An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine #twittergate

It is rude to tweet during my conference presentation.

I don’t want my ideas stolen before I have a chance to publish them. It happened to my friend/cousin/colleague.

Building your brand as a “hip” digital scholar by tweeting the work of others is selfish.

People behave badly in conference backchannels. Rules should be established to govern good online academic etiquette.

This is, I think, a fair summation of different points of view expressed during a recent twitter conversation about the ethics of live tweeting at conferences. Interestingly enough the conversation was sparked by an academic who tweets regularly but who prefers more traditional engagement when they speak at conferences. I point that out to say that this is not a conversation being had by Twitter “haters” but also by those who engage and use Twitter but who are not comfortable with the medium being used differently in different spaces.

The ensuing hashtag, #twittergate, is full of insightful points about the ethics, rules, and potential of live tweeting academic presentations. Many of them challenge deeply held beliefs I hold about access and fairness.

Two of the points that caused me greatest pause are, one, that many scholars use the veneer of democratizing knowledge to commodify that knowledge and build an academic brand with which to better market themselves. Part of that charge is that many scholars, ambivalent about their role in a high status group, use this brand of “public scholar” to assuage their guilt over having access to privileged resources and spaces. Two, there is a point about sacrificing the presenter’s need to feel comfortable, welcome, and heard at the alter of open-access. To both I say, I am programmed to feel guilt. It’s my mother’s fault but that is neither here nor there. It does not take much for me to feel guilty and my new found private scholar privilege is ripe for poking.

I have had many days at Emory University where I am taken aback by the gross inequities of higher education. I attended a poorly funded, urban, low ranked HBCU as an undergrad. It was not uncommon for there to be one usable computer chair in the computer lab and even fewer working printers. We didn’t have a campus coffee shop, it was the 2000s before there was anything resembling a food court and even then it was (and still is!) in the basement of a cold war era concrete building with one way in and one way out. The idea of conducting undergraduate research was, literally, something I had never even heard of until I was almost 30 years old and far removed from undergrad.

So when I ask for, and get, soy creamer for my organic free trade coffee from one of 6 options for such on campus? I feel pangs of guilt. Printing is, theoretically, monitored in our department but no one would dream of telling a student that he or she cannot print an article because they have exceeded a printing limit. One of my undergraduates spent a semester in Cape Verde re-enacting the famous doll experiments among indigenous populations. In her junior year.

I feel those inequalities of opportunity like an iron cloak in the dog days of summer.

When I engaged the Chronicle of Higher Education in what became a very public debate about public responsibility and ethics I worried a great deal about being viewed as an opportunist trading in the misery of others. I mean I sent those affected “I’m sorry” cards.

I would never want to make anyone else feel as uncomfortable in a space as I have felt in spaces where I was being ignored, erased, or misconstrued. Between the two all of my guilt tendencies lit up like the Fourth of July during this part of the #twittergate discussion.

I continue to think about what that all means for academic discourse and ethics but my gut reaction is : so what?

So what if I am uncomfortable some times? So what if I am misconstrued or miscast? So what if I am calculating and cold in my commodification of others misfortune?

These are not small things but when I ask myself if they matter as much as the potential of a dangerous idea going un-noticed, un-documented, un-challenged in a public space I am inclined to think, “hell no.”

This might be an issue of the unit of analysis. It is most definitely about my personal politics. To the former, if we reduce ideas and the dissemination of those ideas to the individual level of analysis then it is perfectly reasonable to ban or moderate social media engagement at academic conferences. If only one scholar’s feelings are honored or one mishap is avoided then it is all worth it…at the individual level.

But ideas are great big huge dangerous things. They have a way of refusing to be quarantined. The difference between an idea that is fashioned into a weapon and tool may well be a tweet that shines public scrutiny on an academic discussion.

I wonder if ideas like biological determinism that created a whole science to explain the inferiority of the negroid race could have gone so long unchallenged if someone had been able to trend #racistscience? Or, would Mark Regenerus’ study been vetted in a different light if, at a conference, someone had posed to a greater audience if the methodology did not beg the research question?

Big ideas start as conversations among powerful people. Historically those conversations happened in isolation and could travel a long road of destruction before anyone ever had a chance to disrupt the narrative. I know it is funny for us to consider ourselves powerful these days as departments are being cut and liberal arts education is being marketized. But, people still listen to researchers and they still have a penchant for only hearing the data that they want to hear. Without a tool like twitter how would those of us disproportionately affected by such idea weaponization have a chance at heading off the disaster? How would those of us who care about justice?

That’s the group and institutional level of analysis. At that level the cost benefit analysis is a little different than it is at the individual level.

Now, I do think people behave badly in backchannels and perhaps some discussion about that is warranted. I’m all for being upfront in CFPs about the status of a conference as augmented or not. But there is always, always, always an unintended consequence to even the best intentioned policies. My concern with declaring a conference augmented and “public” is that, by definition, other conferences will be constructed as “private” and people who attend them will self-select accordingly. But the dangerous idea I need to know about — and more importantly need to tell others about — may be happening at the “private” conference. It’s easy to imagine a hierarchy emerge where “private” conferences will be considered the more rigorous and elite and “real” and augmented conferences the inferior, less real with scholars choosing what they will say in each space accordingly.

I like shining the light on bad behavior. Running bad behavior underground only makes it more difficult to validate the experiences of those who feel like something is going on but do not have power and access to prove that it is. The thing is, I’m often that person and so are the people I care about.

There was a meeting held by the UNC board of governors once about the funding of my undergraduate alma mater. It was being held off-campus at a conference center. It was announced to pre-approved email list servs of which I was not a member. I overheard an admin talking about that meeting and decided I, a concerned student, wanted to attend. I happened to have a car which is a good thing because the Durham public bus system didn’t run the way of the conference center after dark. I was the only student in attendance, for obvious reasons. I was also one of very few black people in attendance, also for obvious reasons. I sat there and listened to many administrators and elected officials discuss what “they” needed and what “they” did not need at N.C. Central University. I don’t think those people were bad people. I suspect many of them worked very hard on their presentations and data. When I returned to campus (this was pre-social media; i’m old, bite me) and asked to write my views about the meeting for the school paper I was edited to the point of milquetoast.

What I wanted to say went something like this:

A lot of big decisions are being made about the NCCU community and almost no one from the NCCU community was present when these decisions were being made. I am the “they” they were talking about at that meeting and so are you. If “they” is the subject of the meeting shouldn’t “they” be privy to the conversation? None of these old white folks look like anyone I see on campus and that is a problem.

Ten years later I could have tweeted that. It probably would have hurt some feelings, violated some ethics. Maybe it would have made me a minor campus celebrity and I could have benefited from raising hell at the expense of someone else’s comfort and autonomy.


But maybe someone would have cared that another 3% was cut from a budget that was already too thin and maybe someone would have mentioned that the needs of NCCU students are quantitatively and qualitatively different than those of students at UNC. Maybe someone would have been enlightened or ashamed — whichever as long as a different outcome had been achieved.


That’s the so what to me that matters most. What if what happens in the dark comes to the light and occasionally the perpetually screwed aren’t screwed so badly?

That’s my cost benefit analysis.

And it’s selfish and privileged. I own that. And I’m open to it being challenged. But that’s my thinking on it at the moment.

18 thoughts on “An Idea is a Dangerous Thing to Quarantine #twittergate

  1. First of all, amazing post. Frankly, i think the blogging world of academia needs more writers, and brave people, like you. Being honest and saying the truth comes at a great personal cost, for some it manifests itself as guilt. And sometimes when you blog, people may tweet and repost but dont say what needs to be said: PLEASE keep writing posts like this, because for those of us, of different and similar identities as you, are listening and hearing what you’re saying.

    Sometimes as a Y generation person I tell myself “what’s the point?” when trying to challenge the norms of our society. Be it by tweeting at conferences and being reminded a million times (exaguration is one cliche of my generation I allow myself) “please don’t tweet this” [followed by a nervous laugh, despite me representing a reputable multi-national nonprofit]. I too often feel a lot of guilt as a result of my “attitude”, but then I read a post like yours and it turns into ideas, pride, and a “so what?”

    Signed, admirer of your words.

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