Twitter as a Tool for Academic Networking? #NoThanks

This year, I have been honored to be a fellow in the second cohort of the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar, a fascinating group of current and recent Ph.D. candidates who meet once a month in New York City to discuss alternatives to the “traditional” academic career. As part of this process, we have been discussing how to maintain a professional presence online, which has been one of the major reasons that I have been working so hard updating my website recently. Recently in the Proseminar, the topic of Twitter came up as a potential solution to the impersonal feel of large, professional conferences and would help younger students network and spread their research despite the professional hierarchy that exists in professional settings. So, this month I decided to try it out. I had plans to attend the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts national meeting in Atlanta, and thought that Twitter might help me navigate the three interrelated conferences going on at once.

I went online, found the SLSA hashtag (#slsa2016), and immediately tweeted:

To be honest, it felt disingenuous. I was thrilled to be there, but to write something vague to an unknown number of scholars did not seem the best way to communicate it. Maybe if I tweeted about something more specific, I thought. I attended my first panel and really enjoyed the final talk on the Two-Culture debate and waited until the end of the Q&A to tweet:

After the Q&A, I approached the presenters, asking questions and exchanging email addresses. I then checked Twitter and noticed that someone had liked my first tweet, and two people had liked the second! I immediately followed both, assuming that this would help fill my newsfeed with more appropriate, SLSA-related posts.

At another panel, someone gave a talk about Pokémon. Since that reminded me of my childhood, I snapped a picture of his PowerPoint and tweeted to the SLSA-specific twitterverse:

This also garnered two likes, though the same as before. Once again, I interacted with the speaker after the panel, exchanging email addresses and engaging in thought-provoking conversations about glitches and research. Noticing that one of the speakers had posted earlier with the SLSA hashtag about this particular panel, I responded to his tweet, thanking him for the panel. He immediately followed me, indicating to me that I was doing something right.

As the day went on, I texted my external examiner, an Associate Professor who is a big name at this conference and who had encouraged me to attend. We met down in the lobby and she introduced me to dozens of scholars. For the rest of the conference, she took me by the hand, recommending certain talks and panels, presenting me to other scholars, and helping me engage in more direct, in-person conversations. While I continued to check my Twitter feed, I began to notice that there were only a few scholars on it, and they did not seem to be engaging in conversation with each other.

The following day, Katherine Hayles gave what would go on to be known as the most influential talk of the conference, and I made sure to tweet some highlights. However, I then noticed that one attendee had tweeted the same quote with TWO hashtags: #slsa2016 and #slsa16. Uh oh, I thought. I’ve been doing it all wrong! There were more than just a few people tweeting with the other hashtag — there must have been about 30! I had been communicating my (admittedly superficial) tweets to such a restricted audience! In another panel, I began using both, still receiving a similar number of likes.

On the final day of the conference, I attended a morning panel and sat near Katherine Hayles. In the Q&A, as always, I continued to ask questions and noticed that Hayles was vigorously nodding along with my comments. She ran out at the end of the panel to get to another talk, but at the lunch later that day, made a point of telling me that she appreciated my questions and politely asked about my work. In the meantime, my Twitter feed was surprisingly quiet.

Overall, I’m not sure how I feel about using Twitter at conferences. While several people in panels (especially the digital humanities panel) seemed to be using it constantly and consistently (even during talks), those participants did not seem to be interacting as much in person. I must admit, of all the people I tweeted, retweeted, followed, and liked, I did not meet a single one in person. We just never crossed paths. I also found that watching people with their phones out during presentations appeared unprofessional.

On the other hand, being actively engaged in the Q&As really did help me to network, and I left the conference with business cards and email addresses, along with a bunch of new ideas and insights! Seeing retweeted blurbs about panels I did not attend was uninformative, and seemed a missed opportunity in a conference where several panels happened at once. That said, nothing helped more than having a tenured professor take me under her wing. Indeed, this removed the inevitable awkwardness of approaching senior scholars as a graduate student.

Rather than tweeting and retweeting a mere thirty scholars on Twitter at a conference with over 600 participants, we should strive to make connections through actual interactions. Perhaps this should be made more explicit in our training as graduate students: that we should attend conferences with our advisors and mentors; that we should do research on the professors who will be attending and know enough about their research to pose useful questions following their talks; that we should not risk appearing unprofessional in any way by having our phones out during talks. While Twitter may be a nice way to make a big conference seem smaller, we cannot let this technology distract us from the real use of conferences — human interactions through critical, academic dialogue.