Twitter, institutions, historians, audiences

Yesterday, Kathleen Hulser of the New-York Historical Society (yes, the hyphen is supposed to be there — it’s a historical hyphen), who is writing an article for Perspectives on History, the “newsmagazine of the American Historical Association,” wrote me to ask, “How have social media blurred the boundaries between historian/institution and audience?” Here’s a lightly-edited version of what I wrote.

Sure, happy to answer. Being neither a historian (sorry!) nor an institution (not sorry!), I can’t quite answer from either of those perspectives. But I do have a great deal to say about that blurring as an audience member for history, albeit a somewhat privileged and over-informed audience member who reads a great deal about and via social media and who is part of the “digital humanities” community.

The short answer is that for me, social media have made both historians and institutions more human. I’ll give you a couple of examples, both related to Twitter, which has dominated my own social media landscape in the past year. The first has to do with an institution: the Smithsonian. My mother and brother and I visited Washington DC last year and visited a couple of Smithsonian museums, and afterward, in a gift shop, I signed up for a subscription to Smithsonian magazine. Recently I let that subscription lapse, because although I did enjoy the articles (I remember a great one about the historical evidence that Greek statues were painted), I didn’t find one that I really liked often enough to justify the subscription. However, I’ve been following the Smithsonian on Twitter, and if you visit that link you can easily see how much less formal the language is: “The Smithsonian is playing head games again,” for instance — which, by the way, refers to an actual game that “The Smithsonian” is playing with its Twitter followers. There’s clearly someone familiar with the tone that’s appropriate to social media behind the Smithsonian’s Twitter account. I’d prefer it if the Smithsonian included that person’s name, in fact, like the Brooklyn Museum — note how many more followers the Brooklyn Museum has, in fact: 15,694 to the Smithsonian’s 1,794, and they’ve only been twittering a year longer. Note how much more often Shelley Bernstein replies to the Brooklyn Museum’s followers, too — that’s a sure sign of engagement. But the Smithsonian is making a very good attempt, and when it broadcasts something that sounds interesting, it’s a matter of a fraction of a second to click on the link and explore the Smithsonian’s holdings. (I recently learned a bit about stewardesses’ uniforms in the 60s and 70s — those were some unbelievable hot pants and boots.) I get a similar feeling of serendipitous discovery as I did with the magazine, but at less cost to me in time and money.

I’ve also gotten to know historians through Twitter, most notably Dan Cohen, whom I’ve still never met, but who broadcasts extremely useful information via Twitter almost every day — and some less useful but still charming information, such as this nugget about the Victorians: “We historians of the Victorian era don’t like to tell people our little secret: Victorians had bears, not dogs, as pets”. We’ve exchanged messages about digital tools and issues, and I was particularly interested to read about his visit to the “Smithsonian 2.0” meeting, which I was able to track amazingly well via Twitter.

The Smithsonian, Dan Cohen, and I are all equal entities on Twitter: when we “tweet” something interesting, people reply. Moreover, we all use Twitter as a place for both play and work, for broadcasting and receiving information — and by “information,” I mean knowledge and enjoyment. It feels very natural.

A few further thoughts: it occurred to me that these examples (such as the hot pants) might actually serve to confirm the “anti-intellectualization” concern raised by an unnamed attendee at the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting. You can hear the incident discussed in the latest episode of the Digital Campus podcast: someone (a curator?) worried about this anti-intellectual bent when shown that content on Flickr Commons includes such “wrong” tags as “guys with moustaches.” And it’s certainly true that the Smithsonian Twitter feed is no replacement for the magazine (though it’s certainly a lot cheaper for the Smithsonian as well as for me), and that the money I’ve lately been giving to the Brooklyn Museum in admission and 1stfans membership fees has a great deal to do with the fact that I now live in Brooklyn. At some point it comes down to premises: is it a good thing for the Smithsonian and historians to be more accessible, meaning both more present online and more individual in tone? I believe it is.

Digital MLA 2008: An epistolary meta-narrative

Since much of the writing I’ve seen about digital humanities at MLA 2008 has focused on how technology (especially Twitter) enlivened the conference, I thought I’d present here as best I could what the online scholarly conversation actually looks like. This is of course chiefly from my perspective, but I can guarantee that others are having similar conversations about and via the internet and social networks.

I’d like to make three things clear: first, excerpts from e-mail correspondence are reproduced here with permission — which raises an interesting question: have I violated copyright law by reproducing individual “tweets” here in their entirety without permission? One of the four factors that determines a fair use is the amount of the work used, and if (if!) an individual tweet is an entire work, then I doubt that my use of them would stand up as fair in a court of law — where, I hardly need add, I am certain I will never be brought by my twitilary correspondents.

Second, please be advised that this is an edited compilation. I’ve left out significant amounts of unrelated content in several of the contributions, especially those that took place via e-mail. I also added a few clarifying links. To make the whole post more readable, I haven’t marked my omissions and changes, except for ellipses where discreet. All the text that appears here, however, is verbatim and representative.

Third, and last, I do have some points to make about the online conversation I reproduce below, but I’d like to make those points in a later post. I also have further things to say about the non-Twitter-related panels and experiences related to the digital humanities at MLA. Please watch this space, as they say.

email Michael Hancher, May 24, 2008

The MLA sent to my office address a paper (!) acceptance for our Special Session. . . .

email Amanda French, May 24, 2008

Isn’t it odd how so many persist in using paper correspondence? I simply don’t understand. Great news, though, however delivered. I reiterate Eleanor’s thanks for your work.

I’ll bring my laptop (a Mac), and I will be using PowerPoint with backup screenshots, although chiefly I want a live Internet connection.

email Michael Hancher, June 2, 2008

Here’s the MLA’s reply about internet access. I had hoped for wireless, but apparently no guarantees even of that. What should I tell them?

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Fw: P.S. regarding arrangements for S57, “The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books”
Date: Mon, 2 Jun 2008 14:58:31 -0400

Please note that we do not generally provide live Internet at the convention because of problems that can occur with a live Internet session. We suggest instead that speakers tape their Internet session for playback at the convention.

You had originally indicated that you would use screen shots for this session. Please let me know if you have any questions or if there are any difficulties in proceeding without live Internet.

email Amanda French, June 2, 2008

Ah, well, I can use screen shots. Thanks for asking.

twitter David Parry, June 6, 2008

Note to MLA: 1. You cannot “tape” the internet. 2. Having a conference without internet access signals your irrelevance. 1:03 PM Jun 6th, 2008

flickr Amanda French, June 6, 2008

I know, right? Sheesh. We’re doing a panel on Google Books and I innocently assumed that I’d be able to do some live searching. Some assumption. The MLA harrumphed and ahemmed me out of that particular brand of contemporaneity. [link]

twitter David Parry, June 6, 2008

<rant>Maybe I’ll bring this to the MLA to “tape” the internet. </rant> 1:11 PM Jun 6th, 2008

flickr Amanda French, June 6, 2008

I mean, what I have trouble wrapping my head around is that they don’t provide Internet. At all. I get annoyed at places (hotels, coffee shops, libraries, conferences) that don’t provide Wi-Fi. I’m used to that annoyance. “Why should I have to tote an Ethernet cable?” is my spoiled attitude. But even humble Ethernet access is too much for the MLA. [link]

twitter Amanda French, November 20, 2008 – This is an actual option in the Modern Language Association’s member profile area. 10:22 AM Nov 20th, 2008


twitter Catherine Pellegrino, November 20, 2008

@amandafrench OMG too funny. Thanks for capturing the screenshot! Will show it to husband ( & MLA member) C. 10:27 AM Nov 20th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, November 20, 2008

@cpellegr You are both very welcome. Funny, huh? Either MLA has a mole programmer, or they auto-generate that list, I figure. 11:36 AM Nov 20th, 2008

email Amanda French, November 21, 2008

Thought you might enjoy the following actual, factual institutional affiliation option offered to me the other day by MLA’s member profile update page.

All best wishes from the Department of Dashed Expectations (which, to be fair, might have been too high in the first place).

email Michael Bérubé, November 22, 2008

OK, that actual, factual institutional affiliation option sucks. Eggs. But how is the job and how are you doing? Or is that like asking, “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln?”

email Amanda French, November 24, 2008

You’re so kind to inquire. This job is actually lovely, although it’ll only last a year; it’s part of a grant-funded initiative to make the NYU Archives & Public History program more digital. . . .

. . . I finished a song the other day that I’m going to record and give away to the internet for reasons that will become evident. You can be the first to have the lyrics; you’re one of my very first “internet friends,” so this is dedicated to you among others.

All My Internet Friends

Monday afternoon I gave a presentation to the staff
Kicked off with a knock-knock joke to liven up the charts and graphs
That crowd
Never laughs out loud

But all my internet friends were tickled pink
They put animated smileys when they passed around the link
They said, Hey, girl, here’s another awesome thing we found
Sarah Palin getting smacked down
With a Prince song in the background
Better watch it quick before they take it down

Wednesday night I figured I’d go out and buy a DVD
Walked into a store and walked right out again immediately
This sucks
They want thirty bucks

But all my internet friends give things away
They just really like to make stuff even when it doesn’t pay
They say, Hey, girl, here’s a picture, here’s a poem too
Here’s a blog post, here’s a podcast
Here’s a song and here’s a lolcat
And an iPhone application all for you

Saturday I had a date with Dave the software engineer
Told him ’bout the time I got my headphones wrapped around my ear
I swear
He just didn’t care

But all my internet friends, they listen well
They make sympathetic comments when I say that I’m in hell
They say, Hey, girl, what’s your status
I say, Omigod,
I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating
I can’t take another meeting
With the clean, well-meaning morons at my job

There are those who say I spend a little too much time online
Sometimes I agree, but on the whole I think I’m doing fine
Click, buzz
I feel strong because

All my internet friends are here with me
Saying, Love and information want only to be free
And we’ll take no crap from anyone who says that they know better
We won’t stand for that because we all came here together
We’re remaining interwoven
We’re a net, and we have chosen
To be knotted tightly to each other
You be client, I’ll be server
We won’t ever have to be alone

email Michael Bérubé, November 24, 2008

The lyrics are just perfect– they basically sum up my relation to all my internet friends, too. . . . Most recent example: Saturday night in San Diego, a guy came up to me at a party and introduced himself as the commenter known as “fardels bear.” I greeted him with handshake and hug, and thanked him for sending me his essay on the history of debates over the concepts “context of discovery” and “context of justification.” It was like meeting a good friend– and he was good because an internet friend.

. . . I’ll be at MLA, giving two papers and generally making trouble. Please say hello! By then I’ll have written my musical response to your song, titled “All My Rowdy Internet Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonite.”

email Amanda French, December 10, 2008

All My Internet Friends . . . the crappy audio version. When people say they record on their Mac, I don’t think they usually mean into the built-in mic with the Macbook sitting on top of the New Oxford English Dictionary, Candace Bushnell’s _One Fifth Avenue_, and Clive James’s _Cultural Amnesia_.

technorati Michael Bérubé, December 10, 2008

Those of you who have been reading this blog for untold years upon years will surely remember the name of Amanda French, one of the wittiest commenters in what has been, since 1985, a most entertaining comment section. Yes, well, you knew she was smart and quick with a villanelle just when a hundred-comment-thread needs one most. But you didn’t know she could write songs and sing ‘em, now, did you?

The song is called “All My Internet Friends,” which is one of the reasons this post is titled “All My Internet Friends.” You can even click on “lyrics” on the “All My Internet Friends” web page and find out what all the lyrics are. My, this Inter-net is an amazing thing. And I would be lying—badly, sure, but what did you expect?—if I said that I don’t know exactly what structure of feeling Amanda’s singing about here. Which is to say, a little less convolutedly, that I am often very grateful for my Internet friends. [link]

twitter Brian Croxall, December 15, 2008

Is excited about the plans for the MLA Twitter panel. Now, how to spread the news? #MLA140 2:54 PM Dec 15th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 15, 2008 [deleted but still viewable]

Temporary death of MacBook on Friday night derailed my plans to continue writing my MLA Google Book Search paper this weekend. Oy. #MLA140

twitter Brian Croxall, December 15, 2008 [direct message]

We’re going to use #MLA08 for general MLA stuff and #MLA140 for the Twitter panel. (Hope that doesn’t sound too proprietary)

twitter Amanda French, December 15, 2008 [direct message]

Probably shouldn’t twitter the fact that I’m behind, anyway. 🙂

twitter Lisa Spiro, December 23, 2008

Anyone else headed to MLA? Give me a holler if you’d like to share a drink or meal. 10:30 AM Dec 23rd, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 23, 2008

@lisaspiro Me! 🙂 See also @mlatweetup and its wiki at 1:08 PM Dec 23rd, 2008

twitter Lisa Spiro, December 23, 2008

@amandafrench: Awesome! Richard probably can’t make it to SF (durn airfare), so if you’re interested in sharing a hotel room lemme know 2:48 PM Dec 23rd, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 28, 2008

Landed in San Francisco. Should be able to arise from this seat and deplane any day now. 4:07 AM Dec 28th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 28, 2008

Nice: Twitter as “ambient, aggregative text.” #mla140 11:44 AM Dec 28th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 28, 2008

Twitter panel ends on this note: brevity FTW. 🙂 #mla140 12:48 PM Dec 28th, 2008

technorati Alex Reid, December 28, 2008

As I’ve now made a regular practice, I was listening to Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time,” where this week’s discussion was on the physics of time. I then attended a panel with Dave Parry, Matt Gold, John Jones, and Brian Croxall on microblogging.

One of the points discussed there, in a wide-ranging conversation, was that microblogging changes our relationship with time, the whole instantaneous nature of the tweet and (for the haters) the potential for a slavish dedication to daily minutiae. Bragg’s guests were having a different conversation. There can be some question, in terms of physics, as to whether or not time exists as an independent phenomena. [link]

twitter Twitter search for hashtag #mla140

More about the MLA Twitter panel

twitter Amanda French, December 28, 2008

Also met Michael Berube f2f for the first time; awesome. Also his son Jamie. 3:42 PM Dec 28th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 28, 2008

Off to hear Mark Edmundson talk about “digital immigrants” and “digital natives”; he’s the wisest & reasonablest anti-tech thinker I know. 10:06 PM Dec 28th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 29, 2008

#mla08 Our panel on Google Books went great, I thought. It was much more concrete & coherent than many panels, & audience was interested. 5:02 PM Dec 29th, 2008 [my paper and slides] [Lisa Spiro’s slides]

twitter Amanda French, December 29, 2008

#mla08 I should say that the MLA panels I’ve seen this year have been very coherent & concrete. I’m just scarred from previous years. 5:03 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 29, 2008

#mla08 Off to the exhibit hall; hoping to run into Scott McLemee. I met William Germano last night, too, which impresses me. 5:05 PM Dec 29th, 2008

technorati Scott McLemee, December 29, 2008

Just ran into Amanda French at the IHE booth, over in the exhibit hall. She helped elucidate something that has puzzled me since yesterday — namely, that blog postings about this year’s MLA seem few and far between.

I wondered if it were a matter of some delay in things being picked up by the Google Blog search engine, or not enough people being able to afford to fly to the Pacific coast, or what.

Amanda’s response makes sense: It may be that most of it is taking place via microblogging, and Twitter in particular.

I signed up for Twitter earlier this year but have tended to ignore it, on the principle any more fragmentation of my attention would reduce it to the scale of subatomic particles; for example, quarks. But evidently other folks are MLA are able to handle it better.

Amanda explained that if you want to keep track with how MLA is being Twittered, you go to this site and do a search for MLA08. [link]

twitter Amanda French, December 29, 2008

If you’re at #mla08, you might want to follow or say something to @mclemee about Twitter. Now back to listening to the speaker. 🙂 6:56 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter Amanda French, December 29, 2008

The head of the Text Encoding Initiative is about to speak. He assumed there would be Internet. Yeah, you’d think so, wouldn’t you. #mla08 7:30 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter David Parry, December 29, 2008

Looking forward to the MLA tweet-up at 6:00. Lobby of Hilton if you want to join. 6:26 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter Matt Gold, December 29, 2008

@Atrios We’re meeting at 6 by the bar near the main entrance to the Hilton. It would be great to see you! 6:30 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter John Jones, December 29, 2008

@mkirschenbaum You should come to the tweetup tonight: Hilton lobby bar @6 6:59 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter Brian Croxall, December 29, 2008

At tweetup #Mla08 9:00 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter Julie Levin Russo, December 29, 2008

so sorry that tweetup dinner took way too long and we missed most of @chutry’s expanded cinema panel! 🙁 #mla08 scheduling 11:16 PM Dec 29th, 2008

twitter Brian Croxall, December 30, 2008

Is pleased to now know someone (@projectjulie) that is one of Shelley Jackson’s words from Skin. 11:11 AM Dec 30th, 2008

technorati Jennifer Howard, December 31st, 2008

The 2008 MLA convention ended yesterday in San Francisco. Here, in the spirit of a new year’s best-of/worst-of list, is a roundup of highlights and low points from the meeting:

  • Attendance: 8,544 people registered, down from 8,900 last year, according to the MLA — a drop of about 4 percent.
  • Hot topics: hiring freezes and suspended searches, adjunct labor, Twitter.
  • Hot research topics: animal studies (file under “posthumanism”), digital editing, Twitter.


twitter Twitter search for #mla08

More about the 2008 MLA Convention

technorati Cathy Davidson, January 2, 2009

I also heard about an aphorism of Barbara Ganley’s that Dan Cohen passed on in his blog and in a tweet, asking others to “discuss”: “Blog to reflect, tweet to connect.” That is fascinating. Because the “ambient intimacy” (another fantastic term) of Twitter does feel to me like connection, and I was fascinated to hear about the different ways the panelists used Twitter not only to connect with one another, but to gain a snapshot into forms of group knowledge. One panelist talked about following all of the Twitter feeds using the word “Michelle” during Michelle Obama’s convention speech, and what that was like, reading it all, left and right and everywhere, as it was happening, a shower of opinion, and a far more sophisticated slice of audience response than the CNN sliding audience monitor on the bottom of the screen. [link]

technorati Matthew K. Gold, January 3, 2009

Before the conference had even started, a bunch of my contacts on twitter had begun to connect with one another. We arranged a tweetup by setting up an account on twitter. We created a wiki page and encouraged convention-going twits to list their presentations on it. We bemoaned the fact that so many of the panels we wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time. (And by “we,” I mean a loosely connected set of people who identified themselves as being members of both the MLA and Twitter. There was very little structure involved, and the community, such as it was, was very open).

Before we even arrived, then, the conference had begun. [link]

technorati Chuck Tryon, January 2, 2008

As I mentioned in an update to my previous post, I’d like to spend some time thinking about microblogging in general and Twitter in particular. As the election season deepened, I became a much more avid Twitter user, and the Twitter panel at MLA, reviewed here by media scholar Cathy Davidson, covered many of the strengths (and concerns) about Twitter. As the panelists pointed out, a number of critics have argued that Twitter fosters an unhealthy narcissism and that it prevents deeper reflection. However, these readings often focus only at the level of the individual “tweet,” which taken out of context can seem a bit navel-gazing. Instead, the panel helped to provide a language for thinking about the connective elements of Twitter and its larger role in aggregating knowledge. To be sure, this aggregation could (and probably will) be used in some form of data mining–imagine what the two major political parties could do with all of this year’s election tweets–but the “ambient intimacy” of Twitter can be used in a variety of powerful ways, as Shaun Huston and Nick Rombes point out in a couple of recent posts. [link]

technorati John Jones, January 5, 2008

Next, [I] examined Twitter through the work of compositionist Fred Kemp, arguing that microblogging creates new kinds of aggregated texts that must be understood as collective entities rather than in their individual pieces. Thus, any one “tweet” may not make sense outside of the larger discourse, that is, the larger collective environment, in which that tweet was made. The various ways in which individual tweets can be aggregated, however, destabilize those collective environments since information can be arranged and rearranged in many different ways.

[I] argued that this leads at least two conclusions. First, debates over the value of internet communication services like blogs, Facebook, or Twitter can be usefully viewed as debates over how to value the texts these services generate and what constitutes the boundaries of those texts. Kemp states: “The value of written conversations … lies in the organic and open-ended nature of knowledge making they display, not in their transmitted factual increments, which are usually, and crudely, termed information” (187, orig. emphasis). When critics attack the worth of Twitter, they are, more often then not, focusing on the “transmitted factual increments,”—that is, singular tweets—rather than examining the non-traditional texts created by these individual tweets. [link]

technorati Sybil Vane, January 8, 2008

Partly I suspect I found MLA so tolerable because I attended exactly one panel. And I chose it wisely, veering away from my own stuffy field and instead going to the Twitter panel. It was excellent, a good rundown here. Not only were the presentations themselves engaging, but the panel as a whole felt radically more productive than the typical conference panel because the presenters decided to limit themselves to about 5 minutes of speaking so as to allow more time for actual conversation. And then THEY DID. These academics, they spoke for about 5 minutes! It was awesome! I can actually follow something for 5 minutes. The ensuing conversation was so smart and dialogic I felt like everyone was engaged at a level one doesn’t often see at these things. Which was sort of the point of the entire discussion about how twitter works. So bully to them for doing a great job. [link]

technorati Negar Mottehedeh, January 8, 2008

As I look out at the faces of the students in my classroom I realize that it’s not the technology nor the networking that is daunting, though overwhelming to start. I know that if I can learn to be a bird on a wire and twitter tweet tweet o_O, so can they.

Dimming the lights enough for them to see the screen, I look into their eyes one more time and it’s like a jolt of electricity going down my spine. I suddenly realize that my challenge is not the material. My challenge is to have my students get that they are a contribution: “Give me some change!” *” I’ll touch you” Odd or even: each one of them is a contribution. I am that I am the difference. [link]

technorati Lisa Spiro, January 11, 2008

I’ve certainly had my moments of skepticism toward the larger purposes of literary research while sitting through dull conference sessions, but my MLA experience actually made me feel jazzed and hopeful about the humanities. That’s because the sessions that I attended — mostly panels on the digital humanities — explored topics that seemed both intellectually rich and relevant to the contemporary moment. For instance, panelists discussed the significance of networked reading, dealing with information abundance, new methods for conducting research such as macroanalysis and visualization, participatory learning, copyright challenges, the shift (?) to digital publishing, digital preservation, and collaborative editing. . . .

. . .This was my first MLA and, despite having to leave home smack in the middle of the holidays, I enjoyed it. Although many sessions that I attended shifted away from the “read your paper aloud when people are perfectly capable of reading it themselves” model, I noted the MLA’s requirement that authors bring three copies of their paper to provide upon request, which raises the question what if you don’t have a paper (just Powerpoint slides or notes) and why can’t you share electronically? And why doesn’t the MLA provide fuller descriptions of the sessions besides just title and speakers? (Or am I just not looking in the right place?) Sure, in the paper era that would mean the conference issue of PMLA would be several volumes thick, but if the information were online there would be a much richer record of each session. (Or you could enlist bloggers or twitterers [tweeters?] to summarize each session…) After attending THAT Camp, I’m a fan of the unconference model, which fosters the kind of engagement that conferences should be all about—conversation, brainstorming, and problem-solving rather than passive listening. But lively discussions often do take place during the Q & A period and in the hallways after the sessions (and who knows what takes place elsewhere…) [link]

“Who knows what takes place elsewhere” . . . an excellent note to end on. –AF

Broken in Internet Explorer

If you are reading this, then you’re not using Internet Explorer 7. Yesterday I discovered that my pretty Twitter and LibraryThing and Google Reader javascript widgets weren’t loading in IE, and so I started trying to fix things. In good news, the site parses as valid XHTML. In bad news, it absolutely will not render at all in IE.

Working on it.