Twitter has been an invaluable tool for me as a new grad student and growing scholar. Communicating and building connections over Twitter has helped form relationships with my colleagues and professors in my program and across the university. Using Twitter has also afforded me access to the growing domain of digital humanities through the tweets of scholarly publications, organizations, thought leaders, and my own colleagues – in fact, it was through a tweet that I learned of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative at MSU.
Though I have been a Twitter user for years, I first experienced its utility in a scholarly context while attending my first major academic conference. I had never been to a major academic conference before and I thought that the conference backchannel might be a good way to get acclimated to the new practices and setting. I was right: using the Twitter hashtag for the conference, I scouted lunch spots, found electrical outlets in the conference center, and made plans easily with colleagues from home. More recently, while attending a comparatively smaller, DH-centric conference, I found Twitter useful for making connections with new people, asking questions and discussing conference talks as they were happening, and learning about the talks that I wasn’t able to attend due to concurrent scheduling. In both cases, the conference backchannels gave me access to information that I likely would not have had as a newcomer to not only the conferences, but academia in general.
Based on my own experience, it is evident that Twitter can be a powerful tool for folks attending academic conferences, both newcomers and seasoned vets. That said, it is my goal this semester to build a tool which enhances the utility of Twitter in the context of scholarly conferences.
I will build a web application called Corridor. It is a web application that will be used to collect and collate metadata for Twitter hashtags which are used during academic conferences. Though Twitter hashtags mediate and aggregate conference tweets among those “in-the-know”, they can be inaccessible to an outsider, even if the conversation is one that interests them, because conference hashtags often look like complete nonsense (e.g. #cccc11, #cw2012, #ir11, #HASTAC2011). The primary feature of the tool, then, will be to contextualize conference hashtags, displaying user-curated metadata about specific conferences; this will include the title of the conference, location, dates and more information. I hope that Corridor will help illuminate the exciting backchannel discourse of scholarly conferences for newcomers to online academia, but newcomers to academia in general.
Corridor will also be able to track relations or connections between other hashtags used at the conference as a means of resolving redundant hashtags. For instance, the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta last spring had several hashtags: #cccc2011, #cccc11, and #cccc are just a few of the primary tags. I used Tweetdeck to follow multiple conference hashtags, but it was impossible for me to view all tags in one stream. This resulted in silos of conference discourse; the effect of redundant, non-mainstream hashtags for conference attendees who are trying to engage via Twitter is like being marooned on an island.
Other primary features Corridor will includes are Twitter authentication for user accounts and social or crowd-sourced moderation as a means to keep the hashtag ecosystem in order. Future iterations include tweet sorting tools; metrics for measuring the velocity of individual tweets or Twitter users; conference tag clouds based on keywords from tweets; and more.
Outlook and Challenges
Bootstrap, a framework made by Twitter, seems like a viable option for constructing the design of Corridor. With a strong background in HTML and CSS and nearly a decade of learning by unmaking and breaking things, I’m confident about the prospect of working with Bootstrap. Digging into the Twitter API and programming Corridor will undoubtedly pose a significant challenge for me, but it’s one that I look forward to.
Programming literacy is an essential skill for humanist scholars. The web is a programmed tool that permeates our social lives, our work, and our communication practices. By precluding ourselves the means to understand how the web is built and how it functions on a technical level, we do ourselves a great disservice. However, I hope that after I’ve grown some programming chops of my own from my work on Corridor this semester that I will be prepared to produce cutting edge scholarly work that is valued in both academic and non-academic communities.
Photo by Aaron Hockley; used with permission CC BY-NC-ND 2.0