Live-Tweeting the MLA: Suggested Practices

The MLA has been a pioneering academic organization in embracing Twitter. Since 2007 the so-called “conference back channel” has been growing considerably. Adoption of Twitter amongst scholars and students seems on the rise as well, and reporting live from the conference is no longer an underground, parallel activity but pretty much a recognized, encouraged aspect of the event.

“It’s a conversation, not a lecture,” I wrote in a blog post for the Guardian Higher Education Network back in September 2011. By February 2013 I had to reconsider my position: Twitter adoption by scholars had grown so much that it became important for me to discuss how the platform required “more fluid rules of academic engagement.”  I also shared (back in 2012) some tips for live-tweeting from conferences. It makes me happy to know that these posts have been shared so many times on Twitter that the Guardian’s share widget counters have been restarted several times.

For me what remains key is that live-tweeting is essentially a form of reporting, networking and dissemination. For MLA members, it is a way of engaging with the MLA convention, which is of course a real life event. Live-tweeting is a form of broadcasting content, but is also a form of research (what you tweet is likely to be studied by someone else, and you might be tweeting as part of your research). It is most definitely a form of public dissemination that allows scholars to be present and visible in the convention even when they are not physically there. It’s always important to remember that the hashtag for the convention is not only for those attending in person.

Live-tweeting is always subject to context. Tweeting itself is all about context awareness in a way. The MLA convention is Twitter-friendly, and this is a great start. It means you are not being revolutionary for tweeting during the conference. It means there will be Wi-Fi available, and hopefully there will be plenty of places to charge your devices so you don’t run out of battery. It means you are not likely to be asked to put your phone or your laptop away. And this, for me, is a truly positive, exciting thing.

Before you navigate away, here are some practices I suggest based on my experience as a keen live-tweeter. There is nothing written in stone here. These tips might or might not work for you—your own way might be better. These suggestions are meant to be read like “notes to self”: it’s not me telling you what to do; it’s me telling myself out loud what has worked for me in the past and what I strive to do.

  • Read other resources, such as Roopika Risam’s excellent Quick Guide to Using Twitter at the MLA Convention.
  • Let others know who you are. If you are new to Twitter, and even if you aren’t, ensure your Twitter profile includes information about who you are (role, affiliation, interests) and a link to a web page with more information about you or your work.
  • Be recognizable. If you are going to the convention, it helps if your Twitter profile picture has an image of what you look like now—it facilitates real life networking and helps avoid that always-embarrassing Looking-Down-to-Read-Name-Tag-Closely thing. You can always change your profile photo to something else after the conference. Having a default egg profile pic is always a no-no.
  • #Metadata means you are discoverable. Always use the hashtag when discussing anything related to the conference. Make sure you are using the right hashtag. The hashtag for this year is #MLA15. So far it’s worked well; let’s hope no one else (like a video game or something) uses it. Since things can change, check the convention Web site or ask someone if you don’t know what the correct or main hashtag is. MLA sessions also have their own specific hashtags: “#s” followed by the session number (e.g., #s421). It’s OK to use both hashtags in that case, even if it reduces your number of characters. Hashtags are folksonomies and therefore are really hard to control, so one needs to be attentive.
  • Start tweeting with #MLA15 now. If you haven’t, you are already late. Interact with fellow attendants in advance; arrange meetings. Don’t be a stranger.
  • Be positive. Venting creates community amongst people who agree with your experience, but it can also equally alienate others. Formative, positive feedback will always be preferable. Life is short: unless some kind of major academic crime has been committed that you strongly feel must be publicly denounced, some opinions are better not tweeted. It’s all about moderation. This is, of course, not saying “don’t be critical.” You should be critical ethically and professionally. You want to make friends, connections, maybe get that job.
  • Remember, the World Wide Web is called so for a reason. The whole point of tweeting is that it is public and international. There will be people following you from different countries and different time zones. Not everyone will know/understand what you are tweeting about or even be able to infer your context, no matter how obvious it might be to you. Think globally; tweet accordingly.
  • Bring your laptop, not just your phone. To tweet from sessions, nothing beats a proper keyboard. It means you can search for information as you are hearing the talks and share relevant links in your tweets. Second best option is a tablet, like an iPad (some use external keyboards for those). It also means you can use TweetDeck (sadly not available on mobile anymore) to follow easily the main hashtags and key users. To tweet on the go, a mobile app on your phone or tablet is definitely better. 😉
  • Use columns to follow the main hashtags and key users. Many of us find it hard to type and follow busy back channels on smaller screens. The Twitter mobile app and the Twitter web client are not good options to monitor the back channel appropriately. On your mobile phone, apps like Hootsuite allow you to set up columns where you can follow the main hashtags and even key accounts. This will help you to be on top of things and not miss out.
  • Set your sound notifications off. You are likely to get a lot of them if you are actively live-tweeting and using the hashtag. Respect others. Type silently. A mobile phone should never ring or make any sounds in a convention room.
  • Share links to relevant academic articles and calls for papers. You know those tables where all the colorful calls for papers and announcements are left for you to pick up? Twitter is very effective for this. Twitter is not just for chatting; it is more effective to promote this kind of academic stuff. You have your target audience there, so share, share, share.
  • It’s not all about you (and it is). Having a dedicated column to follow the hashtag will make it easy for you to see what is being tweeted. You are likely to see that many others are tweeting from the same session, saying more or less the same. Avoid duplication and unnecessary repetition by not live-tweeting everything yourself. When promoting links, sessions, etc., don’t promote only your work: promote the work of others as well. No one likes shameless self-promoters who don’t care about others. On Twitter every time you promote someone else’s work, you are promoting yourself (your name and profile picture will be there), so it’s a win-win.
  • Attribute. When live-tweeting from a session, make sure it’s clear who is saying what. Are you paraphrasing? Are they your ideas or the speaker’s? Use reported speech conventions. Find Twitter user names of the speakers in advance. If you are reporting what a speaker with a Twitter user name said, @ mention them, but make sure it does not look like you are just replying to them personally.
  • Report spam. The hashtag is the equivalent of a “room” hosting a community. There is likely to be spam again this year. The only effective way of combatting spam is being careful about who we engage with, who we retweet, what applications we have connected our Twitter profiles with (check for this), and, importantly, blocking and reporting for spam. Block and report for spam each spam tweet you come across. It won’t go away if you ignore it. And if you can’t tell the difference between a real user and a spambot, that real user has a problem…
  • Socialize sensibly. Social media can include as much as exclude. Make sure you are cautious about how you come across: does it look like you are showing off that you are in an exclusive party where other mere mortals are not invited? If it’s not public, do not publicize. If you are there, be there. No need to be tweeting all the time. Switch off your phone and enjoy the conversation with your peers right there.
  • Ask before tweeting. Finally, never underestimate diversity. If you are with a group of people and are unsure if it’s OK to mention them in a Twitter update, hashtagged or not, always ask. I know this is not always practical. Just think that when in doubt, it is always safer not to tweet than to tweet. If you are amongst fellow keen tweeterers, it might not be necessary, but you never know. Same goes for photos of identifiable people. People have a right to privacy.
  • If you don’t want your paper live-tweeted, don’t present it. The above notwithstanding, when people are speaking publicly (keynote, panel, workshop, etc.), it is fair to assume they are happy to be publicized. If you want your presentation or work to remain embargoed, it might be better not to present it in public in any form. Speakers should be grateful their work is being promoted, for free, by their colleagues, sometimes en masse (as far as academia goes, that is). Work unknown is work that doesn’t exist.
  • Don’t drink and tweet. Most of us have done it once in while, but it’s a recipe for disaster.
  • Have fun. It’s not that complicated. In a way it’s a shame we need this kind of advice. But social media is not all fun and games; it can really get you in a lot of trouble. It is a professional activity now. Tweeting with the convention hashtag means you are participating publicly in the conference. You will be assessed on how you behave online. This doesn’t mean it’s not about having fun—just think before you tweet…

Academic conferencing is changing. The world is wide, and the challenges and opportunities are equally huge. Let’s make the most of the means we have available to us.



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