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Social Media and Book History: #SHARP11 and Twitter

[Recently the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) took place in Washington D.C. I've been a member of SHARP since I attended the 2001 meeting, and I've always found the conference--as well as the SHARP journal Book History--to be extremely rewarding.

This year, Twitter was a powerful presence at the conference, in part because the organization was officially encouraging conference-goers to use the medium for backchannel discussion. SHARP's president, Leslie Howsham (@lesliehowsham), and vice president, Ian Gadd (@iangadd), are both on Twitter. And it seemed to me that a critical mass of SHARP attendees were already Twitter users. Furthermore, I noticed a number of Twitter users who were not even attending the conference engaging in the #sharp11 Tweetstream. (Below, I've included contributions from three of those people, one of whom was unaware of SHARP's very existence but is now determined to attend a SHARP conference.)

Here at ProfHacker, we've written about Twitter and academic conferences before: for example, you might check out "How to Start Tweeting (and Why You Might Want To)," by Ryan Cordell, "Encouraging a Conference Backchannel on Twitter," by Derek Bruff, and these group authored posts: "Academics and Social Media: #mla09 and Twitter" and "Academics and Social Media: #mla11, Free WiFi, and the Question of Inclusion."

Rather than provide my own observations about Twitter and #sharp11, I'm going to let SHARP vice president Ian Gadd have the opening word and then include contributions from other participants in alphabetical order by last name. --GHW (@georgeonline)]

Ian Gadd (@iangadd)

My finest Twitter moment at #sharp11 took place offline–on a podium, during the Annual General Meeting session at the very end of the conference, as I was just about to hand out prizes to the best conference tweeters. . .

Wait a minute! Prizes? For tweets?!

Yes, prizes for tweets. Admittedly not quite on the same scale as the University of Iowa but the ‘best’ #sharp11 tweeters each received a copy of John Hench’s Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II, which had just been announced as the winner of the annual George A. and Jean S. DeLong Book History SHARP book prize. As SHARP has, in recent years, attempt to engage more directly with social media (Twitter, Flickr, LibraryThing), these free copies were an explicit effort to encourage #sharp11 participants, especially first-time attendees, to tweet their conference experiences.

However, while on that podium, I realized that for many delegates, Twitter is an unknown, if not downright suspicious, quantity, whose abiding features would seem to be a feverish clacking of keyboards and an inability to maintain eye-contact. But how to explain Twitter to book historians? I groped for a historical analogy and suggested that conference tweeting was a form of ‘live commonplacing’: synthesizing a speaker’s argument or paraphrasing a key point or simply quoting a great line. I emphasized how Twitter enabled audiences, during a speaker’s presentation, to react, to comment, to discuss, to share. I stressed Twitter’s specificity and transparency, and how those who were unable to attend the conference could follow discussion nonetheless; I noted that Twitter’s digital character meant responses could be distributed and re-used with remarkable facility and immediacy. I acknowledged that Twitter wasn’t always as silent as it could be but suggested that it enabled more sophisticated, precise and tangible discussion than excited whispers among colleagues on the back row.

Off-podium, I think there are things we can do better. Many of them are practical: better wifi; tables for laptops; establishing Twitter Rows (or, perhaps, Twitter-Free Rows) to limit distracting noises or screens; using Twitter to call for technical assistance during sessions; improving coverage of parallel sessions; better use of hashtags; hosting tweet-up events; and so on. But I also think as books historians we are particularly well placed to think critically about Twitter’s role in academic events such as the annual SHARP conference. Like commonplacing, conference tweeting can be mechanistic—the neutral repetition of another person’s thoughts—which can be immensely useful to those eavesdropping from afar. However, George Williams’s experiments in collaborative note-taking with Google Docs suggest that there may be alternative strategies. Perhaps conference tweeting should be more about glossing, amplification, and critique. If so, instead of describing conference tweeting as ‘live-commonplacing’, I would reach for a new analogy: ‘oral marginalia.’

Mark Curran (@c18booktrade)

At #sharp11, on stage in the Baird auditorium of the American Museum of Natural History, I made a confession. I said that I cared more about my (forthcoming) book than our database. In doing so I sided with the fossils. A fellow digital humanities panellist suspected disingenuousness; this talk of paper publishing and exotic discourses did not compute. The twitter stream turned red. Humanities databases are more than tools to address research questions, it insisted, they are objects of serious scholarly study! Why should articles and books receive special status as academic outputs?

Fair points. And, as a young academic who has spent 5 sleepless years helping to create and populate a database that prospective employers will view as a curiosity, they resonated. But I know too that the majority of the audience was on my side. I looked into their eyes; I spoke with them afterwards. This was SHARP: the dead tree huggers outnumber the tweeters and database lovers by ten to one.

So it should remain. The point I was making was simple: if small-team scholarly databases want to attain that privileged status reserved for books and articles they should replicate their functionality. They need to push human knowledge forward, not simply add to it. I stand by my words. Our database is a tool—perhaps of general interest, perhaps of pedagogical use, certainly exciting—but a tool nonetheless. I hope that in my book, by exploiting this tool, I will be able to make a lasting contribution to scholarship. I hope others will for years to come. Twitter, #sharp11, by seemingly marking me as off message, made me wonder if the digital humanities divide is not growing, and which side of it I really wanted to be on.

Catherine Feely (@cathfeely)

There were a few reasons why I couldn’t attend SHARP this year, but mostly it was because, as someone who has recently completed a Ph.D. and is currently living off part-time jobs, I just couldn’t afford the expense of travelling to the US. I’ve been to SHARP conferences before, in The Hague and Oxford, and have soaked up the friendly intellectual atmosphere.

I enjoyed the live tweeting this year for several reasons:

  1. I found out about exciting research in a much engaging fashion than the average formulaic conference report.
  2. Using the #sharp11 hashtag, I could see what was going on in parallel panels simultaneously, which I imagine was also informative for people at the conference. Again, this can’t be done in a report where the overview is dictated by the particular interests of the reviewer.
  3. The SHARP tweeters were a witty and enthusiastic bunch. They made me feel like something important AND fun was happening over there in Washington.

The power of this shouldn’t be underestimated. It certainly made me determined to make next year’s conference in Dublin, and I expect that it will have encouraged followers who weren’t previously aware of SHARP to look up what the society is about. This is not to say that I don’t have some reservations. I do not know how I would feel if my own paper was the subject of some tweets on the snarkier end of the backchannel. Nor am I sure that I would live-tweet myself as, as some contributors themselves noted, it is hard to concentrate on a paper and tweet about it at the same time. But I do not think that these minor issues should stop SHARP, or any conference, from encouraging tweeting, which has certainly encouraged this member to get more involved in the conversation.

Katherine Harris (@triproftri)

I confess. I’m a Twitter fan. Even before SHARP 2011, I participated in the backchannel at MLA 2009 and 2011. After the kerfuffle at the 2011 MLA panel, “Past and Future of Digital Humanities,” I decided that tweeting a non-Digital Humanities panel, a panel that focused on “stuff, things, books,” might satisfy some non-DH Twitter followers. George Williams (@GeorgeOnline) and Erin Templeton (@eetempleton) responded to the tweets, as did Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself), a history of the book/digital maven whom I had not yet met. That Twitter conversation initiated an MLA 2012 panel and culminated in a face-to-face meeting at SHARP where we (and several others) annotated and conversed about simultaneous panels in real time over Twitter.

With the help of my laptop and Tweetdeck, Twitter facilitated conversations across panels, allowed me to gather more information, request inter-library loan books as they were being discussed, or ask questions while speakers were presenting their beautiful slides. I tried to effect a generous, collegial tone to my tweets with the exception of one presentation, which was squarely in my area of expertise. The rule about Twitter, for me is that whatever I tweet must be something I would say to that person directly. So before I asked a tough question of this presenter, I rehearsed my collegial tone and tenor over Twitter. At the final plenary about the digital humanities, SHARP, and book history as a discipline, Twitter revealed the audience’s reflections and points of contention, commentary that was immediately rolled into my Respondent’s remarks. Twitter doesn’t necessarily erase academic hierarchies. Instead, I like to think of it as an entertaining space to continue academia’s reach. No one tweeted what his/her cat ate for breakfast, but we might have tweeted about the coffee, tea, pastries, oh, and the incredible archival images unavailable except behind a library’s doors.

Cheryl Knott (@ckmalone)

Having posted only 15 #sharp11 tweets, I suppose I qualify for a taciturntweep tag. Nevertheless, that represents a 3-fold increase over my tweets for #sharp10, my first experience using Twitter to report from a conference. Perhaps because I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and because of my respect for SHARP, I strove for accuracy. On occasion, that meant launching a new browser window to check spelling and definitions or checking the printed conference program to make sure I was getting a name right. Consequently, tweeting had a dual impact on me. It helped me focus at the beginning of each presentation, but then it distracted me as the presentation progressed. My response was to stop tweeting after saying one or two things about a panel session or a paper and to forgo tweeting altogether at some events. In the #sharp11 tweet stream, my tidbits probably made sense to other SHARPists near and far. For the students assigned to read my tweets for my government information course at the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science (the bulk of my minuscule following and my main reason for using Twitter), my posts from SHARP conferences read as a series of non-sequiturs. But intriguing ones, I hope.

Nicholas Morris (@nickmimic)

#sharp11 was the first conference where I could be identified as a “power tweeter,” or that small percentage responsible for a large percentage of the tweets, a trend identified by Mark Sample (@samplereality) in his contribution to the recap of #mla11. As such, I was using Twitter in a manifold way: to relate conference proceedings to those who could not attend, following from around the globe; to thicken my own Google Docs or Notetaker files and assist my memory; to create meaningful conversations around the talks with other attendees (without noisily whispering); to allow other tweeters to bypass concurrent panels and follow two or three at once; and finally, to facilitate networking, often much more democratically and diversely, through #backchannel conversations and face-to-face “tweetups.” Tweeters have different styles, just as people have different personalities. Some tweet summaries of the presenter’s points, others reflect on what the presenter is trying to do methodologically or theoretically, others connect-the-dots between the presenter’s material and other important texts/talks/theories/links, and others ask questions to the Twitter stream. The environment created by these different styles is greater than the sum of its parts.

At the conference banquet the last night, I found myself discussing Twitter with Jonathan Rose and John Bidwell, two non-tweeters. It was really useful to have an objective discussion between users and non-users about Twitter’s positive and negative outcomes for the academic conference. While they probably weren’t converted to using Twitter themselves, Rose and Bidwell were surprised at the range of roles Twitter can assume. In closing comments, Leslie Howsam—herself a self-professed “re-tweeter”—remarked upon SHARP’s increased visibility through Twitter and other social media. This points to a last role of academic tweeting: publicity, or introducing others to a discourse they may never have been privy to without the serendipity of the Twitter stream.

Jim Mussell (@jimmussell)

Twitter for me is now an essential part of any conference experience. Right now its use is sporadic: increasingly it is endorsed by the organizers like at the recent SHARP conference, complete with hashtag and details about wireless access; but sometimes its use is more fugitive, with twittering delegates creating their own hashtags or, worse, sending off isolated missives into fragmented networks. The real-time conversation that it enables, unobtrusive and easily archived, galvanizes the audience, making them active participants in a presentation, rather than passive recipients. References and links are supplied, key points reported and recorded, alternative contexts offered, and arguments met. And of course, for those not attending, the Twitter feed provides a valuable glimpse of proceedings, capturing not just some of the highlights, but also how they were received.

What interests me about Twitter is its position somewhere between orality and writing. While I’m listening to a paper, which is often being read out aloud, I’m also reading comments that approximate speech. Like the whispered remarks sometimes made by delegates in the audience, the twitterfeed can be distracting for those in the audience. I don’t mean the noise of typing, which was something commented on during SHARP, but rather for those listening while reading and contributing to the feed. I find this difficult enough, but it is made even more so when I’m also trying to take notes.

What is odd is that this conversation increasingly serves as the record of an event. There are some things to think about here. Despite their brevity, tweets are not ephemeral and even the most tangential remark risks passing into the official history of a conference. Equally, coverage can be uneven, depending on which papers are attended by tweeters. Personally, I don’t want to feel that I have a duty to tweet; and there were a number of instances at SHARP where papers were so interesting that even the most dedicated tweeters gave the speakers their full attention. Perhaps recognized tweeters (with press cards in their hats?) should be appointed by the organizers to ensure some sort of consistency of coverage. For me, the value of presentations is in the context of their delivery, both as arguments in their own right and how they contribute to the stuctured conversation that is the conference as a whole. The twitterfeed recognizes the crucial agency of the audience, whether during a particular presentation or afterwards, as it is recalled at other moments in the event. While I don’t think the twitterfeed provides the definitive or exhaustive account of the conference, it complements the papers with a record of the active audience and, given that we all members of this audience, if not the twittersphere, I think it is in all our interests that the twitterers are present and encouraged.

Benjamin Pauley (@benjaminpauley)

In a very real sense, my experience of the 2011 SHARP conference was based entirely on the #sharp11 Twitter stream—and this despite the fact that I was on the program, myself. Through an unfortunate coincidence of scheduling, the SHARP conference took place the same weekend as the second meeting of the Defoe Society, on whose board I serve. I wouldn’t have missed the Defoe Society conference for the world, but, when I was invited to participate in a special panel on digital humanities at SHARP, I consulted the airline schedules and determined that, through the miracles of jet travel and time zones, I could just manage to fit in both, even though they were happening on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

I began my paper at SHARP by noting that I had been able to keep one eye on the #sharp11 Twitter stream while in Worcester. This, I quipped, had been not quite—but almost—entirely unlike being at SHARP in person. It was a throwaway joke, but one that I think contained a grain of truth. Following the Twitter stream gave me some insight into a version of SHARP, or rather, a composite of several versions of SHARP, each from the perspective of the various people who tweeted the conference. None of those versions, of course, could have been identical to the version of SHARP I would have experienced for myself had I been there in person. But then my own version of SHARP wouldn’t have been as varied or, arguably, as rich as the composite version I got from Twitter. The important point, though, is that following #sharp11 gave me some access to SHARP 2011, and that was more than I would have gotten without Twitter. Indeed, Twitter actually enabled me to pass along a question for a panel at SHARP during a down moment while sitting in a panel at the Defoe Society conference. That surely wasn’t the first time such a thing has happened, but it would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

Miriam Posner (@miriamkp)

Because I’m apparently an ignoramus, I hadn’t realized how much my own interests in film studies and digital humanities had in common with the history of the book. But from my friends’ tweets, I was able to get a snapshot of a much broader field than I’d imagined, one concerned with questions about how we know, think, and tell over time. I was really interested, for example, to learn about Ian Gadd’s work on the Stationers’ Company, a printers’ guild that for centuries played an important role in the London book trade. The subject of the talk might not have seemed relevant to me, but from tweets I learned that Gadd is making connections to economic history, questions of medium specificity, the history of ideas, and material culture.

@sim1303 .@iangadd : “we have something to learn from economic history, and economic history has something to learn from us!”
@nickmimic .@iangadd folding the Stationers Co and books back into EM material culture studies
@sim1303 so, @iangadd asks, what was special re: the statco then? parallelly, what is the exceptionality of books v/s other manmade objects?

I also got a glimpse of the passions that animate my colleagues’ scholarly work. Conference proceedings and scholarly articles can sometimes seem kind of bloodless, but from the tweets that emerged in real time, I got to sense the things that really keep you going as a scholar: the excitement of discovery and the emotional investment in intellectual problems. Katherine Harris (@tripoftri), for example, was fun to follow, writing, “will try v. hard not 2 scare 2 ppl working on literary annuals who are presenting today. tho it’s always *exciting* to find others” and then, apparently overcome with excitement, “i can’t even tweet…“.

I’m actually resolved to get to the next SHARP if I can, based solely on the tweetstream.

Diane Shaw (@museocat)

My employer was one of the co-hosts of the SHARP 2011 conference in Washington, D.C., and I probably would have attended some of the sessions in person, except for the fact that I was out of town on business that week. It didn’t occur to me that I could keep up with the conference events, at least in a limited fashion, through Twitter, until I started seeing the tweets coming into my feed from some of the people I’ve been following, such as @wynkenhimself , @Nickmimic , @stampedinblind and @BrettBobley. The #sharp11 informal Twitter team was very helpful in conveying some of the highlights of the talks, links to digital humanities projects, and information on the book prize winners, and they also provided some sense of the physical qualities of the conference (e.g. photos from the walking tour of U Street, and comments on technical difficulties with internet connections that made me wince in shared sympathy). Speaking as a lapsed book historian myself, having a terminal ABD with an interest in Erasmus and 16th century printing but now working as a librarian who needs to know a little bit about a great variety of subjects and time periods, I appreciated being able to follow the Twitter discussion on some of the latest trends in the history of authorship, reading, and publishing from the SHARP conference.

Helen Sonner (@helensonner)

Following an academic conference through Twitter can feel like you are standing on the doorstep of one of Habermas’s idealized coffeehouses, looking in. You overhear many great lines. You sense the rise and fall of conversational momentum. You can even toss in a remark from across the threshold, and some of the people on the other side will notice. But you are only getting indirect snippets from complex conversations. You can’t see what they are looking at. And you can’t hear what some of the people are saying at all.

But the experience changes when you think of the Twitter stream as its own space, rather than merely a threshold from which to eavesdrop, through a medium darkly, on an academic conference. Within the conversational boundaries formed by this year’s conference hashtag, SHARP’s members created an engaging space for scholarly exchange. It was informative and inspirational to see how both senior researchers and young scholars were responding to the presentations, to each other, and to the comments from those of us following from afar. Academic societies interested in learning how to use Twitter effectively should review the #sharp11 archive. Ignore, if you must, the details about curly brackets and other things that make a SHARP heart quicken. But notice the ways that the society’s members made that space as warm and compelling as any great coffeehouse.

Simran Thadani (@sim1303)

Given that I was a prolific conference tweeter, it is obvious that I believe in the potential of social media. Indeed, I was pleased to observe that those who used the conference’s searchable “tag,” #sharp11, used it in many productive and powerful ways: to record papers, to synthesize information, to formulate and answer questions, to follow remotely the proceedings in other rooms, to broadcast interesting material to a larger audience, to ruminate on the praxis and dynamics of presenting intellectual work, and to kickstart conversations and build networks.

These are all perfect appropriations of digital means for analog ends, and the conference organizers were certainly pleased with the resultsof this technological outreach. But for all its micro-communicative efficacy, Twitter as medium, and individual tweets as message, were complicated by the limits of the service, of its users, and of the internet itself. For instance, the inability to edit tweets once they’d posted resulted in inadvertent errors of transcription or meaning. Some attendees, perhaps ignorant of our documentary mission, did not appreciate our audible (and frenetic!) typing. And the intellectual work of winnowing posts down to Twitter’s limit of 140 characters while continuing to focus on the presenters was sometimes quite strenuous. Even so, I was delighted to have been part of this experiment, one to which dozens of people were keenly attuned for four days in July, and in which participants could actively contribute to ongoing conversations beyond the confines of the traditional presentation formats.

Jim Wald (@CitizenWald)

To tweet or not to tweet? If I do not tweet for myself, who will tweet for me? If I tweet only for myself, what am I? Twitter, as one of my non-SHARP “tweeps” says, is the most misunderstood of social media. To wary outsiders, for whom it represents an exercise in egotism, I gently explain that it all depends on what you are looking for and whom you choose to follow. In the 4 years I’ve been on Twitter, it has become one of my most valuable research and networking tools. Frankly, I am much more interested in what total strangers on Twitter are reading than what my Facebook friends had for lunch or their kids did at the birthday party.

At last year’s SHARP conference in Helsinki, I tweeted as a matter of course. It turned out that others did, too, so this year, we formally promoted tweeting, even sponsoring a contest. We wanted at once to broaden our outreach and to signal that our view of “the book”—the technologized word—fully embraces the digital as both vehicle and object of study.

On the simplest level, the tweeting allowed for vicarious participation, by those who could not be present, but also by attendees who had to choose among concurrent panels. Spontaneous conversation emerged, as a tweet from another room or another country stimulated an insight or provoked a rebuttal. This dialogic dynamic was perhaps the most fascinating aspect. Tweeting helped us to identify common interests, but above all, to engage common themes that might otherwise have gone unelaborated, unquestioned, or even unrecognized. The proliferation of spontaneously evolving narratives somehow yielded a sense of higher but still fluid coherence for the conference as a whole. In the process, the dialogue reinforced a sense of common purpose among those most dedicated to advancing the digital humanities.

In summary, our tweeting proved to be about community and content in equal measure. Of course, as much as I love the digital community, it’s nice to have a tweet-up, meet your virtual friends in the flesh, and discuss books over a beer: another example of a new technology reinforcing the old practice.

Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself)

Twitter made the conference a much better experience for me, before, during, and after it was over. For starters, I walked into the conference knowing other attendees even though it was my first time at SHARP. I’m not that shy by nature, but it made it much easier to feel at home when it didn’t look like a bunch of strangers, but rather a group of tweeps and a whole lot of their friends. That’s no small thing, I think. As for during the conference, I found there were two benefits to being on twitter: intellectual and social. I find tweeting a talk actually helps me stay focused on the talk–I’m listening closely and assessing what major points are and how to synthesize what’s being presented. I sometimes get too drawn into a talk to do this, and when I’m at a talk about something with which I’m unfamiliar, I can’t grasp the landscape of it to tweet it. But most of the time, tweeting keeps me in the moment and creates an interactive record I can return to later. That interactive part is key: I learn from the responses of other tweeters in the room. Sometimes I’ll miss a point, or mishear it, and can ask for help or revise my thoughts based on someone else’s response. I also like being able to speak out to others not there. A few times I would hear a claim about something and wonder if it was really right; by twitter I would get confirmation of the speaker’s research or my own skepticism.

As for the social angle of being at the conference, it meant finding companions for meals–I like eating on my own, but eating with other attendees meant that we could continue discussions about the conference. All of this meant that SHARP was both fun and productive, and much of that came from how I was using twitter both before and during the conference.

How about you?

What was your experience with Twitter at SHARP 2011? Alternately, what has been your experience with Twitter (positive or negative) at conferences?

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