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Reflections on the Twitter-enabled backchannel (draft)
Tony McNeill (firstname.lastname@example.org) Academic Development Centre, Kingston University, Kingston upon Thames, UK The focus of this study is the conference behaviours of academic users of Twitter, a social networking/microblogging service that allows users to view and send short messages from mobile phones as well as computers and other internet-enabled devices. Twitter is being used increasingly as a means of continuing and extending dialogue, commentary and networking amongst academic conference participants and is rapidly becoming the default technology used to support what is known as the ‘backchannel’.
funny how conferences now have a soundtrack - tic tic tic tic tic tic tic Tom Abbot, http://twitter.com/tomabbott/status/1444366047
The backchannel is the term used to designate the digital communications space used to sustain primarily textual interactions alongside live spoken presentations delivered in a physical environment. The backchannel was first employed in large technology conferences in the USA and was enabled by lightweight synchronous communications tools such as IRC (internet-relay chat). The growing adoption of Twitter has led to Twitterenabled backchannels – both ‘official’, or ‘quasi-official’, and ‘unofficial’ becoming an increasingly common feature of many academic conferences all over the world. What was once a marginal practice specific to technology conferences is now moving into the mainstream (Person 2009). There has been some debate in the blogosphere, as well as in academic publications, 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; Clay 2009; Guy 2009; Jukes 2009; Kelly 2009; Reinhardt et al. 2009; Schwartz 2009). However, in the context of digital backchannel practices entering the mainstream as a result of the rapid uptake of Twitter and the ubiquity of portable and hand-held devices enabling its convenient use, it’s time to revisit the question of the conference backchannel and its contribution to community learning.
The Twitter-enabled backchannel
Twitter is a web-based communications platform frequently described as enabling both blogging, although the term microblogging tends to be applied, and some of the activities supported by social network sites like Facebook including participation in various forms in online communities. Twitter posts, or, as they are more commonly known, ‘tweets’, are no longer than 140 characters in length and, due to their brevity and the varieties of language used, have much in common with the short textmaking practices associated with SMS messages, instant messaging or Facebook status updates (Herring 2001). However, it is blog posts, albeit in a greatly truncated form, that tweets most resemble. Lankshear and Knobel have defined blogs as “hybrids of journal entries and annotations or indices of links, or some mix of reflections, musings, anecdotes and the like with embedded hyperlinks to related websites” (2006: 139) and there is certainly much evidence to support the application of this definition to Twitter. The tweet below (fig. 1), taken from my own Twitter public timeline, 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 ‘thin tweets’, 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 a hyperlink” (Silver 2009). The hyperlink, in this case, is to a picture taken
on my cameraphone and sent to a Twitter-related image hosting service. Tweets, then, although not intrinsically multimodal, may link easily to multimodal texts.
Fig. 1: Twitter and ‘classic journalling’
Twitter users have the option of filling in pre-set profile fields to enable other users to find them or learn more about them. The profile template is a space for a minimal identity performance: name, username, a selfdescription of no more than 160 characters, a field for the URL of the user’s homepage or blog and an image users select to represent themselves. The example below (fig. 2) displays all of these features and is characteristic of the ‘laminated’ identities performed on many Twitter profiles The notion of ‘laminated’ identity refers to ways in which we enact particular identities by consciously, and unconsciously, assuming or rejecting 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 AfroAmerican woman (Nora Dean’s Mojo Girl is also the title of Tiffini’s favourite song). On top of this, she overlays other layers; there is, for example, a reference to her dual professional identity as librarian and author as well as a more personal subject position, ‘mom’. Tiffini uses her 160-character bio space to list specific interests - ‘punk rock’ ‘60s reggae’,
‘information literacy’, ‘edupunk’, ‘educational technology’- which constitutes an abbreviated ‘taste performance’ (Liu 2007). This ‘taste performance’ adds additional layers but is also another of the ways in which Tiffini projects a public identity that enables her to navigate some of the online Twitter networks and connect with others with similar interests. Twitter allows users to follow the updates of other users; these appear in that users list of people they are said to be following. The people they are following may, in turn, choose to follow those who are following them. These physically distributed social networks form innumerable loosely coupled communities bound, albeit fleetingly, by shared histories and interests. Twitter’s search tool enables a user to find others with similar interests and clicking a ‘Follow’ link adds them to that user’s list of contacts. A less permanent way of bringing twitterers together is to add a hashtag (e.g. #alt08) to tweets. This allows other users to search and retrieve all tweets with the same hashtag. This is now the common practice in conferences and workshops and allows Twitter users to interact with others without having to add them to their list of contacts. Twitter therefore largely conforms to boyd and Ellison’s (2008: 211) definition of social network sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to 1) construct a public or semi/public profile within a bounded system, 2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their lost of connections and those made by others within the system”. However, Twitter is more accurately described as an ‘open’, rather than a ‘bounded’ system insofar as both Twitter profiles and the associated timeline of tweets are fully public unless users decide to make them private.
Defining the backchannel The concept of the backchannel invokes the metaphor of partitioned or divided space; a ‘front’ area for the speaker usually comprised of a lectern, networked computer(s) and projection screen(s) and a larger
‘back’ area for the audience with seating facing the front. The model, ecclesiastical in origin (i.e. preacher at pulpit delivering a sermon to seated parishioners), has informed the design of most lecture theatres from the Middle Ages to the present day. Although a shared space, the lecture theatre provides the physical platform for an asymmetric interaction: speaker/presenter talking to - or at - a seated audience whose opportunity to speak is limited by social conventions dictating a small period of time at the end for questions and comments. This spatial arrangement ‘positions’ individuals as either speakers or listeners. The backchannel disrupts such positioning by allowing, without interfering audibly with the frontchannel presentation, a range of interactions between delegates. The backchannel, then, is the space for simultaneous, multidirectional and, up to a point, multimodal communication. The notion of the backchannel also problematises the distinction we make between ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ spaces. The use of a digital backchannel at conferences presents a hybrid form of interaction in which the virtual and physical are embedded in one another. A presentation in physical space is often the trigger to a series of textual interactions in virtual space which may, in turn, be reused in the same physical space in the form of hashtag-aggregated tweets projected onto a screen and responded to by the speaker or used as a stimulus to further discussion.
Review of the literature
There is currently relatively little in the way of formal academic research on the use and impact of Twitter although a small number of conference papers have been published over the last 12-18 months. Much of the work produced tends to fall into one, or more, of five categories: (1) definitions of Twitter and its key terms (McFedries 2007), (2) accounts of the growth and geographical distribution of Twitter users (e.g. Java et al. 2007), (3) categorisation of Twitter behaviours (Huberman et al. 2008; Krishnamurthy et al. 2008), (4) reflections on Twitter for educational
purposes (Costa, C. et al. 2008; Ebner & Maurer 2008; Grosseck & Hololescu 2008; Stevens 2008; Young 2008) and (5) analysis of the Twitter-enabled backchannel (Reinhardt et al. 2009; Saunders et al. 2009; Schwartz 2009). The blogosphere also provides a intellectually lively space for academic commentary and conversation on the emerging practices relating to Twitter use and it is here that the description of particular case studies and discussion has been at its most intense. Jacobs & Mcfarlane’s (2005) early paper on conference backchannel practices framed discussions of technology-supported backchannels in highly polarised terms; its subtitle, ‘distributed intelligence or divided attention’ highlighting a conflict between, on the one hand, an inclusive, participatory conference culture and, on the other, the fracturing of conference delegates into cliques only intermittently engaged with the main presentations. The majority of papers and posts on the backchannel have tended to make a case for them supporting shared learning - “a valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active participation” (Kelly 2009) and “[m]icroblogging allows virtually anyone to actively participate in the thematic debates” (Reinhardt et al. 2009). A minority have taken the opposing view; a post by Marieke Guy in her blog argues that social networks can be occasionally “elitist and alienating” and that Twitter, based on her recent observation of conference backchannels, “seems to be the right application in which to be clique [sic] and have a dig at people” (2009). The backchannel’s ‘snarkiness’ (the term ‘snark’ is a neologism based on the words ‘snide’ and ‘remark’ and is used to designate sarcastic and dismissive comments) is, according to at least one commentator an integral part of its vitality (Lawley 2004a). However, it is clear that for some it is a cause for concern.
Against this background of practice and debate, there are a number of questions that need to be asked of the growing use of the Twitter-enabled
backchannel in academic conferences. My particular research questions are: • • What types of interaction are academic twitterers (i.e. users of Twitter) engaged in? Does Twitter enable a more participatory conference culture by facilitating additional modes of networking, discussion and information sharing? Is there a need to formulate guidelines on how best to manage the backchannel to support community learning?
My research data takes two forms: (1) responses to an online questionnaire completed by 103 respondents; and (2) a set of hashtagaggregated tweets sent by 22 participants of a single learning technologyrelated conference that took place in April 2009 and was attended by 108 delegates. I collected and analysed my data over a six-week period in April and May 2009. By seeking responses from a wide range of academics, I was attempting to establish the ‘bigger picture’ of Twitter use and attitudes towards the emerging cultural practices associated with the Twitter-enabled backchannel. Through my analysis of conference-related Twitter activity, I was hoping to get at richer data – i.e. specific actors, detailed social context - that would illuminate Twitter behaviour in a different way to the questionnaire.
Design of my survey The intention of the online questionnaire was to gather data on attitudes to, and use of, Twitter for professional development purposes in general and as a means of enhancing conference participation in particular. The survey was therefore divided into two sections: (1) ‘Twitter and you’ which sought to elicit attitudes to and use of Twitter in more general terms and
(2) ‘More than just passing notes in class’ which sought to gain a picture of Twitter use as part of an academic conference backchannel. Question types included multiple choice, lickert scale and matrix. I was interested in seeking qualitative data in participants’ own words and included a number of open response questions in the survey. Of particular interest to me were the blurring of professional and personal identities and the idea of Twitter as a laminated discursive space in which multiple identities are performed. The survey was publicised through a number of HE discussion lists and by sending a tweet with a link to the survey which I asked followers to retweet (i.e. a form of Twitter-based snowball sampling).
Participant analysis This part of my research is probably best described as an ethnographic study in which I occupy a space somewhere between researcher-as-insider and researcher-as-analyst (Davies & Merchant 2006). The data presented in this study was collected as a result of my developing participation in a loose network of higher education practitioners (e.g. lecturers, librarians, educational technologists) attempting to understand the nature and implications of new and emerging technologies to teaching, learning and assessment and using social media such as Twitter to do so. My research setting was both physical – a single academic conference that took place in early April 2009 in a physical venue at a university in the south of England - but also virtual insofar as a unique conference-specific Twitter hashtag aggregated the disparate tweets of conference participants into a single shared digital space. So, my research context was a specific discourse community of academics sharing physical and virtual space as conference participants and twitterers. My collection and analysis of tweets has more in common with the methodology of ‘unobtrusive measures’ (Webb et al. 2000) than, for example, some work on digital culture in which the researchers position themselves as both subjects and objects (Turkle 1995; Markham 1998; Davies & Merchant
2006; Davies 2008; Lankshear & Knobel 2008). The conference whose Twitter backchannel I have chosen to analyse was one I attended as a delegate but at which I did not present. I also took no part in the backchannel other than as a ‘read-only participant’ or ‘lurker’. My ‘inhabitation’ of the conference and its Twitter backchannel – my ethnographic field site – was therefore limited.
Analysis and findings
Survey responses The story I have to tell about my research data is one of enthusiastic engagement with an emerging technology and the new socio-literate practices that the technology facilitates. It’s also a story of individuals finding their own ways of using Twitter for personal as well as professional purposes and managing the separation, or blurring, of these two social contexts. The majority of participants in the survey were recent converts (42 or 40.8% joined in the last 6 months), suggesting that 2009 may well be the year that Twitter went mainstream in HE. However, as one might expect from higher education practitioners with an interest in technology, a significant number were early (i.e. users over the last 18-24 months), or earlyish (users over the last 6-18 months) adopters. Other Twitter users, both friends (8.7%) and colleagues (28.2%), brokered over a third of participants’ introduction to Twitter with less than a third learning about it first from a range of web-based sources (30.1%). Participants were quick to discover a range of tools (Tweetdeck, Twitterfox etc.) to improve the user experience of Twitter, although a little less than half (46.6%) were using Twitter-related services such as Twitpic. My research participants are using Twitter for a range of purposes; professional development was the reason participants rated most highly, although ‘learning more about Twitter’s potential in education’,
‘developing new social networks’ and ‘strengthening existing social networks’ were also highly rated. Twenty-one of the survey participants took up the option of specifying other reasons for using Twitter. What was striking was the range of reappropriations of the technology which spanned the professional – e.g. “Gauge potential as part of a ‘toolbox’ of ‘Web 2.x’ services to support collaborative scientific research”, “marketing of services”, “as outreach for my library” – and the highly personal – e.g. “prayer support for close friends”, “fun”, “Stalking celebrities!”. What’s clear from the many of the replies is that Twitter users are engaging creatively with what Pinch and Bijker (1984) call technology’s “interpretive flexibility”, i.e. users interpret how they want to use it in ways meaningful to them, and producing what Grint and Woolgar (1997) call new ‘readings’ that are very different to the intentions of its creators as a lightweight notification service (‘What are you doing?’). Of particular interest to me were ways in which Twitter users were managing the separation or blurring of personal and professional identities and activities. The majority of participants had a single Twitter account (72.5%), although over a quarter had multiple accounts (27.4%) with one respondent having as many as 11. The reason most frequently cited for multiple accounts was the perceived need to separate professional and personal spaces:
Personal, two for work, one for daughter and one for band I have a personal Twitter account and one for both the subject areas I manage One is my main personal/professional one; the other is to support a research project I'm running with students
There were often cases of different Twitter accounts for specific areas of professional practice:
one for ASTD chapter one for ALA roundtable I've had 3 for me, undergraduate students and postgraduate students two I use for automation purposes 10
Ninety-six participants completed an open response question on their attitudes to the blurring of private and professional realms. I attempted to dimensionalise attitudes by placing participants on a continuum: at one end were those who were comfortable with the blurring and, at the other, those who felt uneasy. Broadly speaking participants mainly clustered at the ‘comfortable’ end of the continuum. Some maintained that Twitter’s relative newness means it’s still to be adopted by the mainstream making the blurring less of an issue:
no one I know socially uses Twitter few friends and family on Twitter
Some participants were actually enthusiastic about the blurring:
One of its strengths there's benefit to a professional person demonstrating human traits prefer it when the people I follow combine social & professional twittering; it gives a fuller picture of that person, and helps fill in the gaps created by not meeting them face-to-face
More than half the participants (61) had sent tweets during a conference, the majority of which used the conference hashtag (49). ‘Notes to contacts not present at the conference’ was the reason selected by most (49) with ‘to participate in discussion with other delegates’ not far behind (43). A little more than a quarter of conference twitterers (16) claimed to have sent dismissive or dissenting tweets during presentations. These included:
snarky replies and DMs [direct messages] to another person sitting near me about content we disagreed with sometimes speakers say something so wrong (like an assumption or misconception held by non-experts) and you can't wait til the end to go "wtf??" Speaker was boring, wasted our time
Others participants objected to my survey’s use of the word ‘subversive’ and claimed that critical tweets were no different to the critical comments they would otherwise feel comfortable articulating face-to-face:
am usually tweeting my thoughts of the presentation and that means both good comments that i agree with as well as things i disagree with to highlight frailties in argument, or to identify my position on topic They have been critical, rather than subversive: making critical comments, opinions or reflections about particular issues raised. They are openly tweeted, and nothing I would normally hide from a group of critically engaged colleagues.
The majority of respondents (46.2%) agreed with the statement that Twitter enhances conference participation by enabling a distributed dialogue, with over a fifth (21.5%) strongly agreeing. Twenty-one participants took up the option of describing Twitter’s contribution in their own words. Only one response provided an alternative description:
oh please, it's just anothe [sic] way of talking to the people you get on with and ingnoring [sic] the people who get on your nerves. sometimes you have to listen to the balix [sic] to hear something interesting or useful.
The others used the space instead to add caveats. Some related to the uneven adoption of Twitter as a backchannel technology amongst higher education practitioners and the risk of “two-tier engagement”:
I agree, but would like to see the tweets documented in some way. Besides, twitter is still used only by a minority of people Yes to above, but multi tasking this way is not for everyone. Hmmm, sort of agree, but only some people twitter. Like the William Gibson quote, "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." Twitter can be great for confs, BUT risks having two-tier engagement, therefore not actually inclusive. (I know people CAN all join if they want, but they haven't yet, have they?)
One area identified by a number was the value of the backchannel to colleagues not physically present:
I think it creates an interesting backchannel for conversation for those participating live at the conference, and for people who aren't at the conference physically but are present virtually can potentially broaden and enriche [sic] dialogue and information exchange through backchannel - enable some degree of participation by those not physically present
Some related to the limitations of the technology:
potential for wider participation, but it is quite limited in potential unless combined with streaming of the content itself I fiind [sic] that I agree with this statement, but also have a comment. […] Twitter is a poor notetakere [sic] with seriously unstable backfiles, and bad searchbility, so i see it's [sic] use as very much "at the moment" it also provides a record of conference impression but much less coherent than blog postingd [sic] from people who attended the [sic] conference
The final survey question addressed the issue of good practice guidelines for the use of Twitter conference backchannels. A slightly higher number (49 against as opposed to 40 for) argued against the needs for such guidelines. Of the 40 who responded to the request for suggestions, about a quarter justified their reasons for saying good practice guidelines were unnecessary or undesirable. Some argued this on pragmatic grounds – “Could you imagine tryign [sic] to enforce anything??” and “they are unlikely to suceed [sic] in being adopted by more than a minority of participants”. Others trusted their fellow professionals and twitterers to use the backchannel appropriately:
because social networks police themselves I think on the whole people are fairly sensible at conferences, from the twitter streams I've read. It would sort of lose the point if you had too many dos and donts I think professionals (adults even!) should be trusted to excercise [sic] their own judgement in this respect. It's quite likely that an element of self-regulation would creep in here too, as followers move to the defence of those who are unfairly tweeted about
Finally, three took a more overtly moral stance on the imposition of behavioural norms in the backchannel:
I want to say something about no ... I will have no part in constarined [sic] practice ... what is good p for one is not necessarily good p for another I would resent greatly an imposed set of best practices for this tool. It's [sic] flexibility and personalization are outside of that, I believe I don't think so. Rules are made to be broken imho. If you constrain me I will buck the system just because!!
The 31 suggestions for good practice guidelines tended to be more practical than moral and often related to the technicalities of hashtag use:
[not] clogging up the conference stream by using conference hashtags on non-conference related posts just simple guidance for the uninitiated... Just the common sense stuff: Hash signs should be a MUST Publicising hashtags in advance so that we can ensure use correct tags. Full URL citation when possible - URL shorteners may not persist (lost link over time) and may be subject to hijacking by hackers for nefarious purposes (security)
About a quarter made good practice recommendations relating to the sending of snarky tweets and other forms of inappropriate behaviour:
"Do no harm", i.e., conduct the conversations with the same level of courtesy and respect that one would expect of any professional interchange Not publically flaming speakers! actually exposing the twitter stream at events might have the effect making people self moderate a bit more Keep public tweets 'politically correct' and constructive to the conversations, even if critical. Keep subversive, complaining tweets private Only Tweet what you would stand up and say publicly To not make subversive remarks using the conference hashtag...it's unprofessional.
Note to self: summary of findings and link to next section needed Participant observation The other main component of my data set consists of a series of tweets using a shared hashtag that were sent during a one-day educational technology conference. I thought it would be more productive to reconstruct and analyse the chronology of these tweets – understanding their ebb and flow in the context of the day’s events - rather than discuss them category by category as other some papers and blog posts have done (McCarthy & boyd 2005; Giles 2009). Although I have interpreted the use of a shared hashtag to mean that these tweets are in the public domain and, therefore, may be cited without their authors’ permission, I have attempted to anonymise participants and context of their
interactions by changing the names of both twitterers and removing details of the conference venue and speakers that would immediately identify the conference. One striking characteristic of the hashtag-aggregated Twitter activity I observed is that it constitutes not a single distributed conversation but, rather, multiple monologues and a few intermittent, loosely joined dialogues which participants enter and exit at will. The earliest tweets fall into the category of play-by-play summaries, i.e. brief descriptions of the conference as it unfolds akin to live coverage of a sporting event via a web page,. Play-by-play tweets were the main category of conference post and many were purely descriptive:
Good morning all! At the train station to start trip to [name of location] & [#conference hastag] Paul Jones, from the [name of university] speaking "We're interested in the future, and that's the semantic web"
Others play-by-play tweets extracted a key message or personally salient points. These tweets are not verbatim transcriptions but distillations or identification of salient points and take-home messages:
another knife in the heart of recording 50 min lectures from Paul Jones of [name of university] [name of university] tends to avoid putting lecture content, instead putting up high-quality documentary content with academic narration/intention Note made that lecturer's need to be trained in presentation techniques because of limitations of webcast cameras
It was not uncommon for these types of tweets to include the url of relevant sites or documents:
[name of project] has 7000 metadata entries on the website, encouraging other universities to aggregate feeds into it [url to project website] biggest barrier is legal / IPR , suggest having a look at [url] as a starting point for advice about a month ago
Another category of tweet that featured amongst the earliest contributions related to logistics and often concerned the availability of WiFi and details of the agreed hashtag:
Arrived for the early bird session at [#conference hastag] at [name of university]. All arriving in [name of venue]. plush Lecture room. No sign of WiFi new tag for today's podcasting conference [#conference hastag] - a really interesting day ahead [url to conference programme]
At this point tweets replying to logistical questions were also in evidence:
@[name of participant] [conference hashtag] wifi is available on eduroam or someone will pass around visitor login for [name of conference venue] network soon.
Tweets about Twitter and the backchannel-related comments also feature:
so we're doing a good job collab note taking. Is there a good tool for reversing these back to the right chron order? We've made the Twitter trending topics list again!
Dialogues between participants, although not as common as play-by-play tweets, were a perceptually salient feature of the Twitter backchannel. Here is one example – with names changed - of the kind of dialogic interaction observed:
articulatedesign: Q re transcripts, access4all: credible transcription systems anyone? A: no, no answer... kunst: automated transcripts are not very readable. We operate on-demand transcription - if requested, we'll send off to a transcriber. paterfamilias: @kunst - another thing to keep in mind: if you have a script, you also have a transcript articulatedesign: @paterfamilias re script = transcript: that's what i'm talkin about, yes yes yes. But will put REAL pressure on workload of teachers.
What we see is a three-way dialogue, initially triggered by the frontchannel presentation, taking place between participants in the backchannel. Participants are sharing experiences and, to a degree, coconstructing knowledge. It’s interesting to note that one of the participants identified backchannel interaction as a positive part of his
conference experience, turning his attention toward backchannel activity at moments when not engaged with main presentation - “this one a bit too technical for me, twitter talk keeping me engaged tho”. A more interesting interaction in the backchannel occurred during a presentation after lunch when a cluster of highly critical tweets were posted during one particular presentation by a representative from a major computer manufacturer that was deemed by many as too corporate. There are four tweets by the same user – once again, the real names have been altered - on this presentation, the sarcasm growing more marked as irritation at being ‘pitched at’ increased:
articulatedesign: I really *want* to like this talk. But I don't. Not "speaking" to me judgng frm twts, i'm not alone in my discomfort. my neighbour's reading a blogpost on "why i hate [name of computer manufacturer]" (cos of the lock in!!!) salespitch suckfest with tinkle piano @[janefrand] mmm brains nom nom nom (note to self; sell your [name of MP3 player], time to stand firm)
The last tweet was an ‘@ reply’ or public tweet directed at a particular Twitter user who had posted moments earlier, also directing her post to other delegates who tweeted their objections to the presentation:
janefrand: @vilnius @articulatedesign @rdtechie must... eat... brains... no wait... buy... [name of computer manufacturer] ... products
The above tweets are, on one level, examples of ‘snarks’. On one level they correspond to Guy Merchant’s (2009) observation that the Twitterenabled backchannel is “works well as an outlet for frustration”. However, something more complex is occurring; the twitterers, irritated by the frontchannel presenter’s attempt to promote a brand, turn inward toward the backchannel and engage in forms of banter that assert shared forms of academic identity and associated modes of conduct that the speaker appears to be violating. Although the twitterers are having fun – the tone
is alternately sarcastic (“salespitch suckfest”) and silly (e.g. the zombie brain-eating routine) – I’d argue that they are subverting the presenter’s attempt to use an academic conference to sell a brand and are reclaiming the conference space as their own. In the face of the presenter’s corporate ‘strategy’, snarky tweets in the backchannel are these participants’ preferred subversive ‘tactic’ (de Certeau 1984). Towards the end of the conference other sorts of tweets are posted such as follow-ups - e.g. “bookmark [url of project website]”) and expressions of appreciation to the speakers or conference organisers – e.g. “great conference, thanks” and “thanks for great two days everybody :-)“.
Conclusions The Twitter-enabled backchannel constitutes a complex hybrid and multidirectional discursive space in which the conference participants make and share notes, quibble, query and demur, have off-stage dialogues with like-minded colleagues or contacts either present in the lecture theatre or elsewhere, engage in serendipitous networking and exchange humorous and bantering tweets. The Twitter-enabled backchannel, whilst offering something new – simultaneous, multidirectional and laminated interaction - might be said to re-mediate older analogue conference practices – e.g. discussing presentations over coffee, lunch or dinner, on the train home etc.. Unlike spoken comments which are unrecorded and quasi-private – tweets are generally public and retrievable, qualities which may be viewed positively or negatively. There is some evidence from both the survey and from the ‘telling’ case study of one conference, that such backchannels make a contribution to a more participatory conference culture by providing additional opportunities for discussion, information sharing, knowledge building and professional networking. There is also some evidence from both survey data and participant observation that backbiting in the backchannel features in academic conferences to some degree. However, more
research into this aspect of backchannel interaction in the context of a range of academic conferences is necessary. Anecdotally, snarky tweets were much less visible in another conference I attended where the hashtag had been introduced early and where the conference organiser modelled, to a degree, the tone of backchannel tweets. I’m still reluctant to claim that there is no pressing need to formulate guidelines for the use of conference backchannels beyond basic technical advice. My study has been about Twitter users and, therefore the ‘voices’ of those who have yet to, or who have chosen not to use it are absent from this study. During my data collection I was contacted by email by two colleagues whose presentation – at a conference I did not attend - had been tweeted and who felt that the “mode of dissemination lacked transparency and collegiality” and did not offer them the “chance to engage in any discussion about the criticisms” (email to Tony McNeill 9 April 2009). In our enthusiasm for this new mode of participation are we in danger of creating a “two-tier engagement” that includes some and excludes others? The Twitter-enabled backchannel raises some interesting questions about the nature of both lecture and conference participation, professional development and collegiality in an increasingly digital age. In future research I hope to return to some of the questions raised and to reintroduce some of the voices marginalised in studies to date.
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