Bibliography in the Age of the Internet, Part II: Twitter and Academia

On the docket: Twitter! (That’s pretty much it. Also brief mention of TweetDeck, recently Twitterified.)

I started using Twitter in early 2009.* (In fact, I can tell you the exact date I joined: 8 April 2009, precisely 838 days from today, 25 July 2011.) At that time I was working a 9-to-5er (8:30 to 4:30, to be more precise), and had initially found in Twitter the most ideal procrastination tool, perfectly suited to my interests and needs at that time: a mix of celebrity, (t)wit and nearly endless streaming material. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the initial appeal of Twitter had much to do with its budding celebrity presences. Receiving tweets from the likes of Buffy alum @amber_benson, Sorkin muse (and my recent Facebook friend) @JoshMalina and even @yokoono (among others) made this popcult dreamer giddy with delight.

*Twitter was officially launched in 2006 and rose to prominence across 2008-2009, to give a sense of the application’s overall timeline.

Once I began the first year of my PhD (and coincidentally decided to focus my research on social media, a move not entirely unrelated to my, at this point, several-month Twitter obsession), I opted to create a second Twitter account, designed to serve as an “academic” Twitter account. To this day I remain skeptical of the necessity and my own justification of this second account. Why do I feel the need to distinguish personal thoughts from “professional” ones, and what does this decision reveal about the discourses I am (implicitly) endorsing regarding social media and academia (big questions deserving of dissertation chapter-length answers)? In separating personal tweets from “academic” ones, have I somehow supported the claim that Twitter is by nature superfluous fluff? This is, of course, not my intention (the ultimate goal is more likely as straightforward as improved organization or clarity of information), but I worry it may nevertheless be the result of having opted to separate the two. For the time being I have decided to retain both accounts, with an awareness that this decision is at best curious, and at worst problematic. (For those interested in wrangling two or more accounts, I recommend making use of one of the many external apps, the best of which, at least in terms of those that are FREE, I feel to be TweetDeck. Whether this quality will persist since TweetDeck’s recent purchase by Big Papa Twitter remains to be seen.)

Since my first days on Twitter, the ways and means of the social platform have certainly changed. (For a humourous account of Twitter’s five-year history, check out the video posted above!) Unlike Facebook, where changes in content have largely had to bow to changes in platform (I’m thinking here of Zuckerberg and company’s persistent platform transformations, additions and deletions, as well as Facebook’s oft-criticized privacy settings roller-coaster), many of Twitter’s evolutions have been user-driven, or at least user-inspired; Twitter looks and functions as it does now partly on account of the early actions of its users. One of the most prominent examples of this user-generated transformation is the 2009 edit of Twitter’s lead-in question, from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” The difference may seem slight, but it is significant. As Twitter’s ever-growing user-base increasingly altered and otherwise targeted their use of the medium and, correspondingly, Twitter feeds (at least some of them) became less an unfolding of the days events and more a diverse exploration of the format’s information-sharing possibilities (e.g. news sharing, link compiling, conversation generating, and so on), Twitter’s creators responded in kind, allowing form to follow content and literally opening up the question. (For those interested, you can find Twitter’s own explanation of this shift here. The official announcement reiterates much of what I just said, though it is considerably more self-serving.)

Nowadays users continue to either implicitly or explicitly independently define their Twitter use, adopting it as a platform for some/all of random thoughts, wit/humour, sharing links/information, promoting causes and participation, hashtag conversations (more on this in a moment), and so on. Additionally, the “140 character limit” is hardly a “limit” on Twitter anymore—a good percentage of tweets are composed almost exclusively of hypertext, linking to further, character-heavy elaboration (photos, webpages, blogs and other microblogs).

There are two aspects of Twitter I’d like to quickly discuss in relation to academia, before moving on to the next–and final–entry in this series: 1) the practice of hashtagging (especially at conferences) and 2) building and developing follower and following lists. Again, for current Twitter users, this information may seem tedious, but in all of your collective Twitter wisdom, if there’s anything you would like to add, please do!


As the Twitter user count increased across the years, the mass of Twit-formation likewise exploded; the entirety of tweeted information is an unimaginably enormous, ever-growing archive of information (I have published some thoughts on Twitter as archive here). As a means of better managing and organizing this information, Twitter, like many other social media applications, incorporated the use of tagging, a system they have gradually improved over time. Rendering tweeted material more accessible and searchable, hashtagging soon gave rise to things like micro-memes (swiftly realized, game-like challenges based on a suggested hashtag, e.g. #whatiwoulddoforaklondikebar), the most popular of which appear alongside each user’s Twitter feed, first as “trending topics,” and now simply as “trends”.*

*In 2010, Twitter also introduced promoted trends, which, alongside promoted tweets, continue today.

Similarly, the use of hashtagging on Twitter has gradually begun to be introduced in academic contexts, most notably at conferences; the practice has become, among certain factions (unsurprisingly the digital humanists or “DHers” being chief among them), quite tendentious, perhaps most infamously at the 2009 MLA conference. By 2011, most of the larger conferences (and increasingly many of the smaller, sometimes with far greater fervour) have spawned at least some semblance of a conference haghtag conversation–the tags in each case typically being easy enough to discern (e.g. #mla09, #pcac11, etc.).

Depending on the conference, hashtagging can be a useful way to follow the conference goings-on, even when one is not in attendance. Generally, I think the introduction of tweeting to academic conferences is an inspired idea, though my endorsement has become more tentative since having seen some of them in action. Making use of Twitter as a space to continue or expand upon conversations is one thing; but should these conversations be taking place during the papers/panels themselves? I watched a whole row of laptopped spectators at a recent conference carrying on a full conversation on Twitter while the panelists were presenting (I only learned of this conversation at the end of the day, as I prefer to not have my computer or cell phone out during presentations). I’m assuming this group (of tenured faculty) would claim that their simul-tweeting represents a form of enriched engagement with the presented material, but I don’t completely buy it. Were they talking out loud during each paper, few would argue the question of disruption. Is Twitter so different? (Answer: yes, and no. Debate.)


To some degree, what follows is a brief “how to” with regards to building a Twitter contact list(s). Personally, this is something I continue to work at, aided presumably by the fact that  it is easier to find academics that make use of social media if they happen to study social media. Following from the previous discussion, conferences are among the most useful forums for discovering like-minded academics on Twitter; one need only follow the conference’s hashtag feed and/or check with co-panelists and audience members to discover fellow tweeters. Outside of conferences, one can search “obvious” and “famous” names/scholars on Twitter, and then mine their following lists as well (e.g. one of the first academics I searched on Twitter was Henry Jenkins, and his follower/following lists led me to easily 40% of those scholars I follow today).

As I said, for certain disciplines, this will be a more productive operation than for others. Thus, it can also be useful to expand the scope of your search beyond academics-on-Twitter; upon review of my own following list, I learned that not only do I follow colleagues and scholars in my field, I also follow publications, publishers, institutions (my own and others, e.g. digital writing labs at various international institutions) and authors (whose writing might take place on or off Twitter). All of these groups of tweeters deepen my research scope and have proven useful and relevant in different ways. Some choose to officially group those they follow using Twitter’s “lists” feature, but I’ve never really found it necessary to do so. Mind you, there might be something to be said for keeping one’s total following within certain bounds.

In conclusion: I hope to continue building and targeting my Twitter following (and increasing my Twitter followers!), and am curious to see how hashtagging at academic conference becomes more and more useful and/or harmful to the reception and elaboration of critical ideas.

Oh! And please do, um, follow me on Twitter: @pamelaingleton for academic musings, @buffyslayergal for everything else.

Next up: Better Blogging (and big! plans! for impending thesis work)


~ by pamelaingleton on 25 July 2011.

One Response to “Bibliography in the Age of the Internet, Part II: Twitter and Academia”

  1. fascinating discussion of the role of twitter at/during conferences. It’s the simultaneity (of tweet and oral paper) that would concern me, like you. Even a quick tweet right after the paper is fine, I would think–you know, in that awkward moment where the chair gets the discussion period started–but during? Looking forward to hearing how your thinking about the two accounts develops. Can be difficult to decide, potentially, where a contact falls in terms of personal/professional–and, fascinatingly, their categorization can change. thank you!

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