In Defence of Live Tweeting

Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?, part 2: Should people who live-tweet conferences be thrown out and barred from future conferences?

A story in IHE that concerned a debate (well, I say “debate”, but it was clearly a slow news day…) about the rights and wrongs of live-tweeting prompted Brian Leiter to post this:

[A]nyone who live-tweets a conference should be immediately disinvited from the event, and any future ones.

He elaborated later:

The medium of twitter is not suited to discursive reasoning or extended analysis or argument.  But philosophy presentations contain discursive reasoning and extended analysis and argument.  Therefore a twitter version of a talk will necessarily mutilate it.  Since mutilation of someone’s work has no value, people who attend a conference should have the courtesy not to try to tweet the talks.  If they do not have that courtesy, they should be thrown out.   There may be fields where presentations lend themselves to tweeting; on that issue, I’m agnostic.  But philosophy isn’t one of them.



The first sentence (I’d call it a premise, but that seems to overrate it) of this is possibly true, but not obviously so.  For sure, you can’t get much into a single tweet, but a succession of tweets is capable of generating serious discussion.  There’s not room for nuance – but that might mean simply that you’re forced to cut to the chase.  Thus, though the second sentence is probably true, the third is false.

The claim about courtesy bears a bit more scrutiny.  We can grant that mutilating someone’s work has no value, but since I’m not convinced that there is mutilation going on, that’s by the by.  Besides: people can mutilate an idea when they talk about it in the pub after, or try to incorporate it into their own work at a later date.  That’s just a part of making a point publicly; and yet we wouldn’t dream of saying that people should be unwelcome at conferences because the quality of their conversations isn’t sufficiently high.  The difference between the two seems to be simply a matter of whether you’re mutilating stuff in real time or not.

So we’re left with a couple of questions.  First: do people who live-tweet show a lack of courtesy?  Second: does this mean they should be thrown out?

In respect of the courtesy point: possibly they do – though not always.  It’s possible that tweeting shows that your mind is elsewhere; but it might also be a sign that you’re engaged and excited about an idea or argument, and want to share it.  The mind-elsewhere factor doesn’t strike me as being all that different from taking notes and trying to formulate a killer question to ask at the end of the paper; that’s not discourteous.  And if it is ever discourteous… well, at least the blast-radius is pretty small.  Noone else need ever know.  And if you make a pillock of yourself when your “killer” question turns out to have been addressed in an aside that you didn’t hear because you were tweeting – well, thre’s only one person who looks any the worse here.

And this helps answer the second question.  There’s lots of ways to be discourteous in a conference, from failure to listen, to asking ten-minute-long questions, to turning up late and trying to sit in the middle of a row, to doodling, to snoring too loudly.  Tweeting is, at least arguably, only one among many vices – and not the greatest by a long way.  None of these things really strikes me as being so awful that a person should be thrown out, and even less that they should be uninvited from future conferences: just prodded a bit, or mildly chided by the chair, and maybe slagged off in the bar.  (You could do that via tweets, too…)

There’s a better discussion at NewAPPS; one of the problems raised there has to do with getting scooped.  But, again, that seems to me to be built in to the conference format.  If you’re presenting a work-in-progress, then it’s possible that someone in the audience will steal your idea; and if there’s a live-tweet going on, then the audience is in effect indefinitely large – and so has indefinitely many potential idea-thieves.  Still: if your paper is on the verge of publication, noone will get from a tweet nearly enough to write a paper quickly enough to scoop you; and if it’s embryonic, they the chances are that there’s not sufficient detailed content to be scooped yet anyway.  Besides: Twitter gives at least the chance of an electronic paper-trail, so you’d have some hope of establishing that you said what you said when you say you said it.

(Curiously, one of the commenters on that thread, who is called Brian, and may or may not be Leiter, distinguishes between live-tweeting and live-blogging: the latter is apparently not so bad.  I don’t buy the distinction – you can mutilate an idea on a blog, too… as anyone who’s read this far will doubtless have realised.)

Meh.  Whatever.  David, Christian Munthe, a couple of others, and I live-tweeted large parts of the recent IAB under the tag #IAB2012 (as courteously as possible, I hope); and we’ll doubtless do the same for other conferences in future.  More strongly, I don’t think that it wasn’t a bad thing, so much as that  it was a good thing: especially in big conferences, it allows people to see what else is going on.

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