Final bit of post-workshop thought processing: a useful metaphor for teaching academics about Twitter

The fact Twitter offers no real tools to control who follows you is a source of concern for some academics. In part this might be a function of a broader reticence towards online publishing. However I think it also stems from how Twitter is conceived as a medium. If you are presenting at a conference, you wouldn’t obsess about the identity of each person in the audience. There might be a variety of reasons why you are presenting: sharing your ideas, promoting your work, connecting with others in your field. At any conference, these motives only partially overlap. The reason(s) for each individual being there varies but nonetheless everyone is working within the same constraints of how the sessions are organised within a physical venue.

Twitter is no different. It’s a spot on the internet that’s staked out as yours. What you do with it is up to you. Some people choose to wander to their podium every now and again, occasionally make an announcement and then wander off. Some people give their presentation at the podium and then leave until they want to give another lecture. Some do their presentation but thrive on the Q&A afterwards. Some might not like the feel of the podium and eschew a formal presentation to go and chat more directly with their audience.¬†Likewise some people just want to listen and ask questions of other speakers. Others would rather ditch the conference and go straight to relaxing at the pub.

Most academic users of Twitter fall into one or more of these categories. Likewise people move between categories. But the interpersonal dimensions of it are fundamentally no different to a conference. It’s just that the form of communication is so dramatically concise, as well as lacking any direct parallel other than the text message, that until you’ve been using it for a long time, it’s difficult to see quite how much like everyday life it is. So don’t be anxious about it. If you want to use it to draw attention to your work then stop worrying about who follows you and just don’t talk about things you wouldn’t in a formal work setting. If you want to connect with other people who have similar interests then just talk about the things that interest you and respond when others do the same, just as you would in any other setting. If you want to get drunk and gossip then go ahead, just remember that people might overhear you and that, on twitter, what you’ve said echoes in the room for a little while before it dissipates.

The same rules of interaction apply on Twitter as they do offline. If someone habitually goes over time for their talk, monologuing at an increasingly bored audience then people in the audience will eventually leave and new audience members won’t stay for long. If someone gives a good talk but obviously resents the Q&A afterwards, people might sit in the audience because of intellectual interest but they’ll think the speaker is a bit rude. If someone turns up, loudly and briefly announces their new book/paper/insight and then leaves the conference, people won’t pay much attention, unless they’re a globe trotting academic superstar.


2 responses to “Final bit of post-workshop thought processing: a useful metaphor for teaching academics about Twitter”

  1. Hi Mark.

    This is a useful metaphor, especially for conveying the flexibility and ‘multipurpose-ness’ of Twitter, and that its affordances are culturally as well as technologically negotiated.

    Despite some innovative formats, the conference remains a fairly stable, formal mechanism for dissemination and discourse to/with a largely identifiable academic audience, whereas an academic’s Twittersphere can cross different practice and audience contexts (including non-academic). As you suggest, perhaps Twitter more resembles the identity work and performativity that goes on in our everyday interactions, but are just more explicit and permanent in the online environment.

    There’s a coming together here of ongoing but now fairly established social media practices (general and platform-specific) and traditional academic norms. How these are played out represents interesting emerging practices, which I think create good discussion points for workshops.

  2. And in a way, perhaps, the discussions at workshops are, in part, writing the rules of these new practices? I was just struck when I did this Twitter workshop at how engaging the discussion around particular issues was e.g. the etiquette of tweeting during events. I had to move on because I hadn’t built time for them into the plan but really wished I had.

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