Twitter as digital scholarship: Why you might want to sign up.

(Note: This post is identical to what I posted on the DMAC Blog this week.)

As scholars, I’d like to believe that we pride ourselves on actively participating in thoughtful, timely, and challenging conversations. Sometimes those conversations are public and durable when we publish books and articles within our discipline. Sometimes those conversations are less public and more ephemeral, such as when we gather at conferences like Computers and Writing or when we respond to the Tech/Rhet listserv. And maybe at their most ephemeral, these conversations operate in small groups of colleagues between conference sessions, in our departmental hallways, or over post-lecture drinks. The formality of public lectures and scholarly monographs certainly have their place, but they are only one end of a scholarly spectrum in which I’m particularly interested. I keep thinking about terms like “scholarly” or “formal” or “professional.” I ask myself… Is it possible to be scholarly and informal. Is it possible to be informally professional? I’ve been around academia for a while, but certainly not compared to a lot of other folks I encounter. I’m pretty convinced, from my conversations with many of my mentors, that it’s becoming more clear all the time that these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. They are not paradoxes. Actually, I think they are a lot more honest. For instance, when I consider the way that my colleagues shape their job searches to respond to the needs of their marriages/relationships, my respect for them grows immensely. When I spend an afternoon talking with a colleague about his children, I receive the news of his tenure with even more delight. Basically, I value the small personal details and the wide variety of personalities and backgrounds that people bring to scholarship. They make the scholarship more rich. And it makes it easier to remember that the scholarship we produce should always have an audience–a real audience with demands, and hang-ups, and flaws, and generosity, and a need for what we’re working on. I like the honesty of it. It offers a vitality I don’t see in many other environments.

For me, Twitter (and to some degree blogging in general) is an amazing phenomenon contributing to these sorts of personal-professional interactions. There are four ideas necessary to understanding how twitter works.

Twitter is a universe of folks sending and receiving information in small, numerous text messages about the entire range of human existence. It’s a mess. And most of it is irrelevant. To almost anyone. But to focus on the irrelevance is to completely miss the relevance. And to miss a truly unique and powerful opportunity. It takes some practice–but not that much–to become skillful at separating the inane from the relevant. One strategy is to…

Be strategic about whom you follow. People have different styles of tweeting. Some tell you what they had for breakfast, how their diet is going, or that they’ve hit their afternoon doldrums. I actually sort of like this stuff, but really only from my personal friends. There are some people about whom I don’t want to know this sort of stuff. Most people, actually. So, if I follow a professional colleague for a while, but they keep tweeting about stuff that doesn’t interest me, I simply stop following them. It’s not personal. It’s about their tweeting style. I prefer tweets about more professional aspects of our work. I also like the occasional personal moment or revelation, but as an exception, not the bulk of someone’s sharing. So I follow and drop people all the time. I think of my twitter feed as an idiosyncratic new feed. Even though it’s content from everyone BUT me, I am the one who shapes it. I have the most influence over the threads and themes running through the tweets. But just paying a little attention, and some judicious pruning, I’ve fashioned my twitter feed into an incredible source of information and inspiration. And I really don’t think twice about who follows me. I figure they’re making the same sort of decisions. As long as there’s some substance, emotional/personal/intellectual to my tweets, I trust folks out there to decide whether or not I’m right for their feed.

Hashtags are amazing and powerful. A hashtag is simply a word or phrase with a # symbol in front of it. #digitalscholarship #dmac2011 A hashtag is sort of like a keyword or a category. Conversations often coalesce and focus around a hashtag. For instance, if I read a great blog post explaining why Wix software is not a great tool for producing digital scholarly texts, I might write a tweet with the article title or description, a link to the post, and the hashtags #digitalscholarship #wix. Then anyone searching twitter for those hashtags will run across my tweet. On the other hand, if I want to follow a particular conversation, I can either search for a particular hashtag or I can “save” a search in my Twitter account, and twitter will produce for me a separate stream of tweets related only to that particular hashtag. This can be a powerful phenomenon during times of great social activity like the Presidential election, or the social protests around the world. It can also serve as a powerful local tool when people at a conference or event all use a similar hashtag to share info about the event.

Specifically, I want to mention three ways that twitter responds to the demands of scholarly conversation:

Sharing Resources. Pretty straightforward. I read a book or an article that gets me going, I can mention it in a tweet. A link to the text itself. A review of it, maybe. Or I read a quotation that is just so perfect, I’ve got to share it. I tweet it. I run across relevant and timely articles and posts online all the time. I can link to it with little effort. The people in my list of “followers” (I hate that term) might or might not find the info useful. As I’ve continued to add people to my following list, I continue to experience Twitter as a “stream” of information. But there’s a certain ephemerality and informality to it. Sort of like academic radio. I can turn it on and off as I see fit, but it’s actually really nice to pop in regularly to see what’s going on. I can’t tell you how many books, articles, blogs, and websites I’ve consumed and used as a result of seeing them in my twitter feed.

Back Channel. I mentioned above that hashtags can make Twitter into an amazing tool when people use a common tag at a local event like a conference or festival. But this same phenomenon has an even more interesting corollary: the backchannel. A backchannel occurs when several people attending the same small event (like a lecture, a class, or presentation) tweet about what the lecturer/teacher/presenter is saying. Those tweets can get picked up by other people in the room, if they’re following that hashtag. They begin to respond to each other with a sort of “meta conversation” or “underlife” related to the common event/experience. In some cases, especially savvy speakers are able to project or display the backchannel and respond to it in real time. It’s a pretty amazing way to increase opportunity of audience engagement and interaction (and, admittedly, distraction). When it works, it’s pretty amazing. When it doesn’t, it generally doesn’t do much harm.

News. Of all the ways that Twitter functions for me, this is probably the least important. But it’s still important. I love traditional, hand-made pottery. I follow a few other people who are interested in pottery. This makes it pretty easy for me to find out about gallery shows, kiln openings, and other types of news related to the potters in whom I take an interest. The same can be said about obscure disciplinary news. For instance, I am fascinated with news about Scalar (a forthcoming digital composition platform) or New Media Studies related to Walter Benjamin. With a little work, I can find people in the middle of those conversations, and I add them to my “following” list. It’s not perfect. It’s not comprehensive. It’s not durable. But Twitter is a way of accessing the news that simply isn’t accessible in another technology.

This post has become MUCH longer than I had intended. For brevity’s sake, if you’re interested in giving Twitter a chance, do these…

  1. Go to Twitter and sign up for an account. Takes like 90 seconds. Seriously.
  2. Find my account (@trauman) by searching for it. Click on my profile. Look at my recent tweets. If I seem like your style of tweeter, cool. Follow me.
  3. Look at whom I’m following. Click on their profiles. See what they Tweet. Follow the folks who look interesting. Look at who they follow, and repeat, etc.
  4. Search for some hashtags that might interest you. (Don’t forget the # symbol.) Save that search. Visit your saved search every once in a while to see what’s circulating. See who participates in that conversation. Follow them. See who they follow, etc. See the hashtags they’re using. Search those tags, etc.
  5. Be patient. You’re likely going to be overwhelmed at first. Just give it a little time. You’re not supposed to read everything or follow every link. Be selective. Take some risks. Then take a break. Come back in a day or two.

If you like it, awesome. Be ready to tactfully explain to people why twitter isn’t about inane, stupid, irrelevant, mind-numbing personal details and revelation. It’s only that if you want it to be. Some people want it to be that, so that they can dismiss it. Some people want it to be that because they love that part of social culture. I want Twitter to be something else. Something productive. Something scholarly. And for me, it is. It can be for you, too.

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