Facebook Killed the Feed

There’s a movement to reclaim blogging as a vibrant, vital space in academia. Dan Cohen, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Alan Jacobs have written about their renewed efforts to have smart exchanges of ideas take place on blogs of their own. Rather than taking place on, say Twitter, where well-intentioned discussions are easily derailed by trolls, bots, or careless ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or on Facebook, where Good Conversations Go to Die™.

Kathleen recently put it more diplomatically:

An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

You can’t overstate this point about the isolation of blogs. I’ve installed FreshRSS on one of my domains (thanks to Reclaim Hosting’s quick work), and it’s the first RSS reader I feel good about in years—since Google killed Google Reader. I had TinyRSS running, but the interface was so painful that I actively avoided it. With FreshRSS on my domain, I imported a list of the blogs I used to follow, pruned them (way too many have linkrotted away, proving Kathleen’s point), and added a precious few new blogs. FreshRSS is a pleasure to check a couple of times a day.

Now, if only more blogs posts showed up there. Because what people used to blog about, they now post on Facebook. I detest Facebook for a number of reasons and have gone as far as you can go without deleting your Facebook account entirely (unfriended everyone, stayed that way for six months, and then slowly built up a new friend network that is a fraction of what it used to be…but they’re all friends, family, or colleagues who I wouldn’t mind seeing a pic of my kids).

Anyway, what I want to say is, yes, Google killed off Google Reader, the most widely adopted RSS reader and the reason so many people kept up with blogs. But Facebook killed the feed.

The kind of conversations between academics that used to take place on blogs still take place, but on Facebook, where the conversations are often locked down, hard to find, and written in a distractedsocialmediamultitaskingway instead of thoughtful and deliberative. It’s the freaking worst thing ever.

You could say, Well, hey, Facebook democratized social media! Now more people than ever are posting! Setting aside the problems with Facebook that have become obvious since November 2016, I counter this with:

No. Effing. Way.

Facebook killed the feed. The feed was a metaphorical thing. I’m not talking about RSS feeds, the way blog posts could be detected and read by offsite readers. I’m talking about sustenance. What nourished critical minds. The feed. The food that fed our minds. There’s a “feed” on Facebook, but it doesn’t offer sustenance. It’s empty calories. Junk food. Junk feeds.

To prove my point I offer the following prediction. This post, which I admit is not exactly the smartest piece of writing out there about blogging, will be read by a few people who still use RSS. The one person who subscribes to my posts by email (Hi Mom!) might read it. Maybe a dozen or so people will like the tweet where I announce this post—though who knows if they actually read it. And then, when I drop a link to this post on Facebook, crickets. If I’m lucky, maybe someone sticks the 😡 emoji to it before liking the latest InstantPot recipe that shows up next in their “feed.”

That’s it. Junk food.

A protest bot is a bot so specific you can’t mistake it for bullshit

Code of NRA_Tally

A Call for Bots of Conviction

In 1965 the singer-songwriter Phil Ochs told an audience that “a protest song is a song that’s so specific you can’t mistake it for bullshit.” Ochs was introducing his anti-war anthem “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”—but also taking a jab at his occasional rival Bob Dylan, whose expressionistic lyrics by this time resembled Rimbaud more than Guthrie. The problem with Dylan, as far as Ochs was concerned, wasn’t that he had gone electric. It was that he wasn’t specific. You never really knew what the hell he was singing about. Meanwhile Ochs’ debut album in 1964 was an enthusiastic dash through fourteen very specific songs. The worst submarine disaster in U.S. history. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The murder of Emmett Till, the assassination of Medgar Evers. The sparsely produced album was called All the News That’s Fit to Sing, a play on the New York Times slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” But more than mere parody, the title signals Ochs’ intention to best the newspaper at its own game, pronouncing and denouncing, clarifying and explaining, demanding and indicting the events of the day.

Ochs and the sixties protest movement are far removed from today’s world. There’s the sheer passage of time, of course. But there’s also been a half century of profound social and technological change, the greatest being the rise of computational culture. Networks, databases, videogames, social media. What, in this landscape, is the 21st century equivalent of a protest song? What is the modern version of a song so specific in its details, its condemnation, its anger, that it could not possibly be mistaken for bullshit?

One answer is the protest bot. A computer program that reveals the injustice and inequality of the world and imagines alternatives. A computer program that says who’s to praise and who’s to blame. A computer program that questions how, when, who and why. A computer program whose indictments are so specific you can’t mistake them for bullshit. A computer program that does all this automatically.

Bots are small automated programs that index websites, edit Wikipedia entries, spam users, scrape data from pages, launch denial of service attacks, and other assorted activities, both mundane and nefarious. On Twitter bots are mostly spam, but occasionally, they’re creative endeavors.

The bots in this small creative tribe that get the most attention—the @Horse_ebooks of the world (though @horse_ebooks would of course turn out later not to be a bot)—are surreal, absurd, purposeless for the sake of purposelessness. There is a bot canon forming, and it includes bots like @tofu_product, @TwoHeadlines, @everycolorbot, and @PowerVocabTweet. This emerging bot canon reminds me of the literary canon, because it values a certain kind of bot that generates a certain kind of tweet.

To build on this analogy to literature, I think of Repression and Recovery, Cary Nelson’s 1989 effort to reclaim a strain of American poetry excluded from traditional literary histories of the 20th century. The crux of Nelson’s argument is that there were dozens of progressive writers in the early to mid-20th century whose poems provided inconvenient counter-examples to what was considered “poetic” by mainstream culture. These poems have been left out of the canon because they were not “literary” enough. Nelson accuses literary critics of privileging poems that display ambivalence, inner anguish, and political indecision over ones that are openly polemical. Poems that draw clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice are considered naïve by the academic establishment and deemed not worthy of analysis or teaching, and certainly not worthy of canonization. It’s Dylan over Ochs all over again.

A similar generalization might be made about what is valued in bots. But rather than ambivalence and anguish being the key markers of canon-worthy bots, it’s absurdism, comical juxtaposition, and an exhaustive sensibility (the idea that while a human cannot tweet every word or every unicode character, a machine can). Bots that don’t share these traits—say, a bot that tweets the names of toxic chemicals found in contaminated drinking water or tweets civilian deaths from drone attacks—are likely to be left out of the bot canon.

I don’t care much about the canon, except as a means to clue us in to what stands outside the canon. We should create and pay attention to bots that don’t fit the canon. And protest bots should be among these bots. We need bots that are not (or not merely) funny, random, or comprehensive. We need bots that are the algorithmic equivalent of the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook, bots that fan the flames of discontent. We need bots of conviction.

Bots of Conviction

In his classic account of the public sphere, that realm of social life in which individuals discuss and shape public opinion, the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas describes a brief historical moment in the early 19th century in which the “journalism of conviction” thrived. The journalism of conviction did not simply compile notices as earlier newspapers had done; nor did the journalism of conviction seek to succeed purely commercially, serving the private interests of its owners or shareholders. Rather, the journalism of conviction was polemical, political, fervently debating the needs of society and the role of the state.

We may have lost the journalism of conviction, but it’s not too late to cultivate bots of conviction. I want to sketch out five characteristics of bots of conviction. I’ll name them here and describe each in more details. Bots of conviction are topical, data-based, cumulative, oppositional, and uncanny.

  • Topical. Asked where the ideas for his song came from, Ochs once pulled out a Newsweek and smiled, “From out of here.” Though probably apocryphal, the anecdote highlights the topical nature of protest songs, and by extension, protest bots. They are not about lost love or existential anguish. They are about the morning news—and the daily horrors that fail to make it into the news.
  • Data-based. Bots of conviction are based in data, which is another way of saying they don’t make this shit up. They draw from research, statistics, spreadsheets, databases. Bots have no subconscious, so any imagery they use should be taken literally. Protest bots give witness to the world we inhabit.
  • Cumulative. It is the nature of bots to do the same thing over and over again, with only slight variation. Repetition with a difference. Any single iteration may be interesting, but it is in the aggregate that a protest bot’s tweets attain power. The repetition builds on itself, the bot relentlessly riffing on its theme, unyielding and overwhelming, a pile-up of wreckage on our screens.
  • Oppositional. This is where the conviction comes in. Whereas the bot pantheon is populated by l’bot pour l’bot, protest bots take a stand. Society being what it is, this stance will likely be unpopular, perhaps even unnerving. Just as the most affecting protest songs made their audiences feel uncomfortable, bots of conviction challenge us to consider our own complicity in the wrongs of the world.
  • Uncanny. I’m using uncanny in the Freudian sense here, but without the psychodrama. The uncanny is the return of the repressed. The appearance of that which we had sought to keep hidden. I have to thank Zach Whalen for highlighting this last characteristic, which he frames in terms of visibility. Protests bots often reveal something that was hidden; or conversely, they might purposefully obscure something that had been in plain sight.

It’s one thing to talk about bots of conviction in theory. It’s quite another to talk about them in practice. What does a bot of conviction actually look like?

Consider master botmaker Darius Kazemi’s @TwoHeadlines. On one hand, the bot is most assuredly topical, as it functions by yoking two distinct news headlines into a single, usually comical headline. The bot is obviously data-driven too; the bot scrapes the headline data directly from Google News. On the other hand, @TwoHeadlines is neither cumulative nor oppositional. The bot posts at a moderate pace of once per hour, but while the individual tweets accumulate they do not build up to something. There is no theme the algorithm compulsively revisits. Each tweet is a one-off one-liner. Most critically, though, the bot takes no stance. @TwoHeadlines reflects the news, but it does not reflect on the news. It may very well be Darius’ best bot, but it lacks all conviction.

What about another recent bot, Chuck Rybak’s @TheHigherDead? Chuck lampoons utopian ed-tech talk in higher education, putting jargon such as “disrupt” and “innovate” in the mouths of zombies. Chuck uses the affordances of the Twitter bio to sneak in a link to the Clayton Christensen Institute. Christensen is the Harvard Business School professor who popularized terms like “disruptive innovation” and “hybrid innovation”—ideas that when applied to K12 or higher ed appear to be little more than neo-liberal efforts to pare down labor costs and disempower faculty. When these ideas are actually put into action, we get the current crisis in the University of Wisconsin system, where Chuck teaches. @TheHigherDead is oppositional and uncanny, in the way that anything having to do with zombies is uncanny. It’s even topical, but is it a protest bot? It’s parody, but its data is too eclectic to be considered data-based. If @TheHigherDead mined actual news accounts and ed-tech blogs for more jargon and these phrases showed up in the tweets, the bot would rise beyond parody to protest.

@TwoHeadlines and @TheHigherDead are not protest bots, but then, they’re not supposed to be. I am unfairly applying my own criteria to it, but only to illustrate what I mean by the terms topical, data-based, cumulative, oppositional, and uncanny. It’s worth testing this criteria against another bot: Zach Whalen’s @ClearCongress. This bot retweets members of Congress after redacting a portion of the original tweet. The length of the redaction corresponds to the current congressional approval rate; the lower the approval rating, the more characters are blocked.

Assuming our senators and representatives post about current news and policies, the bot is topical. It is also data-driven, doubly-so, since it pulls from congressional accounts and up-to-date polling data from the Huffington Post. The bot is cumulative as well. Scrolling through the timeline you face an indecipherable wall of ▒▒▒▒ and ▓▓▓▓, a visual effect intensified by Twitter’s infinite scrolling. By obscuring text, the bot plays in the register of the visible and invisible—the uncanny. And despite not saying anything legible, @ClearCongress has something to say. It’s an oppositional bot, thematizing the disconnect between the will of the people and the rulers of the land. At the same time, the bot suggests that Congress has replaced substance with white noise, that all senators and representatives end up sounding the same, regardless of their politics, and that, most damning of all, Congress is ineffectual, all but useless.

Another illustrative protest bot likewise uses Congress as its target. Ed Summers’ @congressedits tweets whenever anonymous edits are made to Wikipedia from IP addresses associated with the U.S. Congress. In other words, whenever anyone in Congress—likely Congressional staffers, but conceivably representatives and senators themselves—attempts to edit a Wikipedia article anonymously, the bot flags that edit and calls attention to it. This is the uncanny hallmark of @congressedits: making visible that which others seek to hide, bringing transparency to a key source of information online, and in the process highlighting the subjective nature of knowledge production in online spaces. @congressedits operates in near real-time; these are not historical revisions to Wikipedia, they are edits that are happening right now. The bot is obviously data-driven too. Summers’ bot responds to data from Wikipedia’s API, but it also send us, the readers, directly to the diff page of that edit, where we can clearly see the specific changes made to the page. It turns out that many of the revisions are copyedits—fixing punctuation, spelling, or grammar. This revelation undercuts our initial cynical assumption that every anonymous Wikipedia edit from Congress is ideologically-driven. Yet it also supports the message of @ClearCongress. Congress is so useless that they have nothing better to do than fix comma splices on Wikipedia? Finally, there’s one more layer of @congressedits to mention, which speaks again to the issue of transparency. Summers has shared the code on Github, making it possible for others to programmatically develop customized clones, and there are dozens of such bots now, tracking changes to Wikipedia.

There are not many bots of conviction, but they are possible, as @ClearCongress and @congress-edits demonstrate. I’ve attempted to make several agit-bots myself, though when I started, I hadn’t thought through the five characteristics I describe above. In a very real sense, my theory about bots as a form of civic engagement grew out of my own creative practice.

I made my first protest bot in the wake of the Snowden revelations about PRISM, the NSA’s downstream surveillance program. I created @NSA_PRISMbot. The bot is an experiment in speculative surveillance, imagining the kind of useless information the NSA might distill from its invasive data-gathering:

@NSA_PRISMbot is topical, of course, rooted in specificity. The Internet companies the bot names are the same services identified on the infamous NSA PowerPoint slide. When Microsoft later changed the name of SkyDrive to OneDrive, the bot even reflected that change. Similarly, @NSA_PRISMbot will occasionally flag (fake) social media activity using the list of keywords and search terms the Department of Homeland Security tracks on social media.

Any single tweet of NSA_PRISMbot may be clever, with humorous juxtapositions at work. But the real power of the bot is the way the individual invasions of privacy accumulate. The bot is like a devotional exercise, in which repetition is an attempt at deeper understanding.

Javascript of @nsa_allstars
The code of @nsa_allstars

I followed up @NSA_PRISMbot with @NSA_AllStars, whose satirical profile notes that it “honors the heroes behind @NSA_PRISMbot, who keep us safe from the bad guys.” This bot builds on the revelations that NSA workers and subcontractors had spied on their own friends and family.

The bot names names, including the various divisions of the NSA and the companies that are documented subcontractors for the NSA.

A Bot Canon of Anger

While motivated by conviction, neither of these NSA bots are explicit in their outrage. So here’s an angry protest bot, one I made out of raw emotion, a bitter compound of fury and despair. On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen more near the campus of UC-Santa Barbara. In addition to my own anger I was moved by the grief of my friends, several of whom teach at UC Santa Barbara. It was Alan Liu’s heartfelt act of public bereavement that most clearly articulated what I sought in this protest bot:

Whereas Alan turns toward literature for a full-throated cry of anger, I turned toward algorithmic culture, to the margins of the computational world. I created a bot of consolation and conviction that—to paraphrase Phil Ochs in “When I’m Gone”—tweets louder than the guns.

The bot I made is @NRA_Tally. It posts imagined headlines about mass shootings, followed by a fictionalized but believable response from the NRA:

Tweet from @NRA_Tally
@NRA_Tally

The bot is topical, grievously so. More critically, you cannot mistake it for bullshit. The bot is data-driven, populated with statistics from a database of over thirty years of mass shootings in the U.S. Here are the individual elements that make up the template of every @NRA_Tally tweet:

  1. A number. The bot selects a random number between 4 (the threshold for what the FBI defines as mass murder) and 35 (just above the Virginia Tech massacre, the worst mass shooting in American history).
  2. The victims. The victims are generalizations drawn from the historical record. Sadly this means teachers, college students, elementary school children.
  3. Location. The city and state names have all been sites of mass shootings. I had considered either seeding the location with a huge list of cities or simply generating fake city names (which is what @NSA_PRISMbot does). I decided against these approaches, however, because I was determined to have @NRA_Tally act as a witness to real crimes.
  4. Firearm. The bot randomly selects the deadly weapon from an array of 64 items, all handguns or rifles that have been used in a mass shooting in the United States. An incredible 75% of the weapons fired in mass shootings have been purchased legally, the killers abiding by existing gun regulations. Many of the guns were equipped with high-capacity magazines, again, purchased legally. The 140-character constraint of Twitter means some weapon names have been shortened, dropping, for example the words “semiautomatic” or “sawed-off.”
  5. Response. This is a statement from the NRA in the form of a press release. Every possible response mirrors actual rhetorical moves the NRA has made after previous mass shootings. There are currently 14 stock responses, but the NRA has undoubtedly issued other statements of scapegoating and misdirection. @NRA_Tally is participatory in the sense that you can contribute to its database of responses. Simply submit a generalized yet documented response and I will incorporate it into the code.

@NRA_Tally is terrifying and unsettling, posing scenarios that go beyond the plausible into the realm of the super-real. It is an oppositional bot on several levels. It is obviously antagonistic toward the NRA. It is oppositional toward false claims that “guns don’t kill people,” purposefully foregrounding weapons over killers. It is even oppositional to social media itself, challenging the logic of following and retweeting. Who would be comfortable seeing such tragedies in their timeline on an hourly basis? Who would dare to retweet something that could be taken as legitimate news, thereby spreading unnecessary rumors and lies?

Protest Bots as Tactical Media

A friend who saw an early version of @NRA_Tally expressed unease about it, wondering whether or not the bot would be gratuitous. The bot canon is full of playful bots that are nonsensical and superfluous. @NRA_Tally is neither playful nor nonsensical, but is it superfluous?

No, it is not. @NRA_Tally, like all protest bots, is an example of tactical media. Rita Raley, another friend at UCSB, literally wrote the book on tactical media, a form of media activism that engages in a “micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education.” Tactical media targets “the next five minutes” rather than some far off revolutionary goal. As tactical media, protest bots do not offer solutions. Instead they create messy moments that destabilize narratives, perspectives, and events.

How might such destabilization work in the case of @NRA_Tally?

As Salon points out, it is the NRA’s strategy—this is a long term policy rather than a tactical maneuver—to shut down debate by accusing anyone who talks about gun control as politicizing the victims’ death. A bot of conviction, however, cannot be shut down by such ironic accusations. A protest bot cannot be accused of dishonoring the victims when there are no actual victims. As the bot inexorably piles on headline after headline, it becomes clear that the center of gravity of each tweet is the name of the weapon itself. The bot is not about victims. It is about guns and the organization that makes such preventable crimes possible.

The public debate about gun violence is severely limited. This bot attempts to unsettle it, just for a minute. And, because this is a bot that doesn’t back down and cannot cower and will tweet for as long as I let it, it has many of these minutes to make use of. Bots of conviction are also bots of persistence.

Adorno once said that it is the role of the cultural critic to present society a bill it cannot pay. Adorno would not have good things to say about computational culture, let alone social media. But even he might appreciate that not only can protest bots present society a bill it cannot pay, they can do so at the rate of once every two minutes. They do not bullshit around.

An earlier version of this essay on Protest Bots can be found on Medium.

Closed Bots and Green Bots

The Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference was last week in Milwaukee. I hated to miss it, but I hated even more the idea of missing my kids’ last days of school here in Madrid, where we’ve been since January.

If I had been at the ELO conference, I’d have no doubt talked about bots. I thought I already said everything I had to say about these small autonomous programs that generate text and images on social media, but like a bot, I just can’t stop.

Here, then, is one more modest attempt to theorize bots—and by extension other forms of computational media. The tl;dr version is that there are two archetypes of bots: closed bots and green bots. And each of these archetypes comes with an array of associated characteristics that deepen our understanding of digital media. Continue reading “Closed Bots and Green Bots”

Followup to the Ever-Expanding Classroom Discussion

Last week I was a guest of the Davidson College Teaching Discussion Group, where I was invited to talk about my pedagogical strategies for teaching large classes. I mostly focused on how I use technology to preserve what I value most about teaching smaller classes. But many of the technique I discussed are equally applicable to any class, of any size.

For participants in the discussion group (and anyone else who is interested), I’ve rounded up a few of my ProfHacker posts, in which I describe in greater detail how I incorporate technologies like blogging and Twitter into my courses.

Blogging

Twitter

[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]

Twittering N+7

Magentic Poetry At the risk of alienating my readers on Twitter—something I’m likely to be doing anyway—I’ve been playing an old Oulipo game with my tweets today: N+7. It’s quite simple: replace every noun in a text with the noun that follows it seven nouns later in the dictionary. The results are often nonsensical, occasionally revelatory, and always evocative.

I began by N+7ifying yesterday’s tweets in reverse chronological order (avoiding tweets with @ replies for some reason). A few tweets in, I switched over to N+7ifying my most popular tweets of the past few months, as measured by the number of retweets or replies the status update had. I’ve been doing this all day, and I’ve now got two dozen or so bizarre revisions of earlier tweets.

Why do this?

Isn’t the answer obvious?

I had nothing else to say.

You could call it boredom. Or more generously, writer’s block. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: when you have nothing left to say, artificial constraints and deterministic algorithms will give you something new to say. Boredom leads to constraints, which leads to creativity. This is the nature of play. This is the nature of language. This is the nature of meaning.

Magnetic Poetry image courtesy of Flickr user surrealmuse / Creative Commons License]

Twitter is a Happening, to which I am Returning

I quit Twitter.

White Noise and Static

Or, more accurately, I quit twittering. Nearly three weeks ago with no warning to myself or others, I stopped posting on Twitter. I stopped updating Facebook, stopped checking in on Gowalla, stopped being present. I went underground, as far underground as somebody whose whole life is online can go underground.

In three years I had racked up nearly 9,000 tweets. If Twitter were a drug, I’d be diagnosed as a heavy user, posting dozens of times a day. And then I stopped.

Most people probably didn’t notice. A few did. I know that they noticed because my break from social media wasn’t complete. I lurked, intently, in all of these virtual places, most intently on Twitter.

White Noise at 10 Percent

In the weeks I was silent on Twitter I read in my timeline about divorce, disease, death. I read hundreds of tweets about nothing at all. I read tweets about scholarship, about teaching, about grading, about sleeping and not sleeping. Tweets about eating. Tweets about me. Tweets with questions and tweets with answers. And I thought about how I use Twitter, what it means to me, what it means to share my triumphs and my frustrations, my snark and my occasional kindness, my experiments with Twitter itself.

White Noise Static at 20 Percent Opacity

For the longest time the mantra “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect” was how I thought about Twitter. The origin of that slogan is blogger Barbara Ganley, who was quoted two years ago in a New York Times article on slow blogging. Ganley’s pithy analysis seemed to summarize the difference between blogging and Twitter, and it circulated widely among my friends in the digital humanities. I repeated the slogan myself, even arguing that Twitter was the back channel for the digital humanities, an informal network—the informal network—that connected the graduate students, researchers, teachers, programmers, journalists, librarians, and archivists who work where technology and the humanities meet.

White Noise Static at 30 Percent Opacity

My retreat from Twitter has convinced me, however, that Twitter is not about connections. Saying that you tweet in order to connect is like saying you fly on airplanes in order to get pat-down by the TSA. If you’re looking for connections on Twitter, then you’re in the wrong place. And any connections you do happen to form will be random, accidental, haunted by mixed signals and potential humiliations.

I’ve been mulling over a different slogan in my mind. One that captures the multiplicity of Twitter. One that acknowledges the dynamism of Twitter. One that better describes my own antagonistic use of the platform. And it’s this:

Blogging is working through. Twitter is acting out.

White Noise Static at 40 Percent Opacity

Twitter is not about connections. Twitter is about acting out.

I mean “working through” and “acting out” in several ways. There’s the obvious allusion to Freud: working through and acting out roughly correspond to Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy. A mourner works through the past, absorbs it, integrates it. A mourner will think about the past, but live into the present. The melancholic meanwhile is prone to repetition, revisiting the same traumatic memory, replaying variations of it over and over. The melancholic lashes out, sometimes aggressively, sometimes defensively, often unknowingly.

It’s not difficult to see my use of Twitter as acting out, as rehashing my obsessions and dwelling upon my contentions. Even my break from Twitter is a kind of acting out, a passive-aggressive refusal to play.

But I also mean “acting out” in a more theatrical sense. Acting. Twitter is a performance. On my blog I have readers. But on Twitter I have an audience.

White Noise Static at 50 Percent Opacity

To be sure, it’s a participatory audience. Or at least possibly participatory. And this leads me to another realization about Twitter:

Twitter is a Happening.

I’m using Happening in the sixties New York City art scene sense of the word: an essentially spontaneous artistic event that stands outside—or explodes from within—the formal spaces where creativity is typically safely consumed. Galleries, stages, museums. As Allan Kaprow, one of the founders of the movement, put it in 1961,

[quote]Happenings are events that, put simply, happen. Though the best of them have a decided impact—that is, we feel, “here is something important”—they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point.[/quote]

Happenings lack any clear divide between the audience and the performers. Happenings are emergent, generated from the flimsiest of intentions. Happenings cannot be measured in terms of success, because even when they go wrong, they have gone right. Chance reigns supreme, and if a Happening can be reproduced, reenacted, it is no longer a happening. And if it’s not a Happening, then nothing happened.

White Noise Static at 60 Percent Opacity

Whether it’s a Twitter-only mock conference, ridiculous fake direct messages, or absurd tips making fun of our professional tendencies, I have insisted time and time again—though without consciously framing it this way—that Twitter ought to be a space for Happenings.

If you’re not involved somehow in a Twitter Happening—if you’re not inching toward participating in some spontaneous communal outburst of analysis or creativity—then you might as well switch to Facebook for making your connections.

Because Twitter is a Happening that thrives on participation, there’s something else I’ve realized about Twitter:

Twitter is better when I’m tweeting.

White Noise Static at 70 percent OpacityIf you are one of the nearly four hundred people I follow, don’t take this the wrong way, but Twitter is better when I’m around. I don’t mean to say that the rest of you are uninteresting. But until I or a few other like-minded people in my Twitter stream do something unexpected, Twitter feels flat, a polite conversation that may well be informative but is nothing that will leave me wondering at the end of the day, what the hell just happened?

I suppose this sounds arrogant. “Twitter is better when I’m around”?? I mean, who on earth made me judge of all of Twitterdom?? And indeed, this entire blog post likely seems self-indulgent. But I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for me. I’m working through here. And besides, I’ve been criticized too many times by the people who know me best in real life, criticized for being too modest, too eager to downplay my own voice, that I’ll risk this one time sounding self-important.

There’s one final realization I’ve had about Twitter. For a while I had been wondering whether every word I wrote on Twitter was one less word I would write somewhere else. Was Twitter distracting me from what I really needed to write? Was Twitter making me less prolific? And so here it is, my most coherent articulation of what led me to break suddenly from social media: I quit Twitter because I wished to write deliberately, to type only the essential words of my research, and see if I could not learn what Twitterless life had to teach, and not, when I came up for tenure, discover that I had not written at all.

Or something like that.

It only took a few days before I knew the answer to my question about Twitter and writing. And it’s this: writing is not a zero sum game.

I write more when I tweet.

This is not as self-evident a truth as it sounds. Obviously every tweet means I’ve written everything I’ve ever written in my life, plus that one additional tweet. So yes, by tweeting I have written more. But in fact I write more of everything when I tweet. I have learned in the past few weeks that Twitter is a multiplier. Twitter is generative. Twitter is an engine of words, and when I tweet, all my writing, offline and on, private and public, benefits. There’s more of it, and it’s better.

And so I am returning to Twitter. While I had experimented with tweeterish postcards during my break from Twitter—what you might call slow tweeting—I am back on Twitter, and back for good. Twitter is a Happening. It’s not a space for connections, it’s a space for composition. I invite you to unfollow me if you think differently, for I can promise nothing about what I will or will not tweet and with what frequency these tweets will or will not come. I would also invite you to the Happening on Twitter, but that invitation is not mine to extend. It belongs to no one and to everyone. It belongs to the crowd.

White Noise and Static

Maps and Timelines

Over a period of a few days last week I posted a series of updates onto Twitter that, taken together, added up to less than twenty words. I dragged out across fourteen tweets what could easily fit within one. And instead of text alone, I relied on a combination words and images. I’m calling this elongated, distributed form of social media artisanal tweeting. Maybe you could call it slow tweeting. I think some of my readers simply called it frustrating or even worthless.

If you missed the original sequence of updates as they unfolded online, you can approximate the experience in this thinly annotated chronological trail.

I’m not yet ready to discuss the layers of meaning I was attempting to evoke, but I am ready to piece the whole thing together—which, as befits my theme, actually destroys much of the original meaning. Nonetheless, here it is:

One Week, One Tool, Many Anthologies

Many of you have already heard about Anthologize, the blog-to-book publishing tool created in one week by a crack team of twelve digital humanists, funded by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, and shepherded by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Until the moment of the tool’s unveiling on Tuesday, August 3, very few people knew what the tool was going to be. That would include me.

So, it was entirely coincidental that the night before Anthologize’s release, I tweeted:

I had no idea that the One Week Team was working on a WordPress plugin that could take our blogs and turn them into formats suitable for e-readers or publishers like Lulu.com (the exportable formats include ePub, PDF, RTF, and TEI…so far). When I got a sneak preview of Anthologize via the outreach team’s press kit, it was only natural that I revisit my previous night’s tweet, with this update:

I’m willing to stand behind this statement—Twitter and Blogs are the first drafts of scholarship. All they need are better binding—and I’m even more willing to argue that Anthologize can provide that binding.

But the genius of Anthologize isn’t that it lets you turn blog posts into PDFs. They are already many ways to do this. The genius of the tool is the way it lets you remix a blog into a bound object. A quick look at the manage project page (larger image) will show how this works:

All of your blog’s posts are listed in the left column, and you can filter them by tag or category. Then you drag-and-drop specific posts into the “Parts” column on the right side of the page. Think of each Part as a separate section or chapter of your final anthology. You can easily create new parts, and rearrange the parts and posts until you’ve found the order you’re looking for.

Using the “Import Content” tool that’s built into Anthologize, you aren’t even limited to your own blog postings. You can import anything that has an RSS feed, from Twitter updates to feeds from entirely different blogs and blogging platforms (such as Movable Type or Blogger). You can remix from a countless number of sources, and then compile it all together into one slick file. This remixing isn’t simply an afterthought of Anthologize. It defines the plugin and has enormous potential for scholars and teachers alike, ranging from organizing tenure material to building student portfolios.

Something else that’s neat about how Anthologize pulls in content is that draft (i.e. unpublished) posts show up alongside published posts in the left hand column. In other words, drafts can be published in your Anthologize project, even if they were never actually published on your blog. This feature makes it possible to create Anthologize projects without even making the content public first (though why would you want to?).

From Alpha to Beta to You

As excited as I am about the possibilities of Anthologize, don’t be misled into thinking that the tool is a ready-to-go, full-fledged publishing solution. Make no mistake about Anthologize: this is an extremely alpha version of the final plugin. If the Greeks had a letter that came before alpha, Anthologize would be it. There are several major known issues, and there are many features yet to add. But don’t forget: Anthologize was developed in under 200 hours. There were no months-long team meetings, no protracted management decisions, no obscene Gantt charts. The team behind Anthologize came and saw and coded, from brainstorm to repository in one week.
[pullquote align=”left”]The team behind Anthologize came and saw and coded, from brainstorm to repository in one week.[/pullquote] The week is over, and they’re still working, but now it’s your turn too. Try it out, and let the team know what works, what doesn’t, what you might use it for, and what you’d like to see in the next version. There’s an Anthologize Users Group you can join to share with other users and the official outreach team, and there’s also the Anthologize Development Group, where you can share your bugs and issues directly with the development team.

As for me, I’m already working on a wishlist of what I’d like to see in Anthologize. Here are just a few thoughts:

  • More use of metadata. I imagine future releases will allow user-selected metadata to be included in the Anthologized content. For example, it’d be great to have the option of including the original publication date.
  • Cover images. It’s already possible to include custom acknowledgments and dedications in the opening pages of the Anthologized project, but it’ll be crucial to be able to include a custom image as the anthology front cover.
  • Preservation of formatting. Right now quite a bit of formatting is stripped away when posts are anthologized. Block quotes, for example, become indistinguishable from the rest of the text, as do many headers and titles.
  • Fine-grained image control. A major bug prevents many blog post images from showing up in the Anthologize-generated book. Once this is fixed, it’d be wonderful to have even greater control of images (such as image resolution, alignment, and captions).
  • I haven’t experimented with Anthologize on WordPressMU or BuddyPress yet, but it’s a natural fit. Imagine each user being able to cull through tons of posts on a multi-user blog, and publishing a custom-made portfolio, comprised of posts that come from different users and different blogs.

As I play with Anthologize, talk with the developers, and share with other users, I’m sure I’ll come up with more suggestions for features, as well as more ways Anthologize can be used right now, as is. I encourage you to do the same. You’ll join a growing contingent of researchers, teachers, archivists, librarians, and students who are part of an open-source movement, but more importantly, part of a movement to change the very nature of how we construct and share knowledge in the 21st century.

The MLA in Tweets

I’ve learned from following several digital humanities conferences from afar the past year (including Digital Humanties 2009 and THATcamp 2009) that the Twitter archive of a conference back-channel can be unreliable. Twitter’s default search stream for any hashtag is extremely ephemeral, and that impermanence poses a problem for conference participants and observers, as well as future scholars, students, and journalists who might want to browse, search, extract, and data-mine what can be a rich, though niche, historical record.

So in anticipation of the Modern Language Association’s 2009 conference in Philadelphia, I set up a TwapperKeeper archive of all posts on Twitter marked with the hashtag #MLA09. I also began archiving the material on my own computer, using a program called The Archivist. (I’m into redundancy, especially when it comes to backing up data.) Anybody can export the collected tweets from Twapperkeeper as a compressed file, but I’m also posting here my own archives.

The first is an XML file of the over 1,600 tweets marked with the #MLA09 hashtag, dating from November 28, 2009 all the way to just about midnight on December 31, 2009: #MLA09 (I’ve zipped the xml file for easier downloading).

Second is an Excel version of the file, which has stripped away some of the XML tags, but is a more reader-friendly document: MLA09.xls

There is also a Google Docs version of the file:

I hope people find these archives useful. You can easily create some superficial data visualizations, such as the word cloud pictured above [larger version], but I imagine some more sophisticated analysis can be done as well. Even a simple pie chart [larger version] can reveal user activity at a glance:

My own high visibility is mostly due to the satirical “tips” about the MLA I posted in the days running up to the conference. And notice that two of the most active Twitterers were only virtually present at the conference: Brian Croxall and Amanda French, who both made substantial contributions to the intellectual discourse of the conference even with — or, more accurately, because — of their absences.

Pairing Brian’s bleak analysis of what the profession is now euphemistically calling “contingent” faculty with Amanda’s vision of a grassroots movement to amplify scholarly communication through social networking suggests that the MLA conference has the potential to be more diffuse, more rhizomatic, more meaning making in the future, something I’ll be proposing a few ideas about soon.

Tips for the Modern Language Association

In the spirit of my fake advice for National Novel Writing Month, last month I began posting “tips” on Twitter for the upcoming Modern Language Association conference, an annual exercise in masochism for literature professors and graduate students the world over. This year’s conference was held in Philadelphia, from December 27 to December 30, and it was most notable for the bleak prospects of job candidates, hoping to score interviews at a time when English Departments were hiring for fewer positions than ever before. My tips — and I imagine the tips from the others who joined in — were all attempts to lighten the mood and make fun of something we usually take far too seriously: ourselves.

Here are the complete tips, in chronological order:

  1. #MLA09 tip for novices: Upon arrival, locate the following: coffeeshop, drugstore, liquor store. Acquire supplies. Repeat as necessary. Posted at 11:38 AM on 12/8/2009 by profsyn
  2. #MLA09 Tip: Always preface your question to a panelist with “I know your paper was about X, but let me tell you about MY work…” Posted at 1:20 PM on 12/13/2009 by samplereality
  3. #MLA09 Tip: Be sure to rewatch Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” for interview tips on poise and posture. Posted at 3:04 PM on 12/13/2009 by samplereality
  4. #MLA09 tip for novices: The cool kids will always be outside smoking. At the *other* entrance to the hotel. Posted at 9:37 AM on 12/15/2009 by profsyn
  5. #MLA09 tip for novices: No one at the convention is as glad to see each other as they pretend to be. Posted at 12:03 PM on 12/20/2009 by profsyn
  6. #MLA09 tip: MLA is in the City of Brotherly Love this year, so you may recline fraternally on the hotel room bed during your job interview. Posted at 2:42 PM on 12/21/2009 by amandafrench
  7. #MLA09 tip: Watch http://9interviews.com. Watch and learn. Posted at 2:51 PM on 12/21/2009 by briancroxall
  8. #MLA09 Tip: Nothing says “promising job candidate” like an acappella performance of “She Bangs” in the interview suite. Posted at 4:12 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  9. #MLA09 Tip: Figure out which of your interviewers is the Paula Abdul of the bunch, and get her drunk alone. Posted at 4:15 PM on 12/21/2009 by briancroxall
  10. #MLA09 Tip: Jargon. No one understood Derrida, and he had a job. Impenetrability is your best defense. Posted at 4:17 PM on 12/21/2009 by briancroxall
  11. #MLA09 Tip: Failing impenetrable jargon in your interview, speak with a heavy foreign accent, preferably Slovenian. Posted at 4:23 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  12. #MLA09 Tip: Speakers used to say “quote” & “end quote” to indicate a quotation. In the digital age, you need merely spell out the URL. Posted at 4:31 PM on 12/21/2009 by amandafrench
  13. #MLA09 Tip: Drink big glass of water right before interview. You write better w/deadline pressure.Your mind works better w/bladder pressure. Posted at 4:32 PM on 12/21/2009 by briancroxall
  14. #MLA09 Tip: An accent will not work for Comp Lit positions. Comp Litters should smoke during the interview, punctuating points with exhales. Posted at 4:34 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  15. #MLA09 Tip: Make deliberate use of split infinitives during your presentation to edgily show your edginess. Posted at 4:48 PM on 12/21/2009 by amandafrench
  16. #MLA09 Tip: If you see your interview committee later, ideally in the elevator, ask them if they have made a decision yet. Follow up is key. Posted at 4:50 PM on 12/21/2009 by academicdave
  17. #MLA09 Tip: In your job interview, argue that you’d make a really good literature Professor because you really, really, really love to read. Posted at 5:04 PM on 12/21/2009 by amandafrench
  18. #MLA09 Tip: Be sure to seek out journal editors who’ve rejected your essays. Explaining their mistake in person = badass networking skillz. Posted at 5:05 PM on 12/21/2009 by seabright
  19. #MLA09 Tip: Explain you’re going “carbon neutral” and insist the hiring committee pay for carbon offsets before you answer their questions. Posted at 5:14 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  20. #MLA09 Tip:If you should run into a candidate exiting an interview as you walk in,offer to settle the matter via a duel.Pistols at 30 paces. Posted at 5:15 PM on 12/21/2009 by academicdave
  21. #MLA09 Tip: Registration, $125. Hotel, $300. Dinner and drinks, $65. Finding Stanley Fish’s room and stealing his dry cleaning, priceless. Posted at 5:19 PM on 12/21/2009 by briancroxall
  22. #MLA09 Tip: Every time you pass up an open bar at a public reception, a puppy dies. Posted at 5:29 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  23. #MLA09 Tip: There’ll be a whole salmon at the Princeton cash bar. Put it down your pants. They’ll know it’s an allusion to The Corrections. Posted at 5:33 PM on 12/21/2009 by amandafrench
  24. #MLA09 Tip: What to say when job search committee asks if you have questions: “How strict a policy on sleeping with students do you have?” Posted at 8:26 PM on 12/21/2009 by georgeonline
  25. #MLA09 Tip: During your job interview always use air quotes when using the words “service” or “teaching.” Posted at 8:28 PM on 12/21/2009 by georgeonline
  26. #MLA09 Tip: First time at MLA? Understand that you shd begin every post-panel question with “This is more of a comment than a question…” Posted at 8:31 PM on 12/21/2009 by georgeonline
  27. #MLA09 Tip: Pay homage to Benjamin Franklin while in Philadelphia by sneaking your bastard children into MLA governance committees. Posted at 9:02 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  28. #MLA09 Tip: Interview committees find it endearing if you giggle every time you say “phallus.” Posted at 9:15 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  29. #MLA09 Tip: Everyone knows Philly is famous for its cheesesteaks. But be sure to sample our fab cornhole ballers du jour too. Posted at 10:16 PM on 12/21/2009 by samplereality
  30. #MLA09 Tip: In the hotel lobby will be seated many nervous, dowdy people in black suits looking at papers or laptops. These are FBI agents. Posted at 9:00 AM on 12/22/2009 by amandafrench
  31. #MLA09 Tip: Dude, they’re TOTALLY gonna ask you to define “clinamen.” Seriously. Yes way. Posted at 9:10 AM on 12/22/2009 by amandafrench
  32. #MLA09 Tip: It’s considered bad form to live tweet the annual cage match between Terry Eagleton and Gayatri Spivak. Wagers are fine though. Posted at 10:02 AM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  33. #MLA09 Tip: If you can find an outfit in a color darker than black, wear it. Posted at 10:23 AM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  34. #MLA09 Tip: If the panelist keeps not quite answering your question in Q&A, keep pressing. They must be made to submit. Posted at 12:24 PM on 12/22/2009 by briancroxall
  35. #MLA09 Tip: Make your research and pedagogy sound more impressive by adding “e-” and “cyber-” prefixes to everything you say. Posted at 12:34 PM on 12/22/2009 by georgeonline
  36. #MLA09 Tip: There won’t be wifi connectivity in the panels. Unless you bring that 30-foot antenna with you. Posted at 12:41 PM on 12/22/2009 by briancroxall
  37. #MLA09 tip: if you’re talking to someone more junior/less famous than you, keep scanning the room over her head – someone better’s coming! Posted at 12:41 PM on 12/22/2009 by kfitz
  38. #MLA09 Tip: if you’re talking to someone more senior/more famous than you, don’t look them in the eye. Aim for the lapel. Try to blush. Posted at 12:43 PM on 12/22/2009 by briancroxall
  39. #MLA09 Tip: Don’t acknowledge the presence of “colleagues” from schools with a 4/4 (or higher!) course load. It just encourages ’em. Posted at 12:50 PM on 12/22/2009 by jbj
  40. #MLA09 Tip: why drink coffee from the beverage stations? You’ll make a much stronger impression if you whip out a flask & take a few belts. Posted at 12:50 PM on 12/22/2009 by seabright
  41. #MLA09 Tip: conferences are an alternate dimension where time behaves differently. No need to cut that talk from 40 minutes down to 20. Posted at 12:52 PM on 12/22/2009 by amndw2
  42. #MLA09 Tip: When grabbing handsful of free chocolate at booths (insidehighered is known for the cocoa stash), pretend to look @ offerings. Posted at 12:53 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  43. #MLA09 Tip: If you see interview candidates, beam them a silent meditation (“may you do well, may you interview with ease”). Posted at 12:55 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  44. #MLA09 Tip: If you see other interview candidates, HUG IT OUT, BITCH! Posted at 12:56 PM on 12/22/2009 by briancroxall
  45. #MLA09 Tip: If you see search cte mbrs, beam them a silent meditation (“may you be kind to all, may you convince dean to hire 3 candidates”) Posted at 12:57 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  46. #MLA09 Tip: Be sure your author name adjectives are correct, e.g., Kafkaesque, Dickensian, Shakespearean, Yeatsy, Austeniferous, DeLilloid. Posted at 1:36 PM on 12/22/2009 by amandafrench
  47. #MLA09 Tip: French maid outfits are almost never appropriate attire for job interviews. Take it from someone who knows. Posted at 1:39 PM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  48. #MLA09 Tip: If your interview doesn’t begin with hugs all around, leave the room. You wouldn’t want to work with people like that anyway. Posted at 1:40 PM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  49. #MLA09 Tip: Don’t take it personally if nobody shows up at your 8:30am panel. It just means nobody finds your life’s work interesting. Posted at 1:41 PM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  50. #MLA09 Tip: Everyone knows that academics are critical thinkers. Not bound by convention. That’s why you should *only* use Apple products. Posted at 1:44 PM on 12/22/2009 by briancroxall
  51. #MLA09 Tip: Happily, the 20-minute paper limit doesn’t apply to the formulation of a question from an audience member. Posted at 1:45 PM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  52. #MLA09 Tip: If the audience outnumbers your panel, your session is “well-attended.” (A moderator counts as half a panelist.) Posted at 1:45 PM on 12/22/2009 by RichardMenke
  53. #MLA09 Tip: Everything you say on your flight or train to and from Philly will be overheard by someone who knows who you are talking about. Posted at 1:49 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  54. #MLA09 Tip: You’ll be able to spot me at the convention because I look just like my @mlaconvention avatar. Posted at 2:04 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  55. #MLA09 Tip: If people appear to be tweeting during your presentation, don’t worry, most of them are playing Bejeweled. Posted at 2:18 PM on 12/22/2009 by warnick
  56. #MLA09 Tip: Need guidance? Every year, the Gideons’ Bibles in all convention hotels are replaced with copies of *Of Grammatology*. Posted at 2:18 PM on 12/22/2009 by RichardMenke
  57. #MLA09 Tip (for real): You should still tip your server even if it’s an open bar. Posted at 2:24 PM on 12/22/2009 by georgeonline
  58. #MLA09 Tip: nail, cigar, pen, Q, stock, cue, of the hat, O’neill, (per) Gore… enough tips for ya? Posted at 2:59 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  59. #MLA09 Tip: Hang out with ODH’s @jasonrhody. He’s a real mensch & can tell you tales of the internets. Posted at 3:49 PM on 12/22/2009 by brettbobley
  60. #MLA09 Tip: Try to work a few “whatevs” into any conversation you have, especially with prominent scholars and or hiring committee members. Posted at 4:27 PM on 12/22/2009 by georgeonline
  61. #MLA09 Tip: Good, cheap, Chinese BYOB restaurant? Ask me Lee HOW fook. http://www.leehowfook.com/ Posted at 4:58 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  62. #MLA09 Tip: Insomnia? Forgot to eat during the day? Little Pete’s, 219 S. 17th St is open around the clock. It’s a greasy spoon, nttawwt. Posted at 5:03 PM on 12/22/2009 by mlaconvention
  63. #MLA09 Tip for panelists: Don’t know how to answer aud. member’s question? Respond with “That’s what *she* said!” and hi-5 fellow panelists. Posted at 5:05 PM on 12/22/2009 by georgeonline
  64. #MLA09 Tip: Mention this tip during your interview for a free campus visit. Guaranteed! (Disclaimer: Not Guaranteed) Posted at 8:45 PM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  65. #MLA09 Tip: To get away from it all, pretend the #MLA09 hashtag is actually for the Medical Library Association ’09 meeting in Honolulu. Posted at 9:11 PM on 12/22/2009 by dancohen
  66. #MLA09 Tip: Scooter rentals are only for people with disabilities. Being on the job market inexplicably does not count as a disability. Posted at 9:42 PM on 12/22/2009 by samplereality
  67. #MLA09 Tip: Don’t be fooled by the smiles and bonhomie. People are devastated about leaving behind their families for all that free booze. Posted at 12:30 AM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  68. #MLA09 Tip: Your field is French medieval lyric. His is the postmodern novel in English. I don’t care how cute he is: IT’LL NEVER WORK OUT. Posted at 8:55 AM on 12/23/2009 by amandafrench
  69. #MLA09 Tip: Don’t even joke in the interview about calling a lifeline. That reference from 2000 will be too current for committees to get. Posted at 9:12 AM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  70. #MLA09 Tip: The theme of Judith Butler’s annual cosplay event is “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Yeah, I know. We were disappointed too. Posted at 10:23 AM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  71. #MLA09 Tip: MLA guidelines state that candidates should not have to sit on a bed during interviews. But come on, you know you want to. Posted at 12:27 PM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  72. #MLA09 Tip: It’s considered rude to leave the room after the “star” speaker has talked. Instead, stay and heckle the other panelists. Posted at 12:32 PM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  73. #MLA09 Tip: Search committees are always flattered to hear you’ve been stalking them. Be sure to mention that pic of their kid on Facebook. Posted at 1:54 PM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  74. #MLA09 Tip: Every year the work of a new theorist dominates the conference: Agamben, Badiou, Hardt & Negri. This year make it Tom Colicchio. Posted at 7:45 PM on 12/23/2009 by samplereality
  75. #MLA09 Tip: If you’re not spending Christmas Eve either practicing your talk or rehearsing for interviews, you really are a Scrooge. Posted at 11:42 AM on 12/24/2009 by samplereality
  76. #MLA09 Tip: Mix family and work on Christmas Day. Tell dear old Aunt Stella how Moby Dick signifies both a phallus AND a vagina dentata. Posted at 7:24 AM on 12/25/2009 by samplereality
  77. #MLA09 Tip: An interview is the perfect time for Modernists to admit they think the last lines of “The Dead” are pure and utter bullshit. Posted at 9:00 AM on 12/25/2009 by samplereality
  78. #MLA09 tip: Find free conference parking on the street! Look for trash cans/lawn chairs in shoveled-out spots. All yours! http://is.gd/5Bqcu Posted at 4:39 PM on 12/25/2009 by mkgold
  79. #MLA09 tip: If you find yourself “interviewing” on a bed at the Marriott, just close your eyes and think of tenure. Posted at 4:53 PM on 12/25/2009 by DrGnosis
  80. #MLA09 Tip: Let the search committee know how technogically sophisticated you are by texting during the interview. Posted at 8:48 PM on 12/25/2009 by samplereality
  81. #MLA09 Tip: It is considered good luck in Philly to run up the “Rocky Steps” just minutes before any endeavor, like a talk or interview. Posted at 8:51 PM on 12/25/2009 by samplereality
  82. #MLA09 Tip: Don’t forget that a prize for “Best Zombie Costume” will be awarded at Monday night’s Presidential Address. Posted at 9:56 PM on 12/25/2009 by samplereality
  83. #MLA09 Tip: Bring leftover Xmas cookies, rum cake, and bûche de Noël to give your interviewers. Also eggnog. And whiskey. Posted at 7:57 AM on 12/26/2009 by amandafrench
  84. #MLA09 Tip: Always begin your talk by thanking “The Academy.” Sure it’s a cliché, but everyone expects you to say it. Posted at 1:34 PM on 12/26/2009 by samplereality
  85. #MLA09 Tip: Not enough room on your credit card to pay the hotel bill? Your advisor will happily expiate survivor guilt by lending you $$. Posted at 2:04 PM on 12/26/2009 by amandafrench
  86. #MLA09 Tip: Not enough room on your credit card to pay the hotel bill? Your advisees will happily curry favor by lending you $$. Posted at 2:05 PM on 12/26/2009 by amandafrench
  87. #MLA09 Tip: Bentham’s Panopticon inspired Philly’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Dante’s Inferno inspired the Convention Center’s Ballroom B. Posted at 3:07 PM on 12/26/2009 by samplereality
  88. #MLA09 tip: if a speaker goes over the allowed time it is perfectly acceptable to tackle them. Terry Tate Office Linebacker style. Posted at 6:23 PM on 12/26/2009 by academicdave
  89. #MLA09 Tip: Afraid the theorist whose work you’re criticizing is in the audience? Groucho glasses and mustaches are available in gift shop. Posted at 6:34 PM on 12/26/2009 by samplereality
  90. #MLA09 Tip: Forget Zizek. For real street/theory cred, tell the committee how you’ve been inspired by the work of Zinedine Zidane. Posted at 6:49 PM on 12/26/2009 by briancroxall
  91. #MLA09 Tip: Kate Hayles isn’t actually a robot. I know: I was disappointed too. Posted at 6:54 PM on 12/26/2009 by briancroxall
  92. #MLA09 Tip: Use the phrase “In conclusion” so that audiences know you only have 15 minutes left to go in your talk. Posted at 8:56 PM on 12/26/2009 by samplereality
  93. #MLA09 Tip: No pain, no gain! When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Take no prisoners! RRRAAWWGHHH!! Posted at 9:02 AM on 12/27/2009 by amandafrench
  94. #MLA09 Tip: You could do worse than drinking a Yuengling in Philly, and by Wednesday night, you probably will. Posted at 9:07 AM on 12/27/2009 by samplereality
  95. #MLA09 Tip: Nobody uses business cards to exchange contact info. Either use the Bump app or a cocktail napkin written in lipstick. Or both. Posted at 9:21 AM on 12/27/2009 by samplereality
  96. #MLA09 tip: when choosing a plane pcik one without a smoking cockpit. Posted at 12:24 PM on 12/27/2009 by academicdave
  97. #MLA09 Tip (Serious one): You are one block from awesome and cheap food. Scads of it at the Reading Terminal Market: http://bit.ly/8Whdt0. Posted at 4:22 PM on 12/27/2009 by briancroxall
  98. #MLA09 Tip: The horrible nightmare that you forgot your interview suit probably just means you forgot your interview suit. Posted at 5:15 PM on 12/27/2009 by samplereality
  99. #MLA09 Tip: Four 20-minute papers is too much for a single panel. Russian roulette is not a viable option until healthcare reform is passed. Posted at 5:33 PM on 12/27/2009 by samplereality
  100. #MLA09 Tip: Looking for your soul in the hotel lobby costs valuable hotel whirlpool time. Posted at 7:43 PM on 12/27/2009 by mirk79
  101. #MLA09 Tip: For all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet, conclusively establish the identity of “Mr. W. H.”. Posted at 9:39 PM on 12/27/2009 by amandafrench
  102. #MLA09 Tip: Your goal for Monday morning: Achieve enlightenment. Failing that, settle for achieving consciousness. Posted at 10:34 PM on 12/27/2009 by samplereality
  103. #MLA09 Tip: It’s 1:30am. You’re in a bar. You have a necktie around your forehead. You can take off your MLA badge now. Posted at 1:30 AM on 12/28/2009 by samplereality
  104. #MLA09 Tip: That delightful dream about wood nymphs just means you’ve overslept your panel and will be blacklisted from the MLA forever. Posted at 7:14 AM on 12/28/2009 by samplereality
  105. #MLA09 Tip: Despite the practice of the high priests of our profession, death by PowerPoint is not a noble way to die. Posted at 10:03 AM on 12/28/2009 by samplereality
  106. #MLA09 Tip: Are your ideas too good to share with the rest of the room? Sit in the front row and ask your four-minute question sotto voce. Posted at 2:56 PM on 12/28/2009 by warnick
  107. #MLA09 Tip: The upside to the depressing job market is that blackmail and bribery are almost pointless anymore. Posted at 11:12 PM on 12/28/2009 by samplereality

It was great to see Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, join into the fun. And thanks especially to Amanda French and Brian Croxall, who contributed greatly to the list, even while absent from the conference itself (a true loss, by the way, and the conference — and profession — was poorer for it).

The Modern Language Association Wishes Away Digital Différance

This is the first academic semester in which students have been using the revised 7th edition of the MLA Handbook (you know, that painfully organized book that prescribes the proper citation method for material like “an article in a microform collection of articles”).

From the moment I got my copy of the handbook in May 2009, I have been skeptical of some of the “features” of the new guidelines, and I began voicing my concerns on Twitter:

But not only does the MLA seem unprepared for the new texts we in the humanities study, the association actually took a step backward when it comes to locating, citing, and cataloging digital resources. According to the new rules, URLs are gone, no longer “needed” in citations. How could one not see that these new guidelines were remarkably misguided?

To the many incredulous readers on Twitter who were likewise confused by the MLA’s insistence that URLs no longer matter, I responded, “I guess they think Google is a fine replacement.” Sure, e-journal articles can have cumbersome web addresses, three lines long, but as I argued at the time, “If there’s a persistent URL, cite it.”

Now, after reading a batch of undergraduate final papers that used the MLA’s new citation guidelines, I have to say that I hate them even more than I thought I would. Although “hate” isn’t quite the right word, because that verb implies a subjective reaction. In truth, objectively speaking, the new MLA system fails.

The MLA apparently believes that all texts are the same

In a strange move for a group of people who devote their lives to studying the unique properties of printed words and images, the Modern Language Association apparently believes that all texts are the same. That it doesn’t matter what digital archive or website a specific document came from. All that is necessary is to declare “Web” in the citation, and everyone will know exactly which version of which document you’re talking about, not to mention any relevant paratextual material surrounding the document, such as banner ads, comments, pingbacks, and so on.

The MLA turns out to be extremely shortsighted in its efforts to think “digitally.” The outwardly same document (same title, same author) may in fact be very different depending upon its source. Anyone working with text archives (think back to the days of FAQs on Gopher) knows that there can be multiple variations of the same “document.” (And I won’t even mention old timey archives like the Short Title Catalogue, where the same 15th century title may in fact reflect several different versions.)

The MLA’s new guidelines efface these nuances, suggesting that the contexts of an archive are irrelevant. It’s the Ghost of New Criticism, a war of words upon history, “simplification” in the name of historiographic homicide.

National Novel Writing Month Tips

November has been decreed National Novel Writing Month by some wise guy in California. The idea is that you have 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel. A noble endeavor to be sure, but one that seems doomed to not succeed on any satisfying level. I imagine it’s like running a marathon, but without the cheering crowd at the finish line. Or the fans handing out water bottles along the route. Or the actual route. And you probably don’t have running shoes either. Not to mention the earth has imploded and you’ve been sucked into an infinite abyss of unfathomable existential despair.

Sounds fun, right?

Back on November 1, the first day of National Novel Writing Month, one of my students who was participating in NaNoWriMo (the event’s official lovely, beckoning acronym) posted on Twitter that she was already stuck. As I am want to do in position of having written many novels in my head but never having put a single word to paper, I proceeded to post to Twitter a small piece of writerly advice (“If you’re stuck on your novel, the sudden appearance of a killer robot can really whip things into shape.”). I had such fun writing this tip that I began to post other mock suggestions to Twitter. I could not handle a 50,000 word novel, but I could manage, occasionally, 140-characters of satire. I ended up posting a least one tip every day, and often three or four tips. It’s probably the most sustained, laser-beam focused writing I’ve done in a long time, even if it was never more than 25 words at once.

Over 166,7000 writers signed up for NaNoWriMo, and while it’s too soon to say how many actually finished, I want to share here, in their entirety, all of my fake NaNoWriMo tips. In all but a few instances, these tips appear exactly as they did on Twitter (I removed the #NaNoWriMo hashtag on all of them and edited a few for clarity).

Some are funny. Some are very funny. Some are obviously trying too hard to be funny, and failing. But all of them, I like to think, hint at some underlying truth or untruth about the process of writing and publishing fiction, and of writing in general.

Please, take some time to read them, and vote for your favorite in the comments!

November 1, 2009

(1) If you’re stuck on your novel, the sudden appearance of a killer robot can really whip things into shape.

(2) Omniscient first person narration is woefully neglected. As are talking cars, pets, and buildings.

(3) You can always pad your word count by having a character in your novel rewrite Don Quixote word-for-word.

November 2, 2009

(4) Never underestimate the plot twists the sudden appearance of a lost identical twin can provide.

(5) End every chapter with a cliffhanger. Literally. End with characters dangling on a precipice. Preferably in the Alps.

(6) Take advantage of the symbolism of colors. For example, red means passion, danger, and the face of a drunken Irishman.

(7) Base your characters on instantly recognizable archetypes. Failing that, base them on the Baldwin Brothers.

(8) Falling behind on today’s word count? Each Elven Rune counts as an entire sentence! (You do have an Elf in your novel, right?)

November 3, 2009

(9) Introduce a Spanish Marquis and milk his name for word count: Don Carlos Jimenez Sanchez Sanchez y Lucientes de las Cabras.

(10) The arrival of a mysterious telegram works for all genres and time periods. Nothing spells intrigue in 1371 like Morse Code.

(11) Ayn Rand wrote “The Fountainhead” fueled by copious meth. But you, you should just stick to coffee and cigarettes.

(12) Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe. Other times, it can be a murder weapon. Be sure to clarify which it is for your reader.

November 4, 2009

(13) Writer’s Block? Introduce a character who speaks in tongues and then let your cat type for you. (Requires a cat.)

(14) Use a minute timer to stay focused on manageable goals. For example, give yourself 43,800 minutes to write 50,000 words.

(15) Great Art is the product of repression and oppression. So try to forget that time your cousin kissed you and get yourself arrested.

November 5, 2009

(16) Writing a western or romance? Having good guys in white and bad in black is a cliché. Make good guys ninjas and bad guys cannibals.

(17) Novelists should dress for success just like everyone else. Failing that, novelists should at least dress.

November 6, 2009

(18) The cursed monkey paw plot device has ruined many a novel. But man, when it works, IT WORKS.

(19) A pleasant work area is key to a writer’s success. Get Starbucks all to yourself by chasing everyone out with your farts.

November 7, 2009

(20) Add a note of elegance and sophistication to your novel by using British spelling, e.g. colour, honour, bloody arsehole.

(21) Don’t forget that if you run out of things to write about, you can write about how you’ve run out of things to write about.

(22) RT @wshspeare: Take advantage of the rich tradition of stealing other writers’ ideas and words when you run out of your own.

November 8, 2009

(23) “Write about what you know” is good advice, unless you’re OJ Simpson.

(24) Remember mystery novels can be set anywhere: horse tracks, babysitter clubs, monasteries, call centers, Sesame St., rectums.

(25) Sarcasm is difficult to pull off in a novel. Oh, but I’m sure YOU can do it.

(26) It’s never too early to start counting on that first royalty check. In fact, you should quit your day job, right now.

(27) Writing a spy novel? The enemy can’t be Russian, Arab, or Cuban anymore. You’re left with the Amish. Double Secret Amish.

(28) Writing about a brilliant professor who solves 1,000-year-old mysteries? This tip is for you. Why does my cat puke in my shoes?

November 9, 2009

(29) Tap into the avantgarde market. Publish your novel on Twitter. 50,000 words = 2,000 tweets. That’s only 67 tweets per day.

(30) Add tension by making the gender of your narrator indeterminate. This works for race too. And age. And number of nipples.

(31) Rehearse for your imminent book tour by showing up drunk at a Borders and telling everyone “I’m here to sign my books.”

(32) Your post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel is incomplete without at least one mention of T.G.I. Fridays. Chili’s will do in a pinch.

November 10, 2009

(33) If a latchhook needle shows up in chapter 1, you damn well better have a latchhook bath mat show up by the end of your novel.

(34) Is your book a triumph of human spirit or horrific descent into abjection? The former if you have elves. Clowns, the latter.

(35) Reenergize your writing by changing your workspace. Move out of your parents’ basement.

(36) Seek inspiration from the natural world, like gardens, flowers, butterflies, doves, and sulphurous pools of molten rock.

(37) The hero’s journey is a universal plot structure. So is Smokey and the Bandit. In either case, a redneck sheriff is crucial.

(38) An unresolved ending creates demand for a sequel. Smokey & the Bandit only whets our appetites for Smokey & the Bandit II.

November 11, 2009

(39) Good writers evoke the 5 senses. Great writers evoke the 6th Sense. Reveal at the end the protagonist was DEAD ALL ALONG.

(40) Remember to “show not tell.” This means your narrator should be mute, with x-ray vision. In other words, a supervillain.

(41) Already finished your 50,000 word novel? Get a head start on December’s National Totally Made Up Memoir Writing Month.

(42) If you are writing a Novel of Ideas, be sure to include either a misunderstood rebel or a talking bear. But please not both.

(43) If you haven’t already written in a xenophobic blowhard character, the likeness of Lou Dobbs is now available.

November 12, 2009

(44) Realism is all about details. For example, the USA never converted to the metric system. We measure chicken by the bucket.

(45) Know your audience. Are you writing for soccer moms, Nascar dads, or horny teenagers who fantasize about hunky vampires?

(46) Pacing is everything in a novel. If you’re not pacing round the room, you’re not suffering enough and don’t deserve to write.

(47) Remember the 4 types of conflicts that underlie all novels: Man v. Man, Man v. Nature, Man v. Himself, and Man v. MS Word.

(48) Use evocative metaphors. A good metaphor is like a, hell, I don’t know, it’s like a simile, I guess.

(49) Unreliable narrators are a big problem. Since we figured out that waterboarding doesn’t work, I suggest you just humor them.

(50) Comic novels are hard to write. But come on, you have it easy. Comic tweets are even harder.

November 13, 2009

(51) Don’t think about audience. You’re only writing for one person. His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis.

(52) Love scenes are tricky to write, but necessary. A novel without a love scene is like a monkey without a rocketship.

(53) Love scenes may be tricky to write, but take it from one who knows, they’re even trickier to film, what with the lighting, the music, etc.

November 14, 2009

(54) Using dialect in a character’s dialogue isn’t politically correct. Unless it’s a Swedish chef. Swedish chefs are always allowed to sound like Swedish chefs.

(55) Sure, vampires and zombies are hot right now. But look to the future. The next big literary gimmick is giant land krakens.

(56) I don’t care what you may have heard, you cannot write a novel wrapped in a Snuggie, holding a cup of tea, a cat on your lap.

(57) Yes, Glenn Beck wore a slanket while writing his bestseller. But it’s technically not a novel, though it is fiction.

(58) If you go to a coffee shop to work on your novel, yes, you really have us all fooled that you’re there to write.

November 15, 2009

(59) The hero’s quest is a classic plot, most fully realized in the Harold & Kumar films. Seek inspiration from repeat viewings.

(60) November is halfway over, which must mean that every single novel being written anywhere in the world is now half finished.

(61) Remember, writers may have tax-deductible non-reimbursed job expenses: paper, coffee, NOS, prescription pills, therapy, etc.

(62) Those who can write novels, do. Those who can’t, tweet about it.

November 16, 2009

(63) Within every LOLCat meme lurks the backstory to a novel. Except Three Wolf Moon. That one is mine, bitch.

(64) Fan mail can be a huge distraction. Do what I do: hire an assistant who deals with everything but the naughty letters.

(65) Restraining orders can be especially burdensome during the research phase of your novel. You know what I’m talking about.

(66) Scandinavians are great literary innovators we could all learn something from. Case in point: glögg.

(67) The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward slutty vampire novels.

November 17, 2009

(68) Writing a novel where machines become self-aware and enslave humankind? Congratulations! That’s never been done. You rock.

(69) Only 20,000 words to go! Get cracking now on the longest car chase in the history of the novel.

(70) Download I Am D-Brown from the app store to autotune your novel.

(71) Inspiration from the muses is a myth. We all know creativity comes from randomly generated time-homogenous Markovian chains.

November 18, 2009

(72) 50,000 words is nothing. Shoot for 250,000 words. Write a novel that is Too Big To Fail.

(73) A character’s name can reveal his inner self. Consider examples from Dickens: Gradgrind, Murdstone, Wackford, Darth Vader.

(74) A tip for the aspiring horror author: Politics makes strange bedfellows. So does zombie erotica.

(75) Remember the 4 basic elements found in every great novel: setting, character, conflict, and goatse.

(76) The right title is crucial for your success. Stephen King’s “It” wouldn’t be the same with the title “Scary Killer Clown.”

November 19, 2009

(77) Tempted to use a nursery rhyme for the title of your thriller? We’ve all been there. Don’t do it. Stick with palindromes.

(78) Don’t tell your doctor about your writer’s block. Most insurance companies now count it as a pre-existing condition.

(79) Create suspense by ending each chapter mid-sente

November 20, 2009

(80) We’ve all heard about indie filmmakers maxing out their credit cards to make films. Feel free to max out yours this month.

(81) Writing a novel is about expressing yourself. That, and playing Freecell.

(82) Every picture tells a story, don’t it? Well, no. You’re not Rod Stewart, thank God, and it’s not 1971.

(83) Only 10 days left, and what? You still don’t have a pirate in your novel?? Heed the call of the scourge of the seven seas.

(84) Remember the Authors Guild ruling that you are legally obligated to include one ninja for every pirate in your novel.

November 21, 2009

(85) Hit a block in your writing? Uh, sorry. I got nothing.

(86) Remember the literal meaning of the word “novel”: An antiquated form of expression which discourages experimentation and originality.

November 22, 2009

(87) A writer once advised me, “Follow your obsession.” Of course, he had just finished a book on the breast in German literature.

(88) Bored by the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel? Raise the bar by writing a 50,000 word PALINDROME.

November 23, 2009

(89) Look to Shakespeare for plot ideas, like the mad prince, the spurned lover, and the flesh-eating virus that devours Hoboken.

(90) Remember that the DEL button on your keyboard stands for deliverance. Press it often.

(91) The SYSRQ key is obviously the most essential button on your keyboard when you’re writing a novel. Its uses are endless.

(92) Of course, if you’re on a Mac, then you don’t have the SYSRQ key. This does not bode well for your novel.

November 24, 2009

(93) Very, very, very good writers use intensifiers really, really, really sparingly.

(94) The difference between a good novelist and a great one is measured in fluid ounces.

(95) The best novels start with a mysterious stranger coming to town. Like a gunfighter with a secret past. Or a killer monkey.

(96) Does your novel re-imagine the story of D.B. Cooper from the point of view of a bag of money? You win. The rest of us quit.

November 25, 2009

(97) Drink appropriately when you write: Beaujolais for a romance, martini for a spy novel, MGD for a working class hero, and Tang for scifi.

(98) Remember that the only holiday officially recognized by novelists is Administrative Assistants’ Day.

November 26, 2009

(99) Now that your novel is almost finished, start thinking about the trilogy. Standalone novels are for wusses.

November 27, 2009

(100) It’s too bad you weren’t up at 4am writing. I had a bunch of doorbuster NaNoWriMo tips, but they’re all gone now.

November 28, 2009

(101) Not sure how to end your 50,000 word masterpiece? Might I suggest a car crash? Or perhaps a train wreck? The Rapture is also good. All three FTW.

(102) Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams are in a bidding war for the screen rights to your novel. Don’t give in. Hold out for Emmerich.

(103) Only on page 5 and 48 hours left? No problem. Wrap it up with a comet strike and have a 195 page index.

(104) Official NaNoWriMo guidelines say that novel titles count toward word count. The semicolon and colon are your friends.

November 29, 2009

(105) Acknowledgments don’t count toward your word count. Therefore, don’t waste your time thanking anybody but me.

November 30, 2009

(106) The Great American Novel MUST end with an epic kick-ass Boss Battle. Might I suggest giant ectoplasmic zombie robots?

(107) Studies show that most accidents happen within 5 pages from the conclusion. Safety first! Startling plot reversals later!

(108) If none of my tips / Have helped your book this dark fall / Write haikus instead.

(109) You’re bragging how you “wrote” a “novel” this month? Shut your pie-hole. Nora Roberts wrote FOUR, plus a made-for-TV movie.

(110) If you’re on the East Coast, 20 minutes to wrap it up. If you’re on the West Coast, well la-di-da. Your time is gonna come.

(111) I dare you to end your novel with an exclamation point. I dare you!

(112) A deathbed confession on the final page is all well and good, but nothing closes down the place like waking up from a dream.

(113) Edgar Allan Poe said it best: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. And to hell with Microsoft Word.”

(114) It’s ten till midnight. Do you know where your narrator is?

(115) Some novels, like grandma’s freezer-burned cookies from 1986, are best left unfinished.

(116) It is finished. My microwave popcorn, that is. Who the hell knows about your novel.

(117) Nevermore

Thanks for reading, and see you in March, when I’ll return with tips for National Coke and Vodka Rock Bottom Memoir Writing Month (NaCoVoRoBoMeWriMo)! In the meantime, look for me on Twitter.

Twitter is a Snark Valve

Last week I described the intensive role of social networking in my teaching. Although I explained how I track and archive my students’ Twitter activity, I didn’t describe what they actually do on Twitter.

That’s because I wasn’t sure myself what they do.

I mean, of course I’ve reading their tweets and sending my own, but I hadn’t considered in a systematic way how my students use Twitter. That lack of reflection on my part echoes my initial guidelines to the students: my instructions were only that students should tweet several times a week at a minimum. I was deliberately vague about what they should tweet about. I didn’t want overly specific guidelines to constrain what might be possible with Twitter. I wanted my students’ Twitter use to evolve organically.

Now, six weeks into the semester, clear patterns are discernible and I can begin to analyze the value of Twitter as a pedagogical tool.

My most surprising find? Twitter is a snark valve.

Let me step back and explain.

I began with a Twitter Adoption Matrix, originally sketched out in late August by Rick Reo. Rick is an instructional designer at George Mason University, and he’d been keeping tabs on the different ways instructors have been using Twitter in their teaching. Rick sent a draft of this adoption matrix to the university’s Teaching with Technology listserv, and I soon began trying to situate my own Twitter use on the chart. In the process, I adapted Rick’s original matrix, re-imagining the vertical axis as a spectrum ranging from monologic to dialogic, and redefining the horizontal axis as a measurement of student activity, ranging from passive to active. After some other changes based on my experience with Twitter, I ended up with this revised Twitter Adoption Matrix (larger image):

Twitter Adoption Matrix (click image for full size)
Twitter Adoption Matrix (click image for full size)

You can also find a downloadable version of my revised matrix on Scribd.

Right now, I’m mostly thinking about the In-Class Back Channel and Outside of Class Discussion matrices. When I look closely at what my students write in and outside of class, I find that their tweets fall into one of three categories:

  1. Posting news and sharing resources relevant to the class
  2. Asking questions and responding with clarifications about the readings
  3. Writing sarcastic, irreverent comments about the readings or my teaching

In other words, one of the most common uses of Twitter among my students is snark.

And that is a good, powerful thing.

I know critics like David Denby have come down hard on snark as a pervasive, degraded, unproductive form of discourse. I couldn’t disagree more. Snark is, I argue, a legitimate way to engage culture. It’s involved, it’s witty, and most importantly, it takes an oppositional stance — a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all.

[pullquote align=”right”]Back-of-the-classroom tittering has turned into backchannel Twittering[/pullquote]Judging by the high level of discourse and analysis in my classes, Twitter is a snark valve. By having a systematic, constrained outlet for the snipe and snark and sarcasm that smart twenty-year-olds might otherwise direct towards more civil discourse, or unleash outside of the classroom, or worse, bottle up, the Twitter snark valve frees up both class and the class blog for more “serious” dialog. And I’m putting “serious” in scare quotes because I believe even sardonic comments provide insight — insight into the topic under discussion, but also insight into how it’s being received by students.

I allow — and even encourage — students to Twitter during class. One outcome of this freedom is that back-of-the-classroom tittering has turned into backchannel Twittering. Even more interesting, though unmeasurable without further analysis, is the performative aspect of the backchannel. The tweets are unfiltered, in effect, the same comment somebody might mutter under his or her breath, uncensored, no-holds-barred opining. Yet the students know classmates are following the course hashtag and at the very least that I am listening (and contributing) as well.  The backchannel assumes a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse — using sarcasm both to show a kind of too-cool-for-school attitude but also to demonstrate that the student is in fact earnestly engaged with the material.

As the semester goes on and tweets accumulate, I should have more data to work with. But even at this early stage, I am certain that I have stumbled upon a complicated rhetorical dynamic I never would have imagined going just from the Twitter Adoption Matrix, a dynamic that illustrates how students find their own uses for technology, racing far ahead of our pedagogical intentions.

Reflections on a Technology-Driven Syllabus

I’m five weeks into the new semester, and it’s time to consider how my ambitious technology-heavy Graphic Novel course is going. And I’m serious when I say it’s technology-heavy: we’re doing a blog, a wiki, Twitter, and rigorous Pecha Kucha presentations. About the only thing we’re missing is a MMORPG.

I plotted out the major components of the class back in May, and the actual implementation is surprisingly close to my original vision. There were two reasons for all this technology:

  1. I wanted to use technology to help me maintain the student-centered environment of a smaller class when I was in fact going to be teaching a much larger class (there are 40 students in the class instead of the usual 25). Let’s call this goal community-building.
  2. I wanted to use a range of smaller, low-stakes writing assignments paced steadily throughout the semester instead of two or three major assignments. My intention was to keep students continually engaged throughout the semester rather than “checking in” once mid-semester and once at the end.  Let’s call this goal focus-sustaining.

The chief mechanism of the class is The Group. My 40 students are evenly divided into five groups, and each week they rotate group roles. For example, last week students in Group 1 were responsible for the collaboratively-written class notes on the wiki, while this week they are the class’s Searchers, charged with blogging short evaluative reviews of relevant online resources. The group has next week off and the week after that, they are Respondents, commenting upon the work of another group (the First Readers) on the blog. And in the midst of all this activity, students are expected to post to Twitter using the class’s hashtag (#eng493) and prepare class presentations following the strictly defined Pecha Kucha format (20 slides at 20 seconds per slide, focused on a single page from the week’s graphic novel).

My inspiration for all these activities came from a number of sources, which I simply pulled together and stitched into a cohesive structure: the initial idea of groups came from my friend and longtime collaborator Randy Bass; the wikified class notes were based on something similar Brian Croxall does; the use of Twitter in the classroom was influenced by Dave Parry’s thoughts on the matter; and I’m indebted to my George Mason colleague Doug Eyman for introducing me to the idea of Pecha Kucha.

So how is it all working?

Preliminary evidence suggests it’s working, and working well. When it’s only the second week of the semester and a student hopes aloud that all our collaborative work will remain online after the semester’s over, that’s a good sign. When students in my other class spontaneously start their own Twitter hashtag after hearing about this class’s, that’s a good sign. When students are documenting the class discussion with photographs and adding them to the wiki, that’s a good sign. When I am seeing the most disciplined and focused undergraduate presentations of my career, that’s a good sign.

Any difficulties so far?

Oh, yes.

The primary challenge at the outset is the deluge of information I’m faced with every week. I’ve never had so many things to keep track of at once in a course. If it weren’t for a few tricks I’ve already learned, I’d be drowning in data. Here are some administrative and pedagogical hacks I couldn’t live without:

  • RSS is my friend. All of the online resources I use (the WordPress class blog, the PBWorks wiki, the Twitter hashtag) have RSS feeds, and I stream all of them into one monster-stream using Postbox, an enhanced version of Mozilla Thunderbird. You could also use Google Reader’s bundle feature or Yahoo Pipes to achieve the same all-in-one-space aggregated feed. I like Postbox because it archives my feeds on my hard drive, so they’re always there, whether I’m online or off, and they’ll continue to be there long after the semester is over. Here is what the master activity stream looks like in Yahoo Pipes:
  • RSS is my friend. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this enough. Being able to read blog posts, Twitter updates, and changes to the wiki pages all in one integrated stream is essential. Postbox is always open on my laptop and I can see at a glance how much activity there’s been with the students. Unread items are in bold, which helps me keep track of what I’ve read (and graded) and what I haven’t.
  • Grading doesn’t have to be hard. As I’ve written elsewhere, I use a simple 0-4 point scale to rate the critical value of each entry on the blog. As a matter of routine, I’ll let students know their grade on the blog if they are habitually getting less than 3 or 4 points per post. I also comment on several posts a week, to let everyone know that I am indeed reading their work. By the end of the semester I plan to have commented on every student’s work at least three times.
  • Let students evaluate each other. Though the students are divided into groups, the only time they work as a group is when they collaborate on the weekly class notes. PBWorks tracks every user’s edits, so it’s easy for me to see who’s done what (or who hasn’t done anything). But trusting in the power of peer pressure, I wanted to make the value of each member’s contributions more transparent to the rest of the group. So I ask the students to rate themselves and the other members of their group at the end of the week, with two questions about each student, one on the quantity of their contributions to the wiki and another question on the quality of their work. It’s a simple form on Google Docs, and the results are automatically feed into a Google Docs spreadsheet:
  • Redundancy is redundancy is redundancy is important when it comes to archiving. I am very aware of the ephemeral nature of online communication, especially with something like Twitter. Don’t trust the cloud. So in addition to preserving feeds in my offline reader, I use The Archivist to capture the #eng493 Twitter conversation and save it as an exportable XML file. Once the data is in XML format, you can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. The Archivist has a few inline data visualizations too. Here we can see when spikes in activity occur (usually the night before class, when students are reading and tweeting as they read):
  • #eng493 Twitter Timeline

So there you have it, some reflections on a technology-driven syllabus. These reflections are strictly from my own perspective, of course. Something I need more information about, then, is what my students think about the technology in the course. My sense is that it’s a daunting amount of activity for them to keep track of. I sometimes forget that students have three or four other courses besides mine, each with their own demands. I’m hoping that some activities, like Twitter, fit into their existing lifeflow, though I know others, like working with a wiki, can punctuate their daily lives in a disruptive way.

Then again, the kind of estrangement and readjustment such pedagogical tools precipitate can be valuable in their own right, if only they’re harnessed properly…something I’ll be writing about soon.