Twittergate: Live Tweeting From Academic Conferences

Oct. 6, 2012

Roopika Risam

By Roopika Risam, Assistant Editor, The Academic Exchange, & Doctoral Candidate, Department of English

This week, I unwittingly found myself in the middle of a heated conversation among academics on Twitter about the ethics and etiquette of live-tweeting 140-character messages from conferences.

During the preceding week, I had enjoyed reading about talks at four conferences I was unable to attend by following the Twitter hashtags used by tweeting attendees. Yet, Josh Guild, professor of history African American studies at Princeton University, raised an important point when he tweeted, “Still waiting on that ‘ethics of live tweeting in the academy’ convo,” later adding, “Just curious as to what folks perceive to be the boundaries of appropriateness, respect, etc.” Thus initiated what appeared to be an ordinary Sunday morning conversation among academics on Twitter. Many weighed in with their perspectives – in favor, opposed, or somewhere in between – and the majority of the contributions were professional and productive, examining the nature of public space in a conference and how Twitter extends that space.

As the conversation continued, I, tongue-in-cheek, suggested we use the hashtag “#twittergate” to mark tweets on the subject, and it stuck. Actually, it more than stuck: Twitter’s academics, across disciplines, began weighing in with best practices, personal experiences, and not a small bit of vitriol. The conversation spawned a number of blog posts, the most instructive of which is Emory sociology PhD student Tressie McMillan Cottom’s post “An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine," which covers questions of access and fairness, and the relationship between open access and justice, warning against the hoarding of ideas.

This idle but important Sunday chat took on a life of its own when Inside Higher Ed published Steve Kolowich’s piece “The Academic Twitterazzi." While Kolowich attempted to cover some concerns about tweeting (or not tweeting) at academic conferences, he unintentionally revealed one of the most problematic issues of Twitter: the question of attribution. In fact, Kolowich had quoted me but attributed my words to Mark Sample, a professor at George Mason University who is well known in the Digital Humanities community. As Sample writes in a comment on the article, “The problem of misrepresentation [on Twitter] tends to work against those on the academic ladder. In other words, credit floats upward. One could not find a more dramatic example of this deplorable dynamic than when the words of a female graduate student of color are attributed to a tenured male professor who is white.”  Kolowich subsequently fixed the attribution error, but his article has spawned further commentary and renewed debate about the role of Twitter in not only academic conferences but also academic branding and in public scholarship more generally.

Over the past few years, the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, together with Emory partners, has devoted resources to public scholarship at Emory. At September’s event “Public Scholarship as Professional Capital,” Pamela Scully, chair of women’s gender, and sexuality studies, referenced the role of Twitter in her work as a public scholar. Events throughout the semester will further highlight Emory’s public scholars, several of whom have joined Twitter as well. With many professors and graduate students using the platform to share information and their research, Twitter has begun to transform the academy, raising questions about how we might engage with public scholarship to enlarge spaces of scholarly communication.

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