Blog Post

On Academic Live-Tweeting & Other Threats

On Academic Live-Tweeting & Other Threats

[4 October 08:30am BST Update: last night the Guardian published what I have called an "edited remix" --all remixes are editions etc.-- of the text in this post. It's titled "Live-tweeting at academic conferences: 10 rules of thumb" and it can be read here.] 

[3 October 11:04am BST Update: I have published a follow-up to this post listing some resources I consider useful for academic live-tweeting.]


By now, a big chunk of the Higher Education demographic I follow and interact with on Twitter (directly or indirectly) is likely to be well aware of what was called "Twittergate".

It started as a discussion (on Twitter, where else?) amongst mostly North American academics about "the ethics of live-tweeting" academic conferences. A storified (I did not invent that adjective) version of the debate was curated by Adeline Koh and is accessible here.

As noted by Adeline on her Storify, the debate inspired an insightful post by Tressie McMillan Cottom. She summarises well what the main sentiments expressed in that conversation were. 

The debate first came into my radar at least 20 hours after Adeline posted her Storify.  I became aware of the debate yesterday, thanks to this post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, titled "Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever". I consider myself a "seasoned" live-blogger (live-tweeter, whatever) and I thought that, as always, hers was excellent and timely advice. 

Today, Inside Higher Education published this piece (titled, in typical provocative style, "The Academic Twitterazzi" [sic] even if the post's title attribute was the more descriptive "Scholars debate etiquette of live-tweeting academic conferences"),  which provided extra fuel to the debate online. 


Personally I had been deferring writing a blog post sharing what I consider to be good practices in academic live-tweeting. I have been live-tweeting academic conferences since 2009, and often, in some smaller symposia I attended, it was only me doing it (now it's rarely so). The feedback has always been positive. For instance, in June 2010, my colleague Claire Ross and I live-tweeted the 2010 Autopsies Group conference at University College London.

By then we were both used to live-tweeting academic conferences. We did it because we wanted to and because we considered live-tweeting was an excellent way of widening participation and enabling debate outside the four walls of the conference. I had asked permission to the organisers to do this in advance, and they were happy for us to do so. This is what they wrote about our live-tweeting (sadly the original site is now down but it can be located on the Internet Archive's Wayward Machine).


"The Autopsies group were delighted that Claire Ross and Ernesto Priego chronicled our study day on 'Yesterday's objects' with their real-time tweeting. They have both kindly allowed us to reproduce their Twitter feeds here in order to allow the speakers, audience members and everyone else who were unable to attend to relive the day's proceedings, and to enjoy a wonderful array of thoughts, links to other projects, and comments from Twitter users from around the world. As Ernesto remarked, 'how awesome is it that people in other continents were 'following' what was happening and commenting.' Thank you to you both for opening our little event up to such a wide audience and for providing such a lively account of the day."

[In following events organised by the Autopsies Group, I was always kindly asked to live-tweet, which was always a real pleasure]. When the Digital Humanities 2010 conference in London took place, the Twitter backchannel was well-established, at least in the DH community or in a sector of that community (Ross, Terras, Warwick and Welsh 2010).

Since then the only conferences where I have not live-tweeted is where there is no wifi available. I only got a smartphone recently, and most of my live-tweeting has always been done using my laptop. Sometimes it's been only me with a laptop transcribing what is going on, but most of the times, especially recently,  most of the delegates in the conferences I have attended participate actively both online and offline. At these conferences, having a laptop, a tablet or a mobile phone outside whilst the speaker is presenting has not been considered rude, but a sign that there is interest in sharing what is going on with more people than those who are lucky enough to be physically in the room.

My most recent experience live-tweeting an academic event was at #4hum Showing the Arts and Humanities Matter at University College London. As in other conferences, I was invited by the organisers (my former PhD supervisor Melissa Terras) to live-tweet and live-blog the event. I was not only invited, I was paid for it. The hashtag for the event was decided and advertised in advance. We checked the hashtag did not stand for anything else (this is not an exact science but it helps to know that #UCL is used by millions to discuss the 'UEFA Champions League' and not  'University College London' activities) and made sure delegates knew we would be tweeting with that hashtag.

In addition, as I often try to do, I double checked with presenters if it was OK to live-blog their talks and to take and tweet photos of them. They were all more than happy to oblige. The response was extremely positive, with senior academics, key figures in my field, expressing public and private thanks for my role as live-tweeter. They said this allowed them to concentrate on commenting the presentations and reading other people's tweets as opposed to feeling the pressure to live-tweet themselves what the presenter was saying. As usual, I also got lots of positive replies on Twitter from people not present in the conference who were very interested in the topics discussed. There is evidence for all of this, both quantitative and qualitative, that unfortunately I don't have the time to share here right now, but you can do some online 'stalking' and find these in my Storified accounts of the sessions.

For me, live-tweeting has been both an act of love, an incredible source of intellectual, technical and professional satisfaction and an incredibly gratifying, productive way of contributing to my academic community. It has also been a brilliant way of making my own work known by different audiences, and to help advocate the positive consequences of online open access and widening participation for maximising the impact of academic publications and events.


In my "Why [Academic or scholarly] Social Media is Political" handwritten notes I scanned and published here on my HASTAC blog (30 April 2012), I finished with the following points:

"[...]social media is structurally designed to produce textual networks/information flows that cannot be fully controlled by one single individual or institution. Information is received at different times and places by different individuals in different contexts, synchronically and asynchronically. It enables the widening/amplification/opening up of what previously happened [within] four walls.

Social media practices are sitll in constant flux and no unmoveable rules should be posited. It nevertheless offers unique opportunities for a different way of establishing/building/creating/destroying/transforming new discoursive and therefore political practices."

I still believe that part of the richness of social media is the uncontrollable, unpredicable nature of its essence as network. I believe that the recurrent anxieties about authority, control, attribution, originality and privacy are destined to haunt the theory and practice of scholarly social media for some time to come. It is very likely that in the future we will look back and laugh at our present interstitial stage regarding scholarly communications. As Mark Sample wrote on his comment to the IHE piece

"[...] the fact that the perceived dangers of live-tweeting conferences have already been realized in other forms, which long predate social media, suggests that there is actually no new story here. It is the same story about knowledge and representation that we unfortunately know all too well."

If there is a story here, it might be that there is plenty of evidence that scholars with different levels of social media literacy and expertise are sharing online and offline spaces and this is creating frictions of all sorts. These frictions offer unique opportunities for innovation, and while we are in this state of flux we might have to make some compromises that attempt to integrate previous paradigms with new ones. Any guidelines or best practices for live-blogging could do worse than to reflect this. 


I prefer to believe that the best way to pick up best practices is by watching others and through trial and error. It requires a willingness to make mistakes, learn from them, ask questions, overcome failings, do research, try again, try harder. I used to think online networks had ways of self-regulating but as social media become more pervasive in mainstream academia and the levels of adoption, skillsets and experience vary, good or best practices can be proposed in a non-impositive way. In my experience, good practice in live-blogging, as in anything else (say, driving a car) can save us from many avoidable accidents, obstacles and nuisances.

These good practices are often based on what should be good old common sense. I sincerely apologise in advance if you think these points are too basic. If you read this and you are already a seasoned live-blogger you might prefer to save your time and not keep reading. It should go without saying that this is not an attempt to control anything or anyone. Anyway, due to popular demand (really!) and without further ado, here are My Own Personal Super Basic Rules of Thumb for Live-tweeting a conference (one size doesn't always fit all etc.):

1. If you are an event organiser, decide in advance if you will allow tweeting. (I do believe live-tweeting encouraged should be the default mode, but I am trying to address the concerns that many still have, for better or worse).  There is no way you will be able to completely stop it from happening, but it's your prerogative to set your own guidelines and standards. If you want tweeting in the room, advertise the hashtag in advance, making sure it's relevant, easy to type and not in use by something else. You can also appoint some experienced tweeters to be your "official" live tweeterers. Just like you have someone taking minutes in meetings, an official conference live-blogger is in charge of the public minutes. 

2. If you are live-tweeting an event as a RL attendant or participant, always ask before if it's OK to do it. Nowadays, most of us in some academic circles fully expect conference organisers to have informed, well in advance, what the Twitter policy will be, on the website, call for papers, programme, etc.  If you are going to take photos, whether you intend to post them online or not, always ask if it's OK first. [UPDATE: as Rosemary Feal  pointed out, this is indeed impractical --to say the least-- in many conferences, particularly large ones. In my view not allowing live-tweeting should be the exception, and the "live-tweeting encouraged" notice should be seen nowadays as the default mode. If anyone doesn't want for any reason other fellow scholars promoting their papers online, maybe they should reconsider what conferences are for].  As a rule I would say it's better not to take photos of large groups (i.e. the audience) unless you have permission from all of them to do so. (This is very unlikely to happen so...) If they ask you to please not tweet, you should try to respect that. 

3. If you will be in charge of live-tweeting the whole event or complete sessions/presentations, take it seriously. It's a cliche but with great power comes great responsibility.  It is better to do it from a device which is not a mobile phone. This allows you to have several tabs open and to type faster and more accurately (more comfortably too). 

4. Try to type silently and mute any alarms in your device.

5. The essential thing to remember when live-tweeting is: it needs to be clear to anyone who says what. If you don't attribute and/or use quotation marks when reporting what a speaker is saying, people can (rightly will!) assume it's you saying it. It's essential @ replies and the attribution of a quote are clearly distinct as well. This takes us to...

6. Always attribute if you are quoting. I recommend starting the tweet with the name of the person speaking and follow it by a colon, then the direct quote or paraphrasis. If the speaker is on Twitter, locate in advance their Twitter account and mention them as the person speaking, but make sure you add a character (normally a period) before the @ handle if your tweet will start with it. Not only will this allow people who don't follow you both to read the tweet, it will also indicate you are not replying to the speaker, but reporting what s/he said. Attributing means extra characters. Such is the way.  I'd go as far as saying that if a speaker has a common last name and no Twitter handle one would need to include a full name to avoid confusions. You can alternate depending on how long each tweet is etc., but make sure it's easy to locate who exactly is saying what. Paraphrasing is often easier when live-tweeting, but it opens up spaces for confusion if readers are not willing to be open-minded and empathetic, so one should a) always attribute when paraphrasing and b)paraphrase with care. 

7. If you are quoting directly, use quotation marks. You can either start the quote with the attribution or you can also start with the direct quote between  quotation marks followed by a dash/hyphen and then the name of the speaker. Think direct and indirect reported speech. Yes, this means extra characters. Such is the way. NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING OPENLY ACCESSIBLE ONLINE IS PUBLIC DOMAIN. (Sorry for shouting). Attribute other people's ideas or else. It's not good manners, it's professional ethics. 

8. Even if you completely disagree with what is being said, always try to be polite and respectful. Don't tweet anything you wouldn't say to a person or group face to face. Think before you tweet. Don't forget the hashtag if it's relevant to the conference's backchannel. 

9. If you are live-tweeting an event, assume that people outside the conference will be interested and/or will read your tweets. This includes people who don't follow you directly. Explain frequently what that obscure hashtag means, so the hashtag achieves the purpose of promoting an event outside the four walls of its physical venue. 

10. Link. Google is your friend. Search for references as speakers present. Share with your followers the resources the presenters are showing in the room (unless you are not meant to and one should expect speakers and/or organisers to indicate this in advance).  

And finally, enjoy it. Live-tweeting should be fun, empowering and inspiring. It should create positive opportunities. It's all about engagement, community building and widening participation. 

A Twitter backchannel that embraces the potential for openness and transparency can also coexist with existing expectations of academic rigor,  ethics and civil behaviour. Taking the responsibility of live-tweeting seriously can help promote the idea that live-tweeting at conferences is not a threat to scholarly activity but the contrary, a real ally. 

See you in the backchannel... 


PS. I'd like to thank my amazing Twitter #HigherEd community for conversations, feedback, critique, encouragement and inspiration. 



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