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Academics and Social Media: #mla11, Free WiFi, and the Question of Inclusion

photoFollowing the previous annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, we ran a post titled “Academics and Social Media: #mla09 and Twitter” here at ProfHacker. This year, you should consider what follows a companion piece to that post.

If you asked me to describe my experience of the 2011 meeting of the Modern Language Association, I would perhaps quote this famous utterance from writer William Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Sure, the conference has its own Twitter hashtag ( #mla11), its own unofficial Flickr pool of photos, a few dozen Delicious bookmarks, and an official YouTube channel for the Narrating Lives project.

However, given that over 8,000 people paid to attend the conference, it’s quite obvious that not everyone is interested in, comfortable with, adept at, or aware of the various social media activities swirling around the annual meeting. Furthermore, not everyone has access to the tools necessary to participate: some combination of a smartphone, a tablet device, a digital camera, and/or a laptop. The more important social media becomes in the professional academic world–and I think we have every reason to believe that social media will become more and more important–the more disadvantaged such people will be. And, conversely, the more distorted the public image of the conference and the work of conference-goers will become, as it will reflect only a thin slice of the entire experience that takes place every year. Those of us using social media run the risk of completely ignoring that which is not represented through Tweets, blogs, online photos, and online videos. Frankly, I don’t think the risk is very high–we’re not stupid, after all–but it’s worth noting that the disadvantages extend to both sides of this particular digital divide.

Speaking only for myself, the active social media environment of #mla11 made for a much more enjoyable conference than it otherwise would have been. I was able to follow panels I didn’t attend, to meet people I would not have otherwise known if not for, say, their presence on Twitter. And most people’s ability to process sight and sound as separate sensory inputs meant that an active and interesting backchannel was almost always flowing at the panels I attended, which enriched my experience of said panels significantly.

Below are the observations made by several other people about the conference. (Please feel free to share your own observations in the comments section at the bottom of this page.)

Amy Cavender

“Why on earth are you writing a paragraph for a group post on the MLA meeting and social media?”

That’s a fair enough question. After all, I wasn’t there. Nor am I likely to attend the MLA anytime in the immediately foreseeable future; it’s hard to justify the time and expense when you work in the social sciences.

Nevertheless, I found myself following some of the goings-on from afar via Twitter. This wasn’t intentional, in the sense that I hadn’t planned to keep up with what was happening in Los Angeles. But a number of my colleagues (notably a number of the other Profs. Hacker) were attending, and we follow each other on Twitter. Some of the panels they were attending sounded really interesting, so I followed the hashtags for some of those panels—in particular, #newtools and #openprof.

The result? First, I was able to follow some interesting discussions about the use of new media and the ways in which academics might make use of the tools available, not only for their work, but also for promoting their work and making connections. Second, due to the number of people who posted links to good articles and who followed up on the sessions with blog posts of their own, I’ve got a lot of reading to do. . .

Brian Croxall

This was my third MLA in which social media has been an important part of the conference. As was the case with the previous years, I used Twitter heavily in the days that I attended the conference. In almost every session that I was in, I tweeted (using my laptop and/or iPad and Tweetdeck) snippets of the presentations. Often these snippets were direct quotations from the speaker or summaries of their arguments. At other times my tweets were my own reflections on what was being said or links to the projects that were under discussion, in case people following along away from the conference–or even in another concurrent session–could see what was being discussed. At the same time, I monitored the hashtag #mla11 to see what others in my session were tweeting or those in other sessions. I would reply to both groups at times. I’ll admit that this process resulted in my attention feeling split at times, but I find that the more active participation in the conference sessions allows me to focus better than if I were simply listening.

I also enjoyed the other use of social media: participants in the sessions that I attended had often posted their talks to their blogs or did so shortly thereafter. The MLA itself started a YouTube channel and invited attendees to stop by a booth in the convention center and record one-minute videos about their careers or influential teachers as part of the Presidential theme of narrating lives. My video talks about why I come to the MLA conference and why I studied literature in grad school. Others submitted videos along the lines of the “It Gets Better” project. I believe that the conference embracing social media helps to make the organization more open to the public, which can only be a good thing when the academy is facing such hard times (another theme of the conference). Now whether or not anyone is watching is something else…

I heard some people comment that they felt social media was less transformative at this MLA than in the 2009 conference. And to an extent, I think I’d agree although I wasn’t at last year’s conference. I think part of that comes from the fact that social media is now expected at the MLA. It’s no longer a surprise that a portion of the conference is blogged and tweeted live. Instead of feeling like revolution, it feels like a supplement. That doesn’t mean it’s less important…it just means we might not have to write a post like this next year.

Rosemary Feal

WiFi. Free for attendees. In all convention meeting rooms. That was the suggestion I received from several MLA members (including those on the Committee on Information Technology) whose views I value, and so we on staff did what it took to make it happen for the inaugural January MLA convention. We also had tables placed in the meeting rooms reserved for those blogging or tweeting about the convention (next year the signs will say, simply, reserved for those using computers). I think it is fair to say that the ubiquitous WiFi changed the dynamic of an already changed convention. New dates, cultural excursions, warm Los Angeles weather, no late evening sessions, Creative Conversations – these all made the convention feel refreshed and exciting.

Yet it was the WiFi that created the most profound (and invisible) change: a channel for constant discussion of what was going on at #mla11 (the Twitter hashtag for the conference), a forum for debate, and a connection for those following #mla11 offsite. I managed to tweet from most of the sessions I attended (and even tweeted during portions of the Delegate Assembly as well as in sessions in which I participated!). Twitter made the MLA convention experience unbelievably rich for those who followed the stream (which we ran front and center on the MLA home page). But so did other uses of social media.

As part of Sidonie Smith’s Narrating Lives project (PDF), attendees were invited to come to the MLA booth in the exhibit hall and record a short video about their professional experiences. The invitation was also extended to anyone wishing to upload their contribution on YouTube, and a good number have been submitted to date (the project continues, so please consider participating). The online MLA convention program was opened up for comments, links, abstracts, and other annotations from session organizers, attendees, and other interested people. We’ll make it even more open and accessible for the 2012 convention in Seattle.

Oh, and I did convene a Tweetup this year, though, as other bloggers have pointed out, it has inevitably acquired more of an institutional feel and therefore seemed less of a hack than in Philadelphia. I also did a minimalist blog with help from my fellow MLA officers. I teased @mlaconvention’s followers by saying, “OK, fine, hack my convention.” Except for that PDF of the convention program that circulated (ahem), I was thrilled at the way in which attendees on site and people from afar took me up on the challenge, and I eagerly await next year’s iteration.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

The single thing that most influenced my experience of this year’s MLA was the wireless access that the organization generously sprung for. It took some fairly heavy lobbying to get it to happen, but the MLA staff were compelled by our descriptions of how connecting the conversations taking place within individual sessions with one another via Twitter, as well as connecting conversations within the connections with folks who couldn’t make it there, could transform the convention. It worked brilliantly, so much so that MLA executive director Rosemary Feal could be heard exclaiming about how energizing those networked discussions were — and if you’d been there at 8.30 am on the last morning of the convention, you might even have gotten to hear her tell me that I was right, that the availability of wifi really did add substantively to the engagements within and around the convention.

Is wireless here to stay at the MLA? I hope so. It’s not an inexpensive proposition, providing wireless access to 8500+ convention attendees, but such access will be available for MLA 2012 in Seattle. By MLA 2013, the network landscape may well have changed enough, thanks to personal wifi hotspots and other devices, that such centralized access may be less necessary. But the convention will no doubt be looking for further ways to open communication among its attendees, and between attendees and folks following online. Wireless this year was an excellent step in that direction.

Natalie Houston

MLA 2011 (or #mla11) was the first conference I’d attended for which there was an active twitter stream. I found using and following twitter during the conference highlighted the issue of attention for me in interesting ways.

It’s too easy to either dismiss or celebrate users of social media as either not paying attention, or not paying attention properly, or attending in a better way — individual neurological preferences vary widely regarding the number and kind of information inputs you can have simultaneously. I’m not interested in such generalizations, as I think they’re largely unproductive.

But at a conference, one performs paying attention — or not paying attention, since audience members are often under the scrutiny of the other panelists, as well as others in the audience. We all know that it’s possible to perform paying attention while actually thinking or writing about other things. It’s also possible to perform not paying attention: fidgeting, eye rolling, newspaper reading and so forth. The person who’s blogging or tweeting the talk may, in fact, be paying more attention to it through this active practice than others sitting still. But you really can’t tell by looking.

The cultural practices of audience and presenter behavior at MLA or other conferences vary depending on subfield, too. We tend to think that “paper-reading” means one thing, that “round-table discussion” means another, and that “blogging” means a particular kind of behavior. I saw much more variety at the conference. In a few subfields it is culturally appropriate, even expected, that there would be a lively twitter critique of the panel occurring simultaneously with the presentations. In others, the use of social media while someone is talking is considered rude. I’m OK with that. Variety makes the profession interesting.

For myself, I found my own use of twitter was useful either in focusing my attention on key (tweetable) statements from the speaker, or in engaging my critical attention in dialogue with the speaker. But there were also times when I checked out of a particular discussion (often during Q&A) and attended more closely to what was going on in the stream. Those were all panels related to digital humanities or social media and so keeping up with the twitter stream was actually an important aspect of the session experience. But I left my smartphone in my bag for the panels in my primary research area (Victorian studies) so that I would attend fully to the presenters and not violate cultural protocol.

Attention seems relevant here in another sense, too. In only following #mla11 on twitter, you would never know of the vast majority of panels at the conference. To read much of the media coverage, you would think that the conference was filled with social media users and idiosyncratically-titled papers. But that’s not the case. Many (even most) of the people who attended the MLA, people who had intellectually and professionally enriching experiences there, are not current users of social media, nor are they likely to be. They are not paying attention to #mla11 and neither is #mla11 paying attention to them. That’s not a problem to be remedied so much as a rhetorical issue to be aware of in thinking about voice, audience, and change.

Jason B. Jones

The MLA, and its indefatigable director Rosemary Feal (@mlaconvention), have gone to dramatic lengths to make the annual conference social-media friendly. From the free wifi, to the blogging tables & official hashtags at sessions, to the MLA-hosted reception/tweetup, it’s safe to say that social media tools have become part of the institution of the MLA.

I suspect that Feal would deny that this represents a new commitment to engaging its members on the part of the MLA, and that she would insist that the MLA has always been member-friendly, doing a lot of member service over the phone. And that might even be true. But I think it’s fair to say that the democratizing, leveling tendencies of social media make that engagement much more visible and productive. In particular, engaging the membership through social media makes clear that the organization is, or at least wants to be, as responsive to the concerns of an adjunct faculty member at 3 community colleges as it is to the holders of endowed chairs at major research schools. While the fruits of such a commitment may take years to unfold, they begin through small gestures, and the #mla11 hashtag and its various spinoffs are as good a place as any to begin.

Kari Kraus

In her roundup of this year’s MLA Convention, Caroline Roberts of the blogPost Academicrefers to the #mla11 twitter feed as “admirably polite and professional.” Although true as far as it goes, this characterization tells us very little about what made Twitter distinctive or interesting at the conference. It is as if we opted to describe, say, the critically acclaimed HBO series DeadWood as “a TV drama about the American West”: the blandness of the description masks everything that made the show so original. If you’re like me, you read and participated in the #mla11 twitter stream at least in part for the exuberance and irreverence of it, and then experienced first-hand the way those qualities spilled over into the conference at large. This spill-over effect in turn points to the other problem with “polite and professional”: the phrase suggests that the twitter feed took on the complexion of a typical MLA conference, when in reality the reverse happened. You might say that Twitter functioned as a relief valve for the fear and anxieties that often attend the convention, remaking them in its own rambunctious, unruly image.

Twitter also naturally fostered real-life interactions among tweeps: at the Cork Bar, for example, a lively discussion about Twitter and academia found its way into remarks made the next day by Erin Templeton at the Open Professoriate roundtable. That these remarks were subsequently tweeted by panelists and attendees, quoted by Inside Higher Ed, and published online by Erin demonstrates Twitter’s ability to ground scholarly discourse in a public vernacular and facilitate its circulation through multiple channels that continuously feed back on one another.

But there is something else to these online-offline exchanges that is captured in the #mla11 hashtag stream, which is that Twitter changes the way we think about, experience, and represent our face to face interactions. There is, for starters, the social media equivalent of the Pygmalion myth, in which we conceive of real-life encounters with people in our network as the animation of their avatars. Jokes about Brian Croxall’s user pic, for example, led to speculation that he must be sepia-tinged in the flesh (cf. Derek Bruff’s tweet from last August). But Twitter also seems to make us more keenly appreciative of sensory details that can only be fully perceived in person, as when Amanda French commented on the sound of Rosemary Feal’s voice. For me, the effect of Twitter on the analog world of MLA is best expressed in visual terms: it felt as though the perennially glum spectacle of black suits and attire was suddenly awash in brilliant technicolor (a metaphor that was literalized on Day 1 of the conference when Mark Sample showed up dressed in motley).

Mark Sample

If you know anything at all about me, it’s likely that I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of Twitter. I’ve written extensively about teaching with Twitter on ProfHacker, I was the chief instigator of the 2009 MLA Convention’s fake tips on Twitter, and I was an active Twitter user during this year’s convention in Los Angeles.

I like Twitter.

So when I have something critical to say about Twitter, it’s not a petty gripe. My problem with Twitter is what I call Twitter Hegemony. Simply put, whenever Twitter is even briefly mentioned in academia, it quickly comes to dominates the discussion. We conflate all social media with Twitter. Even when Twitter is on the periphery in practical terms, it becomes central in symbolic terms. I saw this phenomenon firsthand at the Open Professoriat panel, when a panel discussion about openness and transparency became all about Twitter, as if that’s the only way for faculty and graduate students to be public. We ignored, for example, the powerful role that online communities such as DMLcentral, HASTAC, and MediaCommons play in bringing together graduate students, junior faculty, and tenured faculty in a more or less egalitarian fashion.

Twitter Hegemony means that if you followed the Twitter hashtag stream for #MLA11, you ended up with a very narrow perspective of the conference. If you were interested in the digital humanities, we probably had you covered. But did you want to hear about Medieval/Renaissance panels or Latin American studies? Good luck finding those tweets.

Looking at some statistics reveals just how small a slice of the conference Twitter was. Around 8,500 MLA members attended the conference. But only 851 distinct Twitter users posted with the #mla11 hashtag. At least a fraction of those 851 Twitterers were not physically present at the convention. It’s safe to say, then, that fewer than 10 percent of the conference goers posted anything to Twitter.

The numbers get more interesting drilling down further. Half of all #mla11 twitterers (426 people) tweeted only once. Meanwhile, thirteen percent of the #mla11 twitterers accounted for 80 percent of the #mla11 tweets. Even more startling: the top ten twitterers produced almost 40 percent of the conference tweets. Ten people accounted for nearly 3,000 of the 7,600 #mla11 tweets.

I happen to be one of those top ten people, but it’s not something I’m particularly pleased about. If Twitter is as transformative in creating transparency and collaboration as I like to think it is, then I can’t be anything but disappointed that only a few of us used Twitter. And I can’t help but wonder if the conference experience of those people who did not use Twitter was substantively different from mine. Perhaps it was, but I’ll never know. The silent majority remains inscrutable. The hegemony of Twitter will speak in their place, but it does not speak for them. We must remember that.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

Well, once again I found my Twitter stream added an invaluable layer of texture to the MLA conference, even if the exigency of keeping up with live discussion during a panel and the online backchannel occasionally overwhelmed. I was struck though by just how much of the convention reportage has shifted to Twitter and away from blogs. Even just a few years ago, I remember live-blogging (proto-Twitter, obviously) followed by long, lovingly crafted blog round-ups as the epicenter of the digital MLA. Now the action is all on my Tweetdeck, real-time reportage without nearly as much analysis and reflection. At one point I asked how many people were blogging (as opposed to tweeting) the conference, and several @replies immediately questioned whether they weren’t the same thing. I maintain that they are not. Twitter and blogs are distinct technologies, each with their own history, technical protocols, social conventions, audience expectations, and formal constraints and affordances. It’s not just that the long-form formats of blogs offer “deeper” (and thus more nuanced) venues for writing; it’s also that blogs make a different sort of discourse claim, one that is not carried solely by engagement with the moment of the text’s composition. It seems to me that we would do well to strive for a bit more balance between blogs and tweets, as well as a deliberate effort to package and bridge the two using tools like Anthologize.

All of that said, I will admit nothing quite sums up my #mla11 experience like this little ditty which I penned for the Twitters, sung to the tune of the old “Badger, Badger” meme: *Panel, panel, panel, panel. Cash bar, Cash bar! I think I neeeed soomme . . . SLEEP!*

Bethany Nowviskie

I was sidelined by pneumonia this year, so I used social media to monitor one MLA session I had organized on behalf of ACH (an exciting “electronic roundtable” or demo session of eleven projects in digital literary studies) and another panel on which I had planned to speak. I was grateful for all the Twittering that let me know the former session went well. For the panel (“The Past and Future of Digital Humanities“), I contributed a brief position paper to be read in absentia — designed, in part, to make an old friend sing the Mambo Italiano at a formal gathering of a major professional society. (That worked.)

What hasn’t worked, for me, so well as last year, has been the aftermath.

First, even though I published my little essay online and have heard from colleagues that it was a meaningful intervention in the face-to-face conversation at our “Past and Future” panel, because so many of the people who might otherwise have had something to say about it in blog comments or on Twitter were physically present in LA, I’ve had almost no feedback. This is (sadly!) a commonplace and expected state of affairs in print and journal publishing, but less so in informal, online spaces. Mine wasn’t at all a major statement — it was just meant to be an opener to conversation about the relation of methodological training in DH to new, much-needed #alt-ac career paths for humanities grad students — but if it provoked conversation, that was conversation from which I was absent, because many of my usual interlocutors were physically present. In other words, interestingly, face-to-face discussion at MLA short-circuited my normal online network!

My other observation is that missing MLA ’11 helped me appreciate the gentle and worried critiques we’ve been hearing for some time about the formation of a “cool kids’ table” or a (next-gen, more widely-apparent) “star system” in digital humanities. This notion has been usefully interrogated and historicized by Matt Kirschenbaum and Stefan Sinclair, among others. Even knowing I’d have been at the various DH tables at MLA, and understanding better than most the context for exchanges that were happening among my friends and colleagues under the #mla11 hashtag — I found the trivial and social aspects of the chatter alienating, from a distance, and the subsequent navel-gazing, “who’s in / who’s out” conversations un-productive for the field. Twitter seems to be making stars of many inexperienced digital humanists who are only talking about digital humanities, loudly, online. MLA ’11 cemented my notion that it’s time for me, at least, to ease off from social media and set a better example by getting back to work. (It’ll be interesting to watch how quickly, therefore, one “star” will set.)

Lee Skallerup

I didn’t go to the MLA this year, at least not in person. There are a number of reasons: I’m not on a job search, I wasn’t presenting, I spent Christmas at home in Canada with my family instead, I couldn’t really afford it because we have just bought a house and moved immediately before the holidays, etc. But the truth is, I didn’t even submit an abstract to be on any panels; when the abstracts were due, I thought I was kissing my academic career goodbye (I’m pretty sure I’ve kissed any hope of the tenure-track goodbye, but anyway). All of this to say, I wasn’t planning on having anything to do with the MLA this year.

I don’t really much like academic conferences at all, big or small, despite my writing to the contrary because I am completely incapable of interacting normally with my fellow academics. I get so nervous that I end up blubbering and babbling and gushing and sticking my foot in my mouth. I act overly-familiar or too distant. I don’t know how to make “friends” and I never really know anyone and no one really knows me. I’m usually a very social person who is at ease in groups of strangers. But when those strangers are my intellectual “superiors,” I turn into a mess.

When #MLA11 turned up in my Twitter timeline, I was sucked in. I followed along and got involved in the discussions about Digital Humanities and how technology is changing the profession (#openprof and #newtools). I asked questions that I may have been too shy or blubbery to ask otherwise (seriously, 140 characters is a blessing for me). I read blog posts about other presentations (a big, big thank you to Dr. Davis of Teaching College English for being such a diligent blogger). I learned a lot, was challenged and I think was able to pose some challenging questions in return, especially in regards to those of us off the tenure-track. I made new “friends,” got some new followers, and basically got over myself through the semi-anonymity of the web; you can’t see my blush online.

Now, I want to meet all of these fabulous people I follow on Twitter or whose blogs I read. I want to have my own discussion group/panel (maybe about using social media to improve our teaching/creating PLN in higher education – #FYCchat plug!). I want to go to Seattle next January and, for the first time, enjoy an MLA conference because I don’t feel intimidated or like I don’t belong. I’m sure I’ll still stick my foot in my mouth or ramble on too long with someone I’ve greatly admired from afar. But, hey, I’m looking forward to it now.

So thank you MLA Convention for having Wi-Fi and to that handful of Tweeters and bloggers. You reached at least one person and convinced them to join the party next year.

See also “My (Virtual) Experience at MLA ’11

Erin Templeton

I am of two minds about the presence of social media at this most recent MLA convention in Los Angeles. On the one hand, I really enjoy Twitter, and it was great fun to meet many of the people whom I’ve been following over the last year or so (including fellow ProfHackers) in person. I enjoyed getting to know the person behind the avatar, hearing their actual voices (rather than the voices which I imagine for them), and seeing their various facial expressions. I also have found new people to follow thanks to the #mla11 hashtag which so dominated my twitterstream for several days. I got to participate, virtually, in sessions that I could not attend due to scheduling conflicts (and my inability to figure out that whole cloning process), and I got to hear other people’s responses to many panels, including the one in which I participated. All of these things were fantastic, and speak to the many benefits that social media in general, and Twitter in particular, can bring to a conference like the MLA. And the MLA, and Rosemary Feal especially, should be commended for embracing these technologies and providing the wi-fi for convention-goers.

As the same time, while the part of me who embraces social media and digital humanities work rejoiced at the energy and vitality that these vehicles provided for a certain swath of MLA-attendees, the literary scholar in me despaired at the deadening silence which accompanied the lively chatter of other communities at the conference. As Janine Utell observed in her reflection upon last year’s MLA, “Where [are] the literature folks, people doing research, giving and listening to papers in my area?” There is a community of modernist scholars on Twitter, but for a variety of reasons, I suspect, they were not tweeting at MLA. Some didn’t make the trip this year. Others are on the job market. But whatever the reason, I felt their absence more acutely this year, I suspect, because I was also so keenly attuned to the enthusiasm of the media in other circles. To be clear, I’m not saying that all literary scholars need to sign themselves up on Twitter, but rather I want to point out the ways that we can harness these tools and the interest that they can generate to facilitate our own work in the classroom and in our research. Not only is there the benefit of the network, both social and professional, but there is also the possibility for the exchange of information. Instead of complaining that two sessions on modernist novels are scheduled against each other, we might share the highlights of each via the twitterstream and a hashtag. No, reading a panel on twitter isn’t the same as being there in person, but I think most of us might agree that it’s certainly better than missing out completely.

As I have remarked elsewhere, openness in our profession can lead to wonderful opportunities for exchange and collaboration. But to avail ourselves of these opportunities, we first need to be willing to participate. As yet, very few literary scholars have taken the plunge, so to speak, and I can only feel more and more sharply that their absence is our loss.

What about you?

What was your experience with social m at the MLA 2010? Alternately, what has been your experience with Twitter (positive or negative) at conferences?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by ghwpix]

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