By Robert Harris
I tweet a lot – that much needs to be clear from the outset. I’ve been asked to share some thoughts on my experience at this year’s Classical Association conference, but to do so requires that I first make this admission. I must also assume that individuals reading this have at least a passing familiarity with Twitter and how the microblogging service functions. If you don’t, a few minutes of research will repay you with an overview more accurate and informative than I have the space to offer here. My goal in this piece isn’t to provide an introduction to the way Twitter works, but rather to illustrate specifically how it worked for me in Reading. Despite the growing number of individuals within the academic community who’ve embraced the service, Twitter still seems to have a somewhat troubled reputation. It’s often popularly portrayed as a bastion of banality, or at the very least, as a distracting triviality with little practical value. I’ll readily admit that Twitter is not without its faults, but it’s also not without its virtues, and prolific twitterer though I am, even I was taken aback by the degree to which it helped positively shape my time at the conference.
Really, it all began with the drinks reception on Wednesday evening. I was, in a word, nervous. Unlike many of the other delegates, I wasn’t attending with any colleagues (who in my case would have been my fellow MA students); even more worrisome was the fact that this was my first CA conference. While I knew I wouldn’t have trouble meeting like-minded individuals at the paper sessions, walking into a room packed to the gills with established academics is surely an intimidating prospect for any junior scholar. Certainly it was for me, and I must confess that after ten minutes I retreated to the Irish pub across the street to rethink my plans for the evening. Here Twitter came into play, as I quickly discovered that another delegate – one with whom I was already acquainted via Twitter – also happened to be a Reading local, and was at that time no more than a stone’s throw from the very pub I was sitting in. Arrangements to meet were quickly made, and I passed the rest of the night in pleasant (and beer-filled) conversation on all things Greek and Roman.
Thursday came and went in a blur of Herodotus papers and a snowy trip to Silchester (an excursion which generated no shortage of tweets by itself), but it was again in the evening that Twitter really revealed its usefulness, after Charlotte Roueché’s brilliant plenary lecture. In the minutes that followed, after I had breathlessly tweeted my own energized response, I read through the other tweets marked with the #CA2013 hashtag. It soon became clear that I was hardly the only delegate to have taken to Twitter to enthuse – in fact, as it turned out, one such individual had been sitting in the row in front of me the entire time. It seemed absurd to have been so close but to have not met in person, and so I tweeted the obvious solution: I inquired whether fellow conference twitterers would be interested in meeting in person during the next day’s coffee break. Responses came within minutes. To my surprise, all of them were positive, and so the plans were set.
Friday arrived, and after an excellent session of papers on Classics and Children’s Literature, I made my way to the front doors of the Palmer building at the University of Reading, where we’d arranged to meet. A half-dozen delegates soon arrived, and we made our introductions, finally putting names to faces (or at least to profile icons). It’s fair to say that folks hit it off: the half-hour coffee break flew by and proved to be insufficient time to chat, so it was suggested that we meet again for lunch. In the meantime, another twitterer and I trotted off to the e-learning paper session. Both of us ended up live-tweeting it (a subject to which I’ll return shortly). By the time lunch rolled around, our numbers had doubled to over a dozen twitterers, including two of the “Greenshirt” student volunteers. As with the coffee gathering, this lunch meeting proved a success – so much so that a few hours later, an invitation spread (via Twitter) for the same group of individuals to meet for an evening meal. Though I had to decline (I was attending the conference dinner), I’ve no doubt it went well.
Finally on Saturday came the second set of papers on Classics in Children’s Literature. I was live-tweeting this session, and things were running relatively normally until we came to Helen Lovatt’s paper on The Roman Mysteries book series by Caroline Lawrence. I knew from past experience that Lawrence was active on Twitter, and so I mentioned her in a few of my updates. This got her attention: moments later, she was responding, and indeed actively following the discussion via the #CA2013 hashtag and my own tweets. I asked if she wanted me to convey a message to the delegates present, and she generously offered free copies of some of her books to anyone attending that session. There was something of an astonished gasp when I relayed that offer to the audience; that the author could be present in this way seemed remarkable for many individuals. It even prompted one delegate to ask me to question Lawrence about the state of German translations of her books. Again, within minutes, the delegate had her answer, along with the promise of a free German edition of the book of her choice from Caroline Lawrence herself.
What can one usefully make of all this? What do these incidents reveal about the potential utility of Twitter at conferences? Firstly, there’s the social networking aspect. That word networking is key, since it’s a common refrain that this is one of the primary reasons to attend conferences: the chance to meet new people and make important professional contacts. If Twitter can help facilitate that kind of interaction, so much the better, but the social benefits of the service run deeper. Perhaps helping to salvage the night of a slightly overwhelmed delegate, or giving a group of strangers other people to sit with at lunch, seem like trivial use cases, but for me, and doubtless for some of the others who attended the informal “tweetups”, they made a great deal of difference. In my view, the use of Twitter offers a point of common reference for conference-goers, one which can smooth the way for new attendees who might otherwise end up isolated.
I said I’d return to the subject of live-tweeting, but the truth is that it’s a topic far beyond the scope of this piece. There are too many important questions: to what extent does the practice disrupt paper sessions, for example, or how appropriate is it to paraphrase a presenter’s words outside of their immediate context? To these and all the other vital questions I have no obvious answers, but what I will say is this: I know I personally benefited from live-tweeting at the conference. Having to quickly digest and relay the speaker’s salient points forced me to pay better attention, to truly understand what was being said in order to adequately rephrase it in 140 characters or less. It also allowed me to catch up later with material I’d missed from sessions I wasn’t able to attend.
Perhaps more importantly, I also know that others benefited from my live-tweeting. I have a fair number of followers, the vast majority of whom are not Classicists. One might have expected them to voice some dismay as I merrily filled up their timelines with conference chatter, but their response was quite the opposite: I received nothing but enthusiasm from them. Simply by being at the conference and sharing a small sliver of my experience, I was able to generate real excitement for the field of Classics amongst people who would otherwise have very little exposure to this kind of material. One individual even mentioned that it had helped finalize their decision to pursue a Classics degree. I don’t mention this to brag, but instead to illustrate that the power and promise of Twitter is in just how vast an audience it can reach, and how varied that audience can be, including everyone from authors under discussion (as in the case of Caroline Lawrence) to students considering their futures. Though live-tweeting obviously can’t offer a follower the whole experience or advantages of attending a conference in person, there are clear benefits to actively engaging with these external voices.
In the absence of Twitter, my trip to Reading would not have been wasted. Too many people worked too hard for that to have ever been a potential outcome, and I’m grateful to everyone who helped make the conference possible. In the simplest terms, I’m sure I would still have met many people and learned many things – but reflecting on the examples I’ve shared, I’m also quite sure that without Twitter, my experience would have been much less rich overall. Far from being a frivolous waste of time, Twitter was in fact key to me making the best use of my time in Reading, and I’ve no trouble believing it would prove equally useful to others.
Robert Harris is currently an MA student at the University of Birmingham. He intends to start a PhD this year and tweets under the name @foalpapers.
To see all the tweets from the CA conference in Reading, search Twitter for the hashtag #CA2013, or view them all on Storify here.