Academic twitter: ethics and conversational nuance

I’m a little embarrassed by the extent to which this blog has consisted of meta-discussions about Twitter, lately. It’s been proving easiest for me to engage in discourse at 140 characters. But today is not the day that is going to change. Over the past few days, I’ve been following and participating in a discussion about the ethics of academic tweeting, which Adeline Koh has tirelessly gathered via The Academic Twitterazzi.

The debate over whether scholars should live-tweet sessions from academic conferences, especially without warning, saw a revival this weekend. Naturally the conversation itself, which has spawned at least one effort to draft formal guidelines for what should be considered fair game for the academic Twitterazzi, took place on Twitter.

“[I]t’s presumptive to assume that we should share other people’s work w/o asking,” wrote @eetempleton, an assistant professor of English.

“I would disagree,” rejoined @alothian, another English assistant professor. “when I speak & others tweet, I learn a LOT about my own ideas.”

One of my comments regarding this discussion was that the biggest danger is not the act of tweeting, but the way that one tweet can so easily be short of context in “retweets” and quotations. It is therefore both ironic and appropriate that my quotation in the article above not only takes my tweet out of context, but actively misrepresents the conversation it was a part of. In fact, I disagreed with a different comment of @eetempleton, and the tweet quoted by Steve Kolowich above is actually in response –– in agreement –– with mine.

I’ve used Storify to gather the conversations I was a part of yesterday, in order to show (hopefully) how much nuance and complexity frequently takes place within the Twitter stream, though it is often simplified when it is quoted elsewhere.

[Edited to add this paragraph] There’s actually a far worse decontextalization going on in that article, which Mark Sample draws attention to in comments. His tweet was quoted, but shorn of its attribution as a quotation from a blog post by Roopika Rasam. In Sample’s words:

One, the problem of misrepresentation is not a problem with Twitter itself. Twitter in this case was more accurate than a national news publication. Two, the problem of misrepresentation tends to work against those lower 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. Furthermore, these words came from Roopika Risam’s very first blog post. Imagine the chilling effect upon graduate students when their first forays into academic blogging are also their first experiences with having their ideas stolen from them.

And finally, the fact that the perceived dangers of live-tweeting conferences have already been realized in other forms, which long predate social media, suggests that there is actually no new story here. It is the same story about knowledge and representation that we unfortunately know all too well. It’s a story, as Ms. Risam says, “about control and access.


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