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More than just passing notes in class? The Twitter-enabled backchannel

More than just passing notes in class? The Twitter-enabled backchannel

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Draft study of the Twitter-enabled backchannel at academic conferences.
Draft study of the Twitter-enabled backchannel at academic conferences.

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Published by: Tony on Jun 10, 2009
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05/11/2014

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More than just passing notes in class? Reflections on theTwitter-enabled backchannel (draft)
Tony McNeill (a.mcneill@kingston.ac.uk)
 Academic Development Centre, Kingston University, Kingston uponThames, UK 
 The focus of this study is the conference behaviours of academicusers of Twitter, a social networking/microblogging service thatallows users to view and send short messages from mobile phonesas well as computers and other internet-enabled devices. Twitter isbeing used increasingly as a means of continuing and extendingdialogue, commentary and networking amongst academicconference participants and is rapidly becoming the defaulttechnology used to support what is known as the ‘backchannel’.
Introduction
funny how conferences now have a soundtrack - tic tic tic tic tic tictic Tom Abbot,
U
 The backchannel is the term used to designate the digital communicationsspace used to sustain primarily textual interactions alongside live spokenpresentations delivered in a physical environment. The backchannel wasfirst employed in large technology conferences in the USA and wasenabled by lightweight synchronous communications tools such as IRC(internet-relay chat). The growing adoption of Twitter has led to Twitter-enabled backchannels – both ‘official’, or ‘quasi-official’, and ‘unofficial’ -becoming an increasingly common feature of many academic conferencesall over the world. What was once a marginal practice specific totechnology conferences is now moving into the mainstream (Person2009). There has been some debate in the blogosphere, as well as in academicpublications, about the digital backchannel in general (Lawley 2004;
 
 Jacobs & McFarlane 2005; McCarthy & boyd 2005; Siemans 2009) and the Twitter-enabled backchannel in particular (O’Hear 2007; Jones 2008; Clay2009; Guy 2009; Jukes 2009; Kelly 2009; Reinhardt
et al.
2009; Schwartz2009). However, in the context of digital backchannel practices enteringthe mainstream as a result of the rapid uptake of Twitter and the ubiquityof portable and hand-held devices enabling its convenient use, it’s time torevisit the question of the conference backchannel and its contribution tocommunity learning.
The Twitter-enabled backchannel
 Twitter is a web-based communications platform frequently described asenabling both blogging, although the term microblogging tends to beapplied, and some of the activities supported by social network sites likeFacebook including participation in various forms in online communities. Twitter posts, or, as they are more commonly known, ‘tweets’, are nolonger than 140 characters in length and, due to their brevity and thevarieties of language used, have much in common with the short text-making practices associated with SMS messages, instant messaging orFacebook status updates (Herring 2001). However, it is blog posts, albeitin a greatly truncated form, that tweets most resemble. Lankshear andKnobel have defined blogs as “hybrids of journal entries and annotationsor indices of links, or some mix of reflections, musings, anecdotes and thelike with embedded hyperlinks to related websites” (2006: 139) and thereis certainly much evidence to support the application of this definition to Twitter. The tweet below (fig. 1), taken from my own Twitter publictimeline, is an example of twittering as “classic journalling” with myself,the author “at the centre of the day-to-day matters being written about”(Lankshear & Knobel 2006: 150). Unlike what David Silver calls ‘thintweets’, or “posts that convey one layer of information”, my example is of a ‘thick tweet insofar as it “convey[s] two or more, often with help from ahyperlink” (Silver 2009). The hyperlink, in this case, is to a picture taken
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on my cameraphone and sent to a Twitter-related image hosting service. Tweets, then, although not intrinsically multimodal, may link easily tomultimodal texts.
Fig. 1: Twitter and ‘classic journalling’
 Twitter users have the option of filling in pre-set profile fields to enableother users to find them or learn more about them. The profile template isa space for a minimal identity performance: name, username, a self-description of no more than 160 characters, a field for the URL of theuser’s homepage or blog and an image users select to representthemselves. The example below (fig. 2) displays all of these features andis characteristic of the ‘laminated’ identities performed on many Twitterprofiles The notion of ‘laminated’ identity refers to ways in which we enactparticular identities by consciously, and unconsciously, assuming orrejecting the always/already present subject positions available to us(Holland & Leander 2004).
Fig. 2: Example Twitter profile details
 Tiffini Travis, our sample twitterer, has selected the username ‘mojo_girl’in a conscious and playful taking up of the identity position of Afro-American woman (Nora Dean’s
Mojo Girl
is also the title of Tiffini’sfavourite song). On top of this, she overlays other layers; there is, forexample, a reference to her dual professional identity as librarian andauthor as well as a more personal subject position, ‘mom’. Tiffini uses her160-character bio space to list specific interests - ‘punk rock’ ‘60s reggae’,
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