Nearly a year ago I knew that this year’s conference organised by the American Historical Association would be exciting, but I also knew I would not be able to attend it. In order to find out what had occurred at a conference like this in the past I would have had to rely on talking to people who had attended and for publication of papers and accounts arising from the conference. Someone like me would have missed out on hearing about nearly everything that occurred or learned about it months after the event. Not any more: blogs and twitter allowed me to hear about what was happening as it occurred or pretty soon after. During the course of last weekend I was glued to my computer screen when other responsibilities and sleep allowed it, reading the tweets and blog posts that were pouring out of Chicago. Over the last few days I have been reflecting on my online conference experience.
Is social media a good substitute for attending a conference? My experience this weekend has not led me to change my mind on this question. If there are a lot of sessions that interest you and people who you would like to meet, it is still much better to attend the conference in question if you can. Keeping abreast of proceedings through social media is better than being off-line during an interesting conference but it is still very much a second-best option.
It is important to recognise that tweets and blog posts give a mediated view of what is happening. We are reliant on the snippets reported by others, on their judgement as to what is important. Jennifer Howard’s overview of the conference for the Chronicle of Higher Education was retweeted approvingly many times. It reflects the impression of conference I had received through twitter and blogs – that the conference was largely concerned about:
- The need to treat jobs outside the academy as a legitimate career path for history PhDs alongside jobs in university history departments;
- The dire state of the job market for history graduates; and
- The exciting rise of digital humanities.
Yet with 257 sessions there was obviously a lot more discussed than these three topics. Generally bloggers and those on twitter are more likely to be positive about the opportunities offered by technology to produce good historical analysis so it is understandable that they attended and reported on sessions relating to digital humanities. I don’t dispute that the awful employment prospects for those seeking jobs as historians must have been the talk of the conference. But a glance at the topical index of the 252 page program indicates that topics such as religion, race, cultural, comparative, colonialism had about the same number or more sessions than those relating to ‘digital’, yet I have read remarkably few tweets or blogs about discussions of religion at the conference. Maybe I slept through the mentions?
Sleep is a real issue for Australians wanting to follow any big event overseas. We are adept at staying up to the wee hours of the morning and working the next day energised by memories of the sporting feats we saw while we should have been slumbering. But as I mature/age the cost of sleep deprivation increasingly exceed the benefits so I didn’t do an all-nighter during the conference, although I did consider doing it!
While sleep and other distractions also affect conference attendees, this is more likely to be a problem for those sitting at home and tuning in online. There are ways around this problem. The Broadside has archived tweets using #AHA2012 in the tweet as well as other useful hashtags for historians. According to digital historian Sharon Howard, there were 679 people sending tweets using the #AHA2012 conference. With the aid of The Broadside archive we can read over 4,500 tweets at whatever time we choose. However, it is much easier to immerse yourself in a conference if you are at the venue. There you are remote from interruptions from family members and your body clock is hopefully in sync with the other conference participants when you are at the venue.
I attended my first digital humanities ‘unconference’ called THATCamp a couple of months ago. It was wonderful finally meeting the people who I had been following online. I attended the boot camp, learned and practised new skills and then attended both days of the main event. As important as the sessions were, equally important were the conversations with others outside the sessions, discussing the issues we were grappling with on our projects. Fellow participants helped me to see a way through problems I could not resolve. It would have been much more difficult for me to have such free-flowing and fruitful discussions online.
Yet for many of us there are significant obstacles preventing us from attending a conference whether it be money, family responsibilities, a job that prevents us from taking time off when the conference is being held. At least we can console ourselves that we can get a sense of the debates and news through twitter and blogs. What? People attending the sessions you are interested in are not tweeting and don’t write blogs?
There are still many conferences and many sessions where there might not be a single person to report the discussion online either during the conference or in the week after. Conference organisers can take proactive steps to address this issue. They can try to organise at least one twitter rapporteur to be present and tweeting at every conference session. There is plenty of advice online to help conference organisers and participants create an informative and vibrant twitter backchannel such as this article and this one.
Why should conference organisers put in the work to encourage more online sharing when there is generally too much to do at any rate? Conferences, like any event, need to attract people to attend but also to entice more people to attend next year. Conferences are about promoting the theme of the conference and the discipline/profession that the conference is directed at. Publicity is important but promotion through traditional media is expensive, so publicity of these conferences in the past has largely been restricted to mailouts to members and notices in academic journals.
Online publicity is free and as this year’s American Historical Association conference has shown, it is a powerful force. The articles on the American Historical Association website which I received through my RSS reader, the blogs and the tweets about the conference in the lead up to the event helped to build my anticipation that this was something worth following when the time came. In the absence of this online publicity I would have had little interest in finding out more about the conference and even less interest in attending. While it is unlikely that I will attend a future AHA conference in person, I am sure that there will be people out there like Lee Bessette who have been so enthused by the online accounts of the conference that they are following online that one year they will attend.
There is another compelling reason why those who are organising conferences for the humanities should be keen to increase online reporting and discussion of the event. The humanities seek to make sense of our human world. It asks deep questions about the human condition, the extraordinary complexity and variation in the way we live our lives. These questions are not the preserve of academics alone. People from all walks of life at times ponder these questions and seek answers. The humanities should be about sharing its findings with anyone who is interested irrespective of their education, their place of residence, their age, their income level, their cultural background. Sharing the discussion at conferences through the internet is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the public. The internet is not the only way to do this and is still not freely available to all, but it is increasingly accessible to many people who have been previously excluded from academic discourse.
I’m so grateful to all the tweeters and bloggers that attended the conference and generously shared their observations. There are too many to name and list them all, but I hope they can feel my thoughts of thanks! I’m looking forward to following the American Historical Association conference online again next year. It is exciting to see the discipline emerging into the public sphere in this way – revealing itself as a dynamic, collaborative, creative and forward-thinking discipline.
More About the 2012 AHA Conference
There have been many blog posts and articles written about the conference. Here are a few links to get you started:
- The Broadside: Archive of #AHA2012 tweets.
- The American Historical Association: List of articles and blogs about the conference – a good starting point to read about the conference.
- History News Network: Daily summary of the conference and other links.
- Lee Skallerup: Jobs for Historians: Approaching the Crisis – this keeps my feet pretty well cemented on the ground!
- No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History by Anthony T Grafton and Jim Grossman – while this paper was not delivered at the conference it was a focus of discussion, well worth reading!
If you are new to twitter and want to learn more about it, have a look at The twitter Guide Book from Mashable.
About the Image
The image at the top of this page was born from my decision to lead every post with an image, combined with my difficulties in finding a suitable image to add to this post. After sharing this problem with my daughter she said, “make your own”, so I did. The tweets have been taken from the twitter stream for #AHA2012 after the conference and The Broadside #AHA2012 archive. The photo behind the tweets was taken by Dan Cohen and shared by him on twitter. It is a photo of participants at the THATCamp (digital humanities ‘unconference’) which was held just before the conference started. The logos of WordPress, twitter and Blogger indicate some of the most popular tools used by conference participants to communicate news of the conference online.
- Background photo of conference particpants by @dancohen tweeted 6/1/2012: “full house with many #THATCamp first-timers at #AHA2012″ retweeted by @Margeret_Heller and included on the American Historical Association summary of conference tweets.
- Extracts of conference tweets for the first letter ‘A': Archive of #AHA2012 tweets by The Broadside website.
- Extracts of conference tweets for the second letter, ‘H': ‘Top’ tweets for #AHA2012 from the twitter website, snapshot taken in the early hours of 13/1/2012 (AEDST).
- Extracts of conference tweets for the last letter ‘A'” Archive of #AHA 2012 tweets by The Broadside website.
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