Written by: Jen Rajchel
The following post is a reflection on tweeting as a mode of reporting out and the questions that were raised for me while attending the MLA 13 Panel, “The Dark Side of Digital Humanities.”
Present, Not Tweeting
“an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording”
— Michael Wesch, Context Collapse
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her #MLA12 talk Networking the Field, called for the consideration of blogs as platforms, theatres of the digital. This shift in definition also extends to Twitter, and points to the shift in practice I saw at MLA 2013. Tweeters are performers who not only share the stage with presenters but create new, adjacent ones. Tweeters no longer populate a “back channel” of marginalia alongside of a talk but interface with physical panels in real time and even sometimes overtake them. The structure of the most socially-networked talks is no longer neatly segmented sections of dialogue with roles designated for both speaker and audience. Instead, such talks frame polyphonic streams of tweets, chorusing with speaker responses. Perhaps it is not surprising that like the increasingly visible hybridized nature of reader and author, the relationship between speaker and audience is being refashioned.
That refashioning was particularly visible in the tweets that streamed off “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities.” The twitter stream for #s307 #MLA13 was overflowing with commentary. Any panel on the “dark side” is a forum readied for dissenting readers, and Twitter has been a wonderful tool for nimbly responding and participating in discussion. In this instance, however, conversations began in medias res and advanced rapidly. As someone who was present in the room and on the Twitterstream, I found it incredibly useful to hear the panelists and have the ability to read the opinions of the room so readily and widely; in essence a crowdsourcing that was both feedback and went beyond it.
The other side to this, however, is the crucial capacity for presence. As a direct observer of the panel, I was able to negotiate between the panel and Twitter. While this shift in Twitter usage may be subtle, its implications are not. I tried to imagine what my reaction would have been to the panel if I only had access via Twitter. It would have been difficult to gauge the content of the panel, and I also would have had a different sense of the tenor of discussion.
This leads me to why I was present but not tweeting (well not much).
One of the components that I value about Twitter is the capacity for naming. In addition to being able to attribute quotes to a handle, Twitter also allows for spatial naming; for example, #s307 situates tweets within a space and time. We can also identify audience through #MLA13 and place these tweets within a talk intended for attendees at the Modern Language Association in 2013. These avenues for naming and bits of metadata enrich context. But there are still ways in which even the most flexible of platforms and schemas do not capture crucial elements of performance.
Many panelists on the Dark Side of Digital Humanities, prefaced their talks with the statement: “We were asked to be provocative.” Beginning with this conciliatory remark to me meant an acknowledgement of risk and of experiment. I also read these prefatory statements as a demarcation of context, one that I felt I could not translate across media. The purpose of this panel was to spark discussion (and it succeeded: you can read one of the Storify summaries by Robin Camille and a reporting out by William Pannapacker at The Chronicle), and the panelists were called on to be polemical.
Here, in a sense, was the conundrum of context collapse. Once tweeted, sections from this panel would circulate, and statements that were framed as context dependent would be less legible.Context collapse is not new, as Michael Wesch points out, nor even is it new on Twitter. However, it becomes more present as Twitter coverage shifts from reportage to immediate discussion. As the lag time to digest lessens, context collapse becomes magnified. At stake in this move away from reportage is the creation of a stable stage through context. And ultimately, as someone who chose not to tweet, the question this raises is can I choose how and what to record and still lay claim to providing access?