wherein I consider the hows, whats, whys of Twitter at academic conferences

I am decidedly pro-Twitter, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time apologizing for it or even necessarily advocating for its use. Though if you push me, I will. I think that Twitter in particular (and FB to a lesser extent) provides an extra social layer of activity for conference goers, much better access for folks who aren’t there, and a crowdsourced guide to the area (making the academic conf less of a non-place a la Augé). And honestly, for those who aren’t interested in using it, there’s no real loss in either direction. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t need to be.

RSA is kind of an odd bird in our field, conference-wise, which is part of what’s got me thinking about this:


RSA, for those of us on the comp side of things, is the one conference that steadily and selectively publishes conference proceedings. As a result, I think that many people write the “publishable” version of their talks (and subsequently read them aloud), rather than versioning them out. I have to admit, the last thing I have time to do when I’m prepping for a conference is to write a whole separate version. I’m at a place where I simply do the presentation version, without worrying about the published volume. I still have my slides from 2010, for example.

All of this is by way of explaining why I think there are some presentations that are significantly more difficult to tweet than others. And part of that has to do with what I would describe as a “close writing” style: dense, careful, accretive, etc. I like close writing as a term, because I think that it’s possible to write in a specific register for an audience of close readers. And in fact, that’s not an unusual style to find in print. It’s not good or bad; rather, it’s a style tailored to a particular medium and audience. Conference presentations are a different medium, of course, and I won’t rehearse the kajillion people who have critiqued the humanities for their (lack of) expertise when it comes to delivery (“How can you know so much about rhetoric, but not be able to…?!” blah blah blah). In a closely written essay, skipping words or flipping sentences matters. It undermines your credibility, makes your ideas more difficult to follow, and for those of us with serious introversion and/or stage fright, it piles on the anxiety.

And yet. There are advantages to writing for presentation a little differently. One of the things I started doing, even before I finally made my personal shift to speaking from notes rather than reading, was to place an upper limit on the number of words in any sentence. I started paying really close attention to the intricacy and order of my clauses. A lot of closely written essays are like mysteries, whose final payoff doesn’t arrive until the end. But when you listen to such an essay, it’s really hard to hold all the moving pieces in the right places in your head as you’re getting there. You don’t get to go back and read it a second time to make sure you understand. So in writing for listeners (v readers), I started trying to go with a much more pyramid approach–even if it was something as simple as laying out the basic structure of my talk at the beginning, and tossing in a signpost or two. Here’s what I’ll talk about today, here’s where I’m going next, here’s what I’ve told you, etc.

It seems to me that there’s an added challenge when it comes to Twitter. Imagine a talk where the speaker is providing a blockquote from another scholar, and someone in the audience livetweets that the speaker is drawing on Theorist X regarding Topics A, B, and C, and sends it out there. Whereupon our speaker finishes the quote, and then announces that it’s the opposite of what s/he wants to focus on today. That kind of move is innocuous in print; on Twitter, it can misrepresent the speaker’s position, and any number of consequences might flow from that mistake. One of the things I try to be careful about as I’m tweeting is just that sort of issue–I try to be careful to make my tweets genuinely representative of the talk, but also informative for someone who might not be there. It’s tricky stuff, and close writing can make it trickier.

I do think that writing with more signposts is one easy solution, as are shorter sentences, more direct sentence constructions, and less reliance on the epiphany model of print scholarship. In a presentation, the audience is there (barring the occasional rudeness). Instead of worrying about holding something back until the end so they’ll keep reading, it’s important to provide them with some help so that they don’t get lost and stop listening.

This is where the staring at the floor thing doesn’t make lots of sense to me. I think that a closely written essay can be made a lot more accessible to an audience with a slide deck that has nothing in it but words from the presentation itself. I don’t know that folks would want to do the full-on Lessig style presentations, but honestly, even a few slides with outline or section headings and citations (h/t @johnmjones) can provide signposting even if the essay doesn’t. But I’d go one step further, and actually drop in thesis statements onto slides–we already have a model for this in the form of “pull quotes.” I’m a Presentation Zen guy, so I do this already (with big splashy pix), but a deck of 8-10 pull quotes, sized appropriately for tweeting? That’s a matter of 10-15 minutes of copy/pasting from an essay, and all of a sudden, you’ve made your essay easier to follow and much more shareable. And a co-panelist can run the deck from your script, if you don’t want to divide your attention. (You can do something similar with handouts, yes, but then you’ve got to worry about logistics (copying, distribution, last-minute edits, etc.).)

For me, the shareability is a big point. I’ve gotten copies of 5 or 6 presentations (either scripts or vids) over the last few months from people whose work I heard about through conference twitter streams. In a couple of cases, they were from complete strangers at conferences I’ve never attended. On a couple of different occasions at RSA this week, I had people contact me privately to ask someone for a copy of one of the presentations I tweeted–those are connections that simply aren’t going to happen if we have to wait until the published volume comes out (and only then, if a paper is selected).

So I guess, technically, I’m not arguing here that everyone should be using Twitter so much as I’m saying that we should all understand what it entails to present to an audience where Twitter is used. A slightly different point, but worth making, I think. And something I’m thinking about for the talk I’ll be giving in June.