If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Folks, we need to have a conversation. About Twitter. And generosity. And public shaming.

First let me note that I have been as guilty of what I’m about to describe as anyone. You get irritated by something — something someone said or didn’t say, something that doesn’t work the way you want it to — you toss off a quick complaint, and you link to the offender so that they see it. You’re in a hurry, you’ve only got so much space, and (if you’re being honest with yourself) you’re hoping that your followers will agree with your complaint, or find it funny, or that it will otherwise catch their attention enough to be RT’d.

I’ve done this, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of public insult a few times, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks.

I am not going to suggest in what follows that there’s no room for critique, even on Twitter, and that we all ought to just join hands and express our wish for the ability to teach the world to sing. But I do want to argue that there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming. And if we don’t know the difference, we — as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly trying to make the world a more thoughtful place — need to figure it out, and fast.

There are two problems working in confluence here, as far as I can tell. One is about technological affordances: Twitter’s odd mixture of intimacy and openness — the feeling that you’re talking to your friends when (usually, at least) anyone could be listening in — combined with the flippancy that often results from enforced, performative brevity too frequently produces a kind of critique that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.

The other problem is academia. As David Damrosch has pointed out in another context, “In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture.” Damrosch means to indicate that academics are more likely to respond to shame, or the suggestion that they are a bad person, than to guilt, or the indication that they have done a bad thing. And he’s not wrong: we all live with guilt — about blown deadlines or dropped promises — all the time, and we so we eventually become a bit inured to it. But shame — being publicly shown up as having failed, in a way that makes evident that we are failures — gets our attention. That, as Damrosch notes, is something we’ll work to avoid.

And yet, it’s also something that we’re more than willing to dole out to one another. There’s a significant body of research out there — some of my favorite of it comes from BrenĂ© Brown — that demonstrates the profound damage that shame does not only to the individual but to all of the kinds of relationships that make up our culture. Not least among that damage is that, while a person who feels guilty often tries to avoid the behavior that produced the feeling, a person who feels shame too often responds by shaming others.

So, we’ve got on the one hand a technology that allows us, if we’re not mindful of how we’re using it, to lash out hastily — and publicly — at other people, for the amusement or derision of our followers, and on the other hand, a culture that too often encourages us to throw off whatever shame we feel by shaming others.

Frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of it. I’ve been withdrawing from Twitter a bit over the last several months, and it’s taken me a while to figure out that this is why. I am feeling frayed by the in-group snark, by the use of Twitter as a first line of often incredibly rude complaints about products or services, by the one-upsmanship and the put-downs. But on the other hand, I find myself missing all of the many positive aspects of the community there — the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, the liveliness. Those are all way more predominant than the negative stuff, and yet the negative stuff has disproportional impact, looming way larger than it should.

So what I’m hoping is to start a conversation about how we might maximize those positive aspects of Twitter, and move away from the shame culture that it’s gotten tied to. How can we begin to consider whether there are better means of addressing complaints than airing them in public? How can we develop modes of public critique that are rigorous and yet respectful? How can we remain aware that there are people on the other end of those @mentions who are deserving of the same kinds of treatment — and subject to the same kinds of pain — that we are?

Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever

Over the weekend, something hashtagged as #twittergate was making the rounds among the tweeps. I haven’t dug into the full history (though Adeline storyfied it), but the debate has raised questions about a range of forms of conference reporting, and as a result, posts and columns both old and new exploring the risks and rewards of scholarly blogging have been making the rounds. Last night sometime, Adeline asked me what advice I have for junior faculty who get caught in conference blogging kerfuffles – which I take as standing in for a range of conflicts that can arise between those who are active users of various kinds of social media and those who are less familiar and less comfortable with the new modes of communicating.

This was far too big a question to take on in 140 characters, and I didn’t want to issue a knee-jerk response. I’m still piecing together my thoughts, so this post will no doubt evolve, either in the comments or in future posts. But here are a few initial thoughts:

1. Do not let dust-ups such as these stop you from blogging/tweeting/whatever. These modes of direct scholar-to-scholar communication are increasingly important, and if you’ve found community in them, you should work to maintain it. (And if you’re looking for better connections to the folks in your field or better visibility for your work and you aren’t using these channels, you should seriously consider them.)

2. Listen carefully to these debates, though, as they will tell you something important about your field and the folks in it. If there are folks on Twitter who are saying that they are less than comfortable with some of its uses, or if there are blog posts exploring the ups and downs of blogging, you might want to pay attention. There’s a lot to be learned from these points of tension in any community.

3. Use your blog/twitter/whatever professionally. This ought to be completely obvious, of course, but the key here is to really think through what professional use means in an academic context. In our more formal writing, we’re extremely careful to distinguish between our own arguments and the ideas of others — between our interpretation of what someone else has said and the conclusions that we go on to draw — and we have clear textual signals that mark those distinctions. Such distinctions can and should exist in social media as well: if you’re live-tweeting a presentation, you should attribute ideas to the speaker but simultaneously make clear that the tweets are your interpretation of what’s being said. The same for blogging. The point is that none of these channels are unmediated by human perspective. They’re not directly transmitting what the speaker is saying to a broader audience. And the possibilities for misunderstanding — is this something the speaker said, or your response to it? — are high. Bringing the same kinds of scrupulousness to blogging and tweeting that we bring to formal writing are is key. [Edited 12.55pm. Bad English professor!]

4. Make your tweets and blog posts your own. As I understand it, some of the concern about the tweeting and blogging of conference papers has to do with intellectual property concerns; does a blog post about a presentation undermine the claims of the speaker to the material? The answer is of course not, but if you want to avoid conflict around such IP issues, ensure that your posts focus on your carefully signalled responses to the talk, rather than on the text of the talk itself. This is the same mode in which we do all of our work — taking in and responding to the arguments of others — and it should be recognizable as such.

5. If somebody says they’d prefer not to be tweeted or blogged, respect that. Whatever your feelings about the value of openness — and openness ranks very high among my academic values — not everyone shares them. While I have a hard time imagining giving a talk that I didn’t wish more people could hear, I know there are other scholars who are less comfortable with the broadcast of in-process material. And while I might like to nudge them toward more openness, it’s neither my place nor is it worth the potential bad feeling to do so.

And finally:

6. Relax. People are going to freak out about the things they’re going to freak out about. If you’re working in a new field, or in alternative forms — if you’re really pushing at the boundaries of scholarly work in the ways that you should — somebody’s not going to like it. Always. The thing to do is to make your argument as professionally as you can, to demonstrate the value of the ways that you’re working — and then to get back to work. Doing your work well, and being able to show how your work is paying off, are the point.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment. What am I missing?

Past and Future

For the next few days, my “Five Years Ago” block at right will be filled with post-Katrina posts. After all these years with the blog, it still feels very odd to have such a record of past trauma, the detail of what was going through my head in those days when I desperately needed someone around me to understand how bad things were in New Orleans.

The power of this kind of record is part of what makes me agree with Paul Carr’s assessment: what I’ve gained in immediacy and community via Twitter, I’ve lost in preservation, longevity, even permanence.

It’s this kind of thing that has me torn between the precious little time I have for this kind of writing and the desire to keep those thoughts somewhere I might get back at them five years from now.

Why I Want Google Wave NOW, Please

Because I had a rather amazing exchange about the future of open access publishing via Twitter last night with Brett Bobley (@brettbobley), Dan Cohen (@dancohen), and Steve Ramsay (@sramsay), and unless you were following all three of us, you probably missed it. And I’d love to repost it here, but that would mean a lot of manual cutting and pasting, attempting to rebuild the thread out of last night’s stream. From what I can tell, Google Wave will cluster that stream for me, and allow me to embed it here directly, where, should you choose to join in the conversation, it’ll self-update.

I want all the many conversations that I have, at various levels and on various platforms, to become visible to me as conversations, and to be repurposable as various kinds of publications. And I hope I’m not being over-optimistic in anticipating that Google Wave will make a good bit of that possible.