Hedda associate Mari Elken examines the recent “Twittergate” debate about live tweeting from conferences and appeals for less evangelism and more common sense and courtesy in deciding what is appropriate.
A few days ago, a debate blossomed up about live tweeting from conferences in Twitter following the tag #twittergate, a number of quite strong opinions were voiced from both sides. From seeing Twitter as a natural means of sharing information, to seeing it as a threat to the knowledge sharing taking place in conferences, a number of strong opinions emerged.
The debate was also picked up by Inside Higher ed, who further had gotten comments from academics both supporting tweeting and further those who see it either as unnecessary, or further, having a self-promotional agenda. While some argue it is a generational difference, others see it as a principal difference on how academic work is perceived and what is considered as public knowledge.
Further, a number of bloggers and active Twitter using scholars have come to the defence of tweeting, arguing for a set of good practices, one of them seeing live tweeting as “an act of love, an incredible source of intellectual, technical and professional satisfaction and an incredibly gratifying, productive way of contributing to my academic community“. Now as this does sound quite altruistic and glorifying, it is perhaps not surprising that this advocacy comes from a scholar who focuses on digital media and online journalism. However, the main essence of the point, that Twitter and social media can function as a means to share knowledge shouldn’t be overlooked. The question is how this sharing should be done?
Taking it down to the basics, there are a number of arguments that get repeated in the various entries and tweets about the topic. The proponents arguing that conferences are a means to share knowledge and Twitter has the same function, in addition to Twitter being a modern reality that one has to deal with. The oponents would argue that this is disturbing to the presenters, that it spreads ideas that might not be yet finalised, that it could lead to someone stealing your unfinished ideas, and that there is a danger of dumbing down research into headlines and one-liners, where the complexity gets lost. So – lets examine these arguments.
Digital media is indeed a reality and tweeting is not going to go away, there is no sensible way to avoid that people have access to Twitter or other social media during conferences or presentations, and quite honestly, I cannot quite see why this should be the case either. Conferences are a relatively public space, in the sense that anyone who has enrolled as a participant is free to come to listen to the talk – and as such a certain claim about publicity can be made.
The fact that some people feel that they sometimes present unfinished work would therefore not make sense. Presenting at a conference is a choice to make your work public, in most cases this also means that your abstract is listed on the conference website, and there might even be a draft paper available for download somewhere. Why does it make people so uncomfortable that this also goes public on social media? Is this different than someone discussing this further with their colleagues during a coffee break? Now you could argue that some people have 10 000 followers on Twitter and that this is a completely different thing. However, these people are few, and it is by no means given that the tweet will be seen by even a fraction of that audience. As such, one should perhaps fear more the discussion over the coffee where your presentation will be analyzed in detail.
As for stealing your ideas? If this is to be feared, then perhaps one should not present at a conference and keep the ideas in a contained space until they are presentable. Arguably, tweeting would in fact help to assure that there is a trace of where the idea emerged from, as one can get recognized chronologically as the first source for a particular thought. So the unfortunate situations of where one has a great idea, just to realise that someone else has been working on the same thing and publishes their final findings a month before you, can be avoided. You can mark your territory.
But this does not mean that one shouldnt think how to do this in an appropriate manner. Sitting and fiddling with your phone through the whole presentation can indeed be disturbing for the presenter, as is someone typing fiercly throughout the presentation (and you never know whether they take notes or write emails to their husband/wife), or people taking a nap. So common courtesy does of course apply.
Another and a more clear issue is that tweets are short, and the opportunities to misunderstand information are significant. So consciousness about what one writes and how this can be perceived is essential. This means that if something is presented as preliminary findings, this should also be evident in the tweet, even if this means using up 11 characters for that purpose. To think of it, perhaps summarising someones work into one sentence is not so uncommon, we do this all the time when we write academic texts. Twitter is just a different space, but in a sense this is also referencing/citing. This also means that you definitely do not want to misquote people, and attach opinions and ideas to them that they have not presented or expressed. This has to do with integrity of sharing knowledge and scholarly work.
The basic question that emerges here is why are we having this debate to start with. So this is a call for more common sense and courtesy. In addition, it would be wise to not disentangle tweeting at conferences from other means academic work. If one wants to tweet from conferences then the same principles apply as everywhere else: public knowledge can be spread, you do not misquote, and you ask permission if stated that this should be done. Other than that, it is just like citing. It does not really have to be more difficult than that.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not represent Hedda as an organisation.