Live-Tweeting as Academic Practice
From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
Live-tweeting an academic panel or talk may vary—it can involve brevity or depth, quoting or paraphrasing, summary or commentary, formality or fun—but generally, the point is to share what is being presented at the podium, as it happens, to an audience beyond the attendees in the room. Sometimes live-tweeting can simply record a particularly snappy comment; sometimes it thoroughly records a paper’s main arguments. There are plenty of social media guides and best practices for how to live-tweet a talk effectively (Hint: it takes prep work, multiple windows, and a great deal of multitasking!), but it’s also worth thinking about the why. What does live-tweeting accomplish?
Tweeting about a talk can provide a record of what was said, an archive of a panel’s main arguments or key quotes. It can provide a window into the event for those unable to attend, either following along remotely as it happens or catching up after the fact. This archive can also be useful for the person live-tweeting—we sometimes use them as a public form of notetaking.
Academic presentations are often difficult to access, to say the least. Invited talks happen at a particular institution and are seldom recorded or shared online (while the shift to online talks since 2020 changed this to some degree, in many instances, this option has not proven lasting). Academic conferences typically require expensive registration and travel—obstacles that disproportionately impact poor or working-class scholars, scholars in the global South, and parents or others with care responsibilities. Many are working to reimagine these forms (Pandian 2019), and we see live-tweeting as part of a broader effort to open up academic spaces. After all, even for those who are able to attend a conference, the largest meetings often schedule dozens of panels simultaneously, guaranteeing that participants will miss out on an interesting event happening down the hall. If you are unable to catch a talk, you likely won’t get another chance until it’s in print. And once published, academic gatekeeping continues as articles are buried behind exorbitant paywalls. Live-tweeting a talk is an attempt at sharing—and archiving—what is being presented in such settings to a wider audience.
Even the original presenter or author can benefit from the archive created by live-tweeting, as they see how their ideas resonated and were taken up in real-time, taking tweets into consideration the same way they would in-person comments. Live-tweeting can help expand one’s audience and get findings or ideas out early as scholars continue to retool their work prior to final publication. The act of live-tweeting, the decision to create an archive, also indexes an event’s importance or relevance—it imbues a talk with value by amplifying the voices in the room, opening up a space for others online to engage in the formation of a collective archive.
Virtually every conference now has its own annual hashtag—some, like the Modern Language Association or Theorizing the Web, utilize session hashtags as well. These indexical tools make it easier for readers to find and follow messages related to a particular conference or session, structuring the social media archive and creating a space where people can follow various conversations and build upon each other’s comments. This resulting archive is more than merely a transcript of the talk. Live-tweeting draws in reactions, elicits affective responses, and requires rapid synthesis as the original talk is repackaged for social media. Creating such an archive transforms a talk into written text, but one that is translated, coauthored, and conversational.
What might such an archive offer to readers who find themselves immersed in such a time capsule? The presentation is not the only thing recorded but also the reactions it elicits. Live-tweeting is not only archiving but also an open writing process to which multiple people contribute, a collaborative endeavor that builds the infrastructure through which a new academic form emerges. While most panels have time set aside for question-and-answer or talking afterward in the hallway, social media offers a different mode of engagement with an academic presentation.
Through live-tweeting, audience members engage with presenters by carefully listening, selecting content to share, quoting or rephrasing, or contextualizing; in short, live-tweeting involves constant re-mediation, translating a fifteen-minute talk into threads of 280-character tweets. The politics of translation and mediation—what gets shared and in what form—are at play throughout as synthesizing and paraphrasing pass on a presenter’s words to others in another medium. As audience members engage with and translate a presenter’s work, they share it with their followers or other readers, enabling those outside the room to respond in real-time, multiplying the interactions and engagements afforded to an in-person talk. By extending these conversations beyond just the Q&A time slot and confines of the conference venue, social media can multiply opportunities for engagement—and everything that comes with it. Colleagues and research subjects and critics and scholars from other disciplines can all respond to words mediated through live-tweeting in a way that registration fees, lanyards, distant shores, and closed doors would not enable otherwise. Live-tweeting can radically—and immediately—change who is in the room and at the table where conversations are being had.
Live-tweeting an event can also foster connections between attendees as people see that certain phrases resonate with others or reply to each other’s engagements with the presentation. Tweeting a quote from a talk, and then seeing others quote-tweet that (quote) tweet with “THIS!” or “🔥🔥🔥” is its own form of amplification, resonance, and collective commentary. Even for a more accessible virtual event, live-tweeting can create channels for side commentary or call-and-response as people react to the talk and to each other’s reactions. These parallel conversations happen contemporaneously with the talk itself as multiple attendees and their followers engage each other. Such multi-tasking conversations are less likely to happen in person, but online such conversations can blossom even between attendees in the room without distracting from or interrupting the main event. Instead, Twitter becomes an infrastructure—a backchannel for simultaneous conversation that circulates through and around an academic presentation, extending a talk beyond the event itself as the conversation continues, is revisited, and amplified. This form of commentary is distinct from, say, a discussant’s remarks—tweeting is its own genre of academic engagement made possible through social media.
Live-tweeting an academic talk is just one form of a broader genre of live-tweeting and Twitter commentary—people live-tweet press events and political speeches, sports games, and reality television; we at the SMT have live-tweeted watching films alongside other anthropologists. In bringing online conversational grammars and culture together with more formal academic genres such as the conference paper, live-tweeting is just one of the various convergences of formal academic work and online life that are signified by but exist far beyond the community and hashtag #AnthroTwitter.
If academic dialogues have long consisted of “replies” or “comments” in the annals of academic publishing or occurred informally among networks of elite-trained scholars (and surely these forms of academic dialogue endure today), academic conversations are also increasingly happening online, where strangers and colleagues alike come together and engage one another about scholarship, academic labor, and other aspects of the profession—including conference talks. Through the act of live-tweeting, an idea becomes an event to participate in, and one that is more accessible and open than the convention hall.
Live-tweeting a talk joins the hashtag syllabus (Lyons 2019; Clark 2020), the Twitter essay or tweet thread, the virtual book launch (here’s a wonderful example from Max Liboiron), tweets-as-endnotes (see Shannon Mattern’s practice, and Tim Elfenbein’s summary of it, for inspiration), and other forms of social media engagement that are changing what academic conversations and collaborations look like. These are all conversations and online dialogues where the process is arguably just as important as the product, as its openness invites others to enter and engage. Social media work is not just academic work in a slightly different register; it involves and invokes its own dynamics, languages, and cultural practices. Live-tweeting is just one example (see Invisible Labor in this series for more on this).
One of the grammars of Twitter and much of the social media ecology today is the act of tagging, or @-ing. Tagging a user’s handle allows others to click through and see their account, see what else they’ve posted recently, or follow them. When live-tweeting a talk by a scholar who is active on Twitter, it is not only good manners but good citational practice to tag the scholar so that those following along can find (and follow) the speaker. Tweeting about a scholar’s work is a way of citing the author, linking their words to them.
While live-tweeting a talk, you also have the whole internet at your fingertips. If you’re nimble, a successful live-tweeter can also hop tabs to pull other citations together in their thread, citing central works, linking to a new publication when it is mentioned or to the speaker’s professional website, or tagging a lab or university. Similar to other citational practices we have explored in this series, live-tweeting can draw these strands together, weaving speaker and words, links and slides, into a yarn—a thread—that readers can unspool at their leisure.
Tweeting about a scholar’s work is a way of citing the author, linking their words to them.
At the helm of a large account like @CulAnth, we are cognizant that live-tweeting from our account offers visibility and amplification. As such, citational practices like tagging users are especially important because they can provide a platform to users without a large following. Live-tweeting a keynote may be a given, and we’ve been doing so for years, but plucking a panel from the program to tweet about from a large account can amplify its audience to a great degree, and we try to do this at least a few times every AAA (see the following examples from 2017, 2019, and 2021). Tagging scholars can help boost their profile in recognition of the work they’ve done. But this is not an inherent good, as some may prefer the freedom and peace that only margins and obscurity (or going private) offer—it’s always good practice to check with speakers before tagging them! There is, after all, a lot of power in amplification. We try to use it responsibly and with care.
The power of handles and citations goes both ways. Live-tweeting about a talk and tagging the speaker gives them their much-deserved credit, but it also makes you knowable to them. Presenters sometimes thank live-tweeters for sharing their work and following along (live-tweeting as flattery!), and these interactions offer their own possibilities. You live-tweet a talk, tag the speaker, and they like or retweet your post, maybe even reply—suddenly, your citation becomes a conversation. In this way, live-tweeting can even act as a sort of backchannel to networking, creating a connection through which two strangers can discuss one another’s work in a setting that is distinct from lingering awkwardly near the stage after the Q&A, adjusting one’s tote bag while the speaker catches up with an old friend. If citation is both reciprocity and a form of gathering (Williams 2022), these social media replies can be the stuff that sparks Twitter relations. How many times have we heard in the halls, “I think I know you from Twitter?”
Live-tweeting is archive and amplification. It is translation, mediation, conversation. It is at once affective and ephemeral, reaction and commentary, while also a durable record of what has transpired. It shifts who is in the room in impactful ways, breaking down some of the barriers built around academia. It is an act and an event, a way for people to gather and commune over what is being said. In these ways, live-tweeting is an important aspect of how academics interact online, how we translate and disseminate knowledge, how we learn from one another. It is an academic form that turns a closed event into an open-ended structure that offers a new way to think about and engage in academic dialogue as an intellectual process.
Taking social media seriously as academic practice means engaging it as academic labor. It means recognizing dynamic social media accounts and experiments as public scholarship—even and especially when it comes to hiring and promotion. It means not pawning social media tasks onto an unpaid and unsupported intern because youth intuitively “know” new social media like TikTok, but instead investing in training and compensating social media labor as work rather than an afterthought. It means teaching social media in the classroom, enacting digital pedagogy to train online-literate researchers. What might students learn from live-tweeting a talk on campus, creating Twitter threads about assigned readings (Stommel 2012), or contributing to a class Instagram about the course topic? How might engaging in these online forms influence how we write, how we think, and how we conceive of our audience? There isn’t one correct answer to these questions, but social media offers us channels in which to explore them further.
Elfenbein, Tim. Twitter / @timelfen. 2021. “OK, so does anyone else use Twitter as an online archive of references...” December 6.
Liboiron, Max. Twitter / @MaxLiboiron. 2021. “If you missed the #TwitterBookLaunch for #PollutionIsColonialism...” May 11.
Mattern, Shannon. Twitter / @shannonmatern. 2021. “Also reminded that I had SO MANY great resources for this piece...” Twitter, March 1.
Society for Cultural Anthropology. Twitter / @culanth. 2017. “Hi all! This is @scott_a_ross from #amanth17. I’m about to tweet from the panel...” November 29.
–––. 2018. “Culture@Large: On Freedom and Radical Imagination: A Conversation with Robin D.G. Kelley...” November 17.
–––. 2019. “@eyatesd noting how annual conferences are difficult and costly for...” November 21.
–––. 2021. “Beginning soon, the AAA Distinguished Lecture "Reckoning with Dread...” November 17.
–––. 2021. “Going to try to livetweet the "Ecologies of Prediction" panel, beginning now!...” November 19.
Clark, Meredith D. 2020. “Remaking the #Syllabus: Crowdsourcing Resistance Praxis as Critical Public Pedagogy.” Communication, Culture and Critique 13, no. 2: 222–41.
Lyons, Alyssa P. 2019. “Hashtag Syllabus.” Contexts 18, no. 4: 16–21.
Pandian, Anand. 2019. “Reimagining the Annual Meeting for an Era of Radical Climate Change.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, November 19.
Stommel, Jesse. 2012. “The Twitter Essay.” Hybrid Pedagogy. January 5.
Williams, Bianca C. 2022. “Black Feminist Citational Praxis and Disciplinary Belonging.” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 2: 199–205.