionary "to inculcate good habits," but no more. In the presence of today’s students, pulling out a dictionary feels as remote as pulling out a typewriter or playing a record.
Sometimes the situation is not so clear-cut. The student might, for example, write a word like security in a context where it makes a bit of sense, but after some gentle prodding and, yes, a few pointed suggestions, she might decide that what she really means is privacy. Out comes the pencil again. Scratch "security," scribble "privacy." What she really means is safety, though, I think, but I let it go. If I push too hard, she’ll stop thinking I'm being helpful and begin to think I have a problem: "What a nitpicker! The man’s obsessed with words!" I imagine her complaining to her friends. "But it matters! It matters!" goes the imaginary dialogue. "What precisely were the opponents of the ERA arguing, that it would violate security, invade privacy, or threaten safety?"
I have used the online Webster's on occasion, of course, and recognize the advantages of online dictionaries: They can be kept up-to-date more easily, they can give us access to more words than a standard portable dictionary, they can be accessed anywhere at any time, they take up no shelf space, etc. I'm not prejudiced against online reference tools. In fact, unlike many of my colleagues, I'm a great fan of online encyclopedias and a lover of Wikipedia. Online dictionaries leave me cold, though. They should fill me with awe the way Wikipedia sometimes does, but they don't. I marvel at the invention of the dictionary every time I look up a word in my paper copy; at the brilliant evolutionary step of such a book; at the effort of generations of scholars, professionals and lay people that led to such a comprehensive compendium of words; at how much information — and not just word meanings — it puts at my fingertips; at how much I still have to learn; and at how much my education could still be enhanced if I read my college dictionary cover to cover.
I think of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the author makes a powerful statement about the dictionary as a pedagogical tool. Frustrated with his inarticulateness in writing while in prison and his inability to take charge of a conversation like his fellow inmate Bimbi, Malcolm X came to the conclusion that what he needed was "to get hold of a dictionary — to study, to learn some words." The experience was a revelation: "I’d never realized so many words existed!" He started at the beginning and read on, learning not just words but also history — about people, places, and events. "Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia," he noted. The dictionary was the start of his "homemade education."
Online all I get is quick definition of the word I want, and I’m done. On paper I get the definition plus something akin to a small education along the way. The experience is not unlike that of slaying the Hydra: For every word I word I look up, I see two others whose meaning I don’t know. If I were Hercules I could put an end to the battle once and for all, but I’m not, and glad I’m not. The battle is far too delicious. But how to convince my students?
Julio Alves is the director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College.