Some reflections on following the AHA on Twitter

Tweets tagged #AHA2011
Tweets tagged #AHA2011

I wasn’t able to make it to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this past weekend, but my absence gave me my first real opportunity to follow a major historical conference from afar, via Twitter’s #AHA2011 hashtag. (I was also tweeting announcements of sessions and events for the AHA-affiliated Committee on LGBT History.)

Given the ongoing conversations about how new technologies can and should reshape the historical profession in general and conferences in particular—see, for instance, critical takes on the current structure of academic conferences by Michael O’Malley, Dan Cohen, and Larry Cebula—I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the experience.

So, what did I learn?

  • First, not many historians use Twitter. This almost goes without saying, especially in light of Robert Townsend’s recent report on the limited use of new media in the profession. But comparing the announced attendance of over 5,000 with the several dozen intrepid souls who populated the timeline for the #AHA2011 hashtag really threw this fact into relief.
  • Nevertheless, more historians use Twitter than many may realize. Several different historians I follow on Twitter provided updates from the AHA during the weekend… but without the #AHA2011 hashtag. I’d wager that this resulted more from oversight than intention, but regardless, it highlights how even historians tech-savvy enough to be active Twitter users may not necessarily want or know how to use it in the ways the most devoted digital humanists do.
  • These missing hashtags are one example of how best practices for Twitter at conferences are not well-established or widely-embraced. This is particularly so when it comes to reporting on and reacting to sessions in an intelligible way—not an easy task, as I learned in my first conference-tweeting venture, at last April’s OAH annual meeting. Before describing or reacting to a session’s content, it’s of course helpful to somehow indicate the title or topic of the session, the name of the speaker, and the subject of his or her talk. But that’s a lot to do in 140 characters, and it’s tempting to leave this context out. Long session titles and missing name tags don’t help. This weekend, several attendees used shortened links to the online program in useful ways, but I imagine these can be cumbersome to find and insert quickly, especially if there’s no wireless available in the session room. One idea: include on each session page in the online program a “tweet this session” link that automatically generates a shortened URL and creates a new tweet with the URL, the conference hashtag, and maybe even a second, session-specific hashtag. The online program could also include participants’ Twitter handles, where available, to encourage backchannel conversations between presenters and the audience.
  • For now, Twitter is probably more useful to attendees at large academic conferences than to their absent colleagues. Based on my experiences with both the OAH and the AHA, Twitter does a number of things well: it collates and democratizes announcements from attendees and vendors, encourages backchannel conversations and new connections, and cultivates a sense of solidarity among attendees. Indeed, most MLA attendees surveyed last year by George Williams at ProfHacker focused on the ways Twitter encouraged networking and fostered camaraderie there (although, as Chad Black tweeted yesterday in response to the debate about the exclusivity of the digital humanities that spun out this year’s MLA, this blend of the professional and the personal may seem cliquish to some outsiders.) But this past weekend, at least, detailed, substantive accounts of presenters’ ideas and arguments over Twitter were rarer, and tended with a few exceptions to focus on panels on careers and the digital humanities. Although I expect that the breadth and thoroughness of these accounts will grow as it gains wider adoption, right now, Twitter is no substitute for being there. And microblogging may always function best in tandem with “regular” blogging and other forms of online pre- and post-publication (including video) to cover conferences in detail.