Make “10” louder, or, the amplification of scholarly communication

Here’s a little spreadsheet I put together about Twitter use at three conferences: Digital Humanities 2009, THATcamp 2009, and the (just-ended) Modern Language Association convention of 2009:

As you can probably see, what I did was to divide the total number of tweets during the date range of the conference by the number of days of the conference to get the average number of tweets per day. There are only 3.62 days of data for MLA because I downloaded the Twitter archive at about 4pm today instead of waiting until after midnight to get a full day’s data. At Digital Humanities in the summer, we weren’t yet savvy enough in the ways of Twitter to create an archive before the conference, so most of the first two days of twittering is probably lost for good. And, not at all by the way, have you given money to Twapperkeeper lately? That service is becoming essential. Someone go write an NEH, NSF, IMLS, NHPRC, or Mellon grant with the developer. I’m busy blogging.

I also counted (well, got Excel to count) the number of unique Twitterers. For me, the most interesting statistics are definitely these: only 3% (at most) of MLA attendees were twittering, while almost twice as many people twittered about THATcamp as actually attended it. (THATcamp, as if you didn’t know, is The Humanities And Technology conference camp.)

This year, I was a little disappointed not to go to MLA, especially since it was right down the road from me in Philadelphia. I’d have liked to go, but, like Brian Croxall, I couldn’t afford it — and I didn’t even have a paper to deliver. Last year I went to San Francisco and had a grand old time. I gave a paper on Google Book Search, I met some Internet celebrities, I met some academic celebrities, I met my longtime Internet friend Michael Bérubé in real life for the first time (MLA prez! 2012! kewl!), I hobnobbed with the old UVa gang, I went to a panel about Twitter, I went to a panel about digitizing manuscripts, I heard a paper by John Lyon about the Penguin Archive, I heard a paper by Mark Edmundson about the dangers of the digital, I bought and read a copy of Candide with cartoons on the cover, and I blogged about the conference afterward. I had a great time, and I felt like a learned a lot.

I was therefore looking forward to following along with MLA via Twitter, but I was again disappointed. Somehow I had thought that at least some of those analog humanists at MLA would be twittering by now. The Executive Director of MLA was twittering; why shouldn’t they? I thought I’d get to read at least a few lyrically concise reports of panels in my non-digital field of poetic form, panels such as “Sonnets in Stories” and “Literary Form and the Social: Victorian Poetry” and “The Thinking Proper to Poetry.” But no: there seemed to be almost no one twittering except the digital humanists whom I already know very well — poor Kathleen Fitzpatrick practically turned herself into a secretary for me, and Mark Sample was apparently glared at and hissed at and mentally calumnied for attempting to keep the rest of us apprised. I’m spoiled, now, because the people I follow on Twitter tend to be terrific at reporting on the conferences they attend; I followed the Society of American Archivists’ conference back in August, for instance. And then, too, even at the conferences I’ve attended this year, it’s been terrific to be able to see what went on in the sessions I wasn’t able to attend in person.

The point is that the reportage coming out of MLA was very digital-humanities-centric, not least because of Twitter. No one is more aware of that than we digital humanists. Everyone (by which I mean everyone on Twitter) has been expressing doubt about William Pannapacker’s assertion that the big story of MLA 2009 was the digital humanities. Pannapacker wrote in the Chronicle that “the merger of literature and technology is no longer the obsession of a few hobbyists” — for one thing, it hasn’t been quite that marginalized for quite awhile. (Hi to all my Twitter buddies at our own special Office of the Digital Humanities at the NEH!) What does seem more accurate is Pannapacker’s observation that “the digital humanities seem like the first ‘next big thing’ in a long time” — except, again, I feel as though I’ve known that for at least five years, and I could make a good case for ten.

For instance, one of the MLA papers that got the most Twitter ink was a great piece by Brian Croxall. I know Brian quite well, mostly through Twitter, though I first met him down at Emory in 2007, then again at last year’s MLA, then again at THATcamp this summer. I’ve followed Brian’s hunt for a job and the birth of his third child on Twitter, and today I was very pleased indeed to see that his paper earned him quite a bit of attention. All that Twitter ink put it in the automatically generated digital humanities journal DH Now, and then it was deftly written up by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and then it was blogged with tremendous vitality by Bitch Ph.D., whom the profession plundered and squandered.

Let me put it this way: Brian’s paper was big news only on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Which, however, means that it was big news. Period.

Twitter is writing. Hello! MLA members! Twitter is writing! Twittering often feels like chatting — and indeed Twitter is in some ways simply a global public instant-message service with the clever addition of asymmetrical channels of communication — but Twitter is writing. And that makes it distinctively different. The Twitter comments about Brian’s paper didn’t really amount to much more than you’d get in a hallway after a particularly honest paper about the asbestos-like conditions of being a “Visiting” Assistant Professor at Clemson. (I’ve been a “Visiting” Assistant Professor, too, by the way, in a place where I was, you know, living, not visiting, and where I would have liked to stay.) But those comments were in writing. And, you know, so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this, and all that.

Now, Brian’s paper was very good indeed, but what was especially brilliant was that he posted it at the same time that he would otherwise have been reading the paper aloud to a room full of interested and sympathetic listeners, listeners largely without smartphones, sitting similarly without laptops in a room without wi-fi where to send an SMS message would be nearly grounds for ejection. The lesson digital humanists learn, especially by using Twitter, is that scholarly conversations move quickly now, because they can, and one had therefore better be as quick as possible to join in that conversation. Monthly or quarterly journals and annual conferences used to be the way that scholars talked wrote among themselves, but now it’s e-mail listservs (yes, still) and, better, the much more public blogosphere and twittersphere.

Let us refresh ourselves, for a moment, with this very fuzzy and very infringing YouTube video:

Usually what one quotes from this gem of pop culture is the immortal phrase “These go to 11” or “This one goes to 11.” However, what I want to suggest is that the emerging forms of scholarly communication among digital humanists go to 10 — but 10 is louder. Here’s the metaphor, or allegory, as I see it.

  • Amplifier that goes to 10 = Old scholarly communication, such as insanely slow-to-publish journals.
  • Unseen but perfectly possible amplifier that goes to louder 10 = New scholarly communication, such as Twitter, blogs, unconferences, and models such as the journal DH Now and the book Planned Obsolescence.
  • Amplifier that goes to 11 = Second Life and ilk. Not, ultimately, an improvement.
  • Watts, phantom power, gain, reverb = Functions of scholarly communication, such as learning, arguing, establishing a reputation, filtering information.

Here’s looking forward to #MLA11. It’ll be interesting to see what happens then.

38 thoughts on “Make “10” louder, or, the amplification of scholarly communication

  1. You should follow @annecmccarthy, who presented on the Literary Form and the Social: Victorian Poetry.
    Her paper was rocking, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my bff and coblogger!

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  4. Great post (I found it through Twitter). For what it’s worth, my first year students no longer recognize Spinal Tap jokes, and I’ve had to drop them from my repertoire.

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  6. […] the part of the conversation I’m enjoying most can be found in Amanda French’s Make “10? louder, or the amplification of scholarly communication. It. Is. Awesome. She pulled together a spreadsheet of Twitter use at several different conferences […]

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