The combination of attending a Digital Scholarship Seminar, in which Heike Felzmann discussed ethical issues related to the use of public digital media contributions in research, and having taken up the mantle of RECIRC conference tweeter at the Renaissance Society of America conference last week (it’s usually Emilie Murphy our followers have to thank for conference tweets) has had me thinking about privacy and responsibility issues. Twitter occupies a liminal space between ephemerality and permanence. It reflects its present moment yet is archived and preserved. The challenges arising from this are clear from the progress of the Library of Congress’s Twitter Research Access project, announced in 2010, which aims to make the entire archive of tweets available to researchers. As Felzmann said, this raises all kinds of ethical issues: do tweeters intend, understand, or consent that their content be the subject of research in the future? On the one hand, the twitter archive could be an amazing resource for future social and historical research – not least in a world where the paper record is superseded by the digital. But the sheer volume of material has proved challenging for the Library of Congress, as reported last year: how to index and render searchable an archive that accrues at the rate of 50 million tweets per day (http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5619/4653)? Statistics for the RSA conference (#RenSA16) are below.
The roundtable I participated in, organised by Julia Flanders and Sarah Connell of the Women Writers Project, with Isobel Grundy (Orlando) and Laura Mandell (Texas A&M), discussed issues of digital representation and modern information systems: how do those systems produce meaning and shape evidence for researchers? Conference tweeting brings into play the ethics of consent and representation. The big boon of live conference tweeting is its reportage function; those who cannot attend the conference can tune into discussions from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. It also publicises the work presented at the conference. But it moves the practice of note-taking into the public sphere, and this has ramifications for both tweeter and tweeted.
With regard to the most prolific tweeters (to whom: hats off), twitter offers a window into their note-making processes. This is potentially of great interest to future sociological researchers (albeit twitter’s demand for concision imposes narrative conventions of its own). It also, of course, maintains the public profile of the tweeter – and that’s increasingly important in the current academic climate of measuring impact. But the act of reporting in this live context entails heightened risks of misrepresentation and misattribution. Twitter does not represent nuanced and qualified argument, the stock-in-trade of academics. Speed can lend itself to mistakes.
There’s also the question of degrees of ‘public’. All academics attend conferences to present their research; a conference is a public sphere. But it’s traditionally a circumscribed audience, with right to reply and debate in person. Even imagining a world in which all conference delegates are tweeters, with access to the online twitter debate, you can’t tweet while delivering your own paper (surely?) Is there a constitutive difference between presenting new research, not yet published, to an offline academic audience and presenting it with no control over its dissemination on twitter? The practice of tweeting photos of powerpoint slides is visually arresting for the twitter audience but could compromise the presenter who wants to write it up for publication, or may not have acquired copyright permission for public reproduction. These pitfalls are subject to accident rather than design; the bottom line is that negative tweets are not deemed acceptable (notwithstanding that this in itself might lead to unbalanced reportage, omitting critique or dissent).
The American Historical Association debated some of these issues back in 2013 (https://storify.com/AHAhistorians/live-tweeting-etiquette) but mainly from the perspective of the tweeter’s responsibilities. What about speakers, who need to be cognisant of the twittersphere in the audience? While it’s fine explicitly to request non-tweeting of material, we all now participate in an economy of impact and digital dissemination. Attention is valuable and digital traffic is currency. (Sideline note: library metrics count the number of hits on a digital resource so get your students to download digital texts themselves in order to safeguard your digital subscriptions!)
Controversial statements appeal in this economy. Tweeters are looking for retweetable, likeable 140-character snippets. In this sense, tweeting is a kind of live commonplacing. I’ve attended papers over the past year evincing a consummate and knowing crafting of the tweet-friendly paper. We could view this as a clash of discourses, the pithy tweet versus the carefully expounded argument. But isn’t it also an extension of the rhetorical construction of argument, with strategic soundbites and summations? Speakers who structure their talks ready for twitter dissemination are responding to the rise of performance metrics, maximising the impact of their work and profile. In its benign, ethically aware form, conference tweeting is a great means of spreading the word about current, excellent research. But let’s hope our twitter stats don’t creep into annual reviews.