Blog Post

A Conference in 140 Characters: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Note-taking and Love the Tweet

A quick glance at the HASTAC blog entries tells me that I’m certainly not the first—nor will I be the last—person who ever posted something about using Twitter at a conference. In fact, my predecessor at Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, Amy Tan, wrote an excellent entry last year about the very same topic. But I suppose repetition (with a difference) is a good thing, considering the philosophy of the subject of my discussion; after all, the best tweets out there are ones that have been retweeted, quoted, and favorited over and over again. So, here goes my rhapsody on the same theme, which I hope builds on previous conversations but also gives something new.

Last weekend, I went to the annual North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) conference, at which I have been present three out of the past four years. This past time was the first time I tweeted the conference, using my trusty iPad and Bluetooth keyboard. I tasked myself to tweet the entire conference instead of taking notes. For each panel I went to, I tweeted about three times per paper: the first time, announcing the presenter and the topic/title of the paper, and two more on key arguments or interesting moments. I tweeted a few more times for the keynote speaker.

At first, it was difficult. Like, really, really difficult. The graduate student organizers for NAVSA this year (at the University of Western Ontario) were brave souls who established a Facebook group and a Twitter account for the conference months before, and they had a hashtag (#NAVSA2014) all ready to go. They even recognized my name when I checked in and encouraged me to help “trend” #NAVSA2014. But even so, I was keenly aware that I was not at THATCamp or a HASTAC conference. I mean, come on—we’re Victorianists, a bunch of people who get super excited about the invention of the telegraph. I think I’m not the only Victorianist who looks at the 19th century with a fantasy of nostalgia, as a period dominated by the mechanical (think Steampunk as the most visible form of that nostalgia). But, unless you’re Jay Clayton, who wrote the amazing Dickens in Cyberspace, the idea of the digital still feels a bit incongruous at a Victorianist conference. I think this is why, at a conference of about 200 people, there were about two other people (one of whom was the Western grad student, Madison, in charge of the NAVSA Twitter account) who were using #NAVSA2014 at the first couple of panels. This did make me feel like I was in a close-knit little circle of tweeters. It did not, however, make me feel particularly useful to the twitterverse or feel the twitterverse was useful to me. After all, the whole point of being on Twitter was so that I wasn’t writing personal notes just for myself, but participating in an online community at the conference. So that I could hear about the six other panels each session that I couldn’t make it to. So that I could see what other people at my panel were thinking about or noticing during the talks. Three tweeters did not a community make, but it did make me feel worried—at first that there was a “real” Twitter conversation going on somewhere that I, being the relative novice that I am, didn’t know how to find, and then that this whole Twitter-at-a-conference thing was just never going to take off.

But all this changed quickly—in fact, astonishingly quickly. By the end of the day, there were at least ten or fifteen people all tweeting about the keynote speech. By the end of the three day conference, that number had more than doubled, possibly even tripled. If you go search under #NAVSA 2014 now (and I hope you will), you would see a glorious record of the conference. There are tweets about a great number of talks, each attended by a few comments on what fascinated the tweeter about the paper. There are pictures of keynote speakers speaking, of old friends reuniting, of new colleagues meeting. There are links—here, a Youtube video of late Victorian folk music, there, a picture of Thomas Hardy’s illustrations to his own novels. There are people commenting on how cold it was outside (the conference was in London, Ontario, where it snowed for a day and a half). There are people making plans for dinner after the reception. Most gratifyingly, there are tweets by people not at the conference, commenting on how nice it was that they could be present virtually. No, the hashtag won’t give you a comprehensive transcript of the conference—but who wants that? In this day and age, most of us want snippets of the most important parts, the “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read) summary at the end. This is the hive-mind version of that summary, but with the added benefit that every single person tweeting is a scholar with an interesting brain. You know that “participating in the conversations of the field” thing we’re supposed to learn as graduate students? Twitter is the 140-character version of that.

So, with all that in mind, here are a few aspects about tweeting at a conference that I’d like to meditate on. Some of these are problems I had to overcome or lessons I had to learn. Others were benefits that really surprised and pleased me. I hope others will chime in with their thoughts.

On not taking notes

Probably the most difficult thing I had to learn was to fight the instinct to take out pen and paper (or tablet and stylus) at any given talk. As scholars, I think we’re conditioned to believe that note-taking is the most efficient method of recording what might be useful. I’ve discovered over the years, though, that I rarely ever look back at the notes that I take. Even if I do, I’ll have noticed that what I wrote down doesn’t actually make any sense or mean anything—that it was merely a transcript of what the speaker said, with no context and no filter or commentary. Or that I’ve just written down some keywords so that I could ask a question, but that these keywords become useless the moment the talk ends.

I’m not saying that note-taking doesn’t have its place. I did take notes for one talk during the conference; it was on the diamond in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, about which I’m currently writing a chapter. I wrote down some sources I hadn’t encountered before, because Twitter wouldn’t have been the place for them. When a talk is that integral to your project, I fully believe that you should take as many notes as you should. But for the other talks? I’m probably never going to write about Thomas Hardy’s illustrations, so what am I really hoping to get out of going to that talk? For me, it’s learning something new, either about material I hadn’t encountered before or a new way of thinking about it. And in that case, why not share those new ideas with the public world? Isn’t that what scholarship is all about?

Another thing I appreciate about not taking notes is something many others have already commented on. By forcing yourself to distill everything into 140 characters, you really have to pay attention to the key moments. It allows for more active form of engagement, where you’re summarizing arguments while listening. I appreciate this especially since I often use note-taking as a way not to have to do the work of thinking during a talk; I write down everything and hope I’ll figure out the argument later.

On distraction

The thing about social media is that there’s so much going on at once—which is probably both the best thing and the worst thing about it. Over the last couple of days of the conference, there was one tweet born every five minutes, often even sooner. And on top of that, you can’t exactly isolate Twitter from everything else on your laptop, tablet, or phone. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t check my email or Facebook a few times during the panels. I also googled quite a few things—novels I’d never heard of, or a particular work of art. I checked out the program once or twice to decide which panel I was going to attend next. All of these things are what made me thus far ban technology in my own classroom, but I’ve come to see these distractions differently since tweeting this conference. I think we need to do away with the idea that “paying attention” means all eyes glued to the speaker every single moment. The fact that an audience member is not doing anything else while listening doesn’t mean he/she is hearing what you’re saying. I’m sure scientists have done actual studies on this, but there’s something about distraction and multi-tasking that makes the synapses fire and the connections happen. More than a few times, seeing someone’s tweet about a different talk, or even seeing a CFP in my inbox, actually gave me cool ideas about the talk I was listening to. I did tune out for a few moments here and there, but I think, at this point in my graduate education, my brain is trained to tune back in when a really key point was being made. Those moments of tuning-back-in thus became more interesting and twitter-worthy to me.

On the public nature of tweets

Unlike Facebook, all of your tweets (unless you have a privacy setting, I suppose, but why in the world would you?) go out into the world. When you’re tweeting at a conference, all the other people at that conference—including that super awesome senior faculty member you want to impress—can see those tweets. I think this public aspect made all of the tweets under our hashtag unrelentingly positive—people were often tweeting about talks they were excited about, or ideas they found really interesting. This doesn’t mean that we were being uncritical; there were some really good questions being asked on Twitter, just as during the Q&A. It just means that the tone with which everything was conveyed was supportive and pleasant. I think we all of us have been to those talks where it seemed like the main drive of the audience was to attack the speaker, to break down their argument, all in the name of being “helpful.” Once you tweet something positive about a talk, it’s pretty much impossible not to be also positive during the Q&A. It’s the online version of smiling at yourself in the mirror until you actually feel happy.

TL;DR Tweeted at a conference, had a good time. 100% would tweet again.

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3 comments

Dan, thank you for this fabulous blog about tweeting at NAVSA. LOL re invention of telegraph! I really like your point about what it means to "pay attention."

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By forcing yourself to distill everything into 140 characters, you really have to pay attention to the key moments. It allows for more active form of engagement, where you’re summarizing arguments while listening. I appreciate this especially since I often use note-taking as a way not to have to do the work of thinking during a talk; I write down everything and hope I’ll figure out the argument later.

This seems really key - I love how you've described it here. The act of distilling everything while you're listening forces you to think about the key point and not just transcribe everything for later review. I completely agree that the process of actively thinking while I'm listening keeps me engaged and interested in the progression of the talk. It also helps me formulate better questions, both by doing active thinking myself and seeing the active thinking of others. 

Some folks have encouraged their students to do this in a classroom, but I haven't tried that yet.

Thanks for posting!

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I haven't really tried it in the classroom yet, either, but I'm thinking about having something like "Twitter Friday" in my classes, where the students would live-tweet their comments and questions. I know others here at Vanderbilt have done this, seemingly to great effect. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works!

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