My Norm is More Normal Than Yours: Academic Tweeting and Loose Fish

So, apparently a professor delivering a talk at an academic conference got irritated that someone in the audience was live-tweeting the paper and he rebuked the tweeter on twitter: since the material was not yet “published,” he demanded, the audience had no right to broadcast it to the world. Adeline Koh storified the twitter conversation that ensued and the hashtag #twittergate will be your go-to source for where it went from there, as you breathlessly follow its developments. A remarkably large sub-set of the digital humanities people have been talking and blogging about it, and Inside Higher Education even wrote a piece on it yesterday, called “The Academic Twitterazi.” From a handful of tweets, to a storify collecting them, to blog posts, to more official blogposts, and finally to an article in Inside Higher Ed documenting it as "news": it had now become a thing.

Or, wait— did that actually happen? I’m not sure now. When it flew across my timeline, that was the impression I got: that this was a thing that had happened, a real life kerfuffle, and that people were discussing it after the fact. I even had a picture in my head of the white haired professor who did the shouting. But on a second read, it’s not clear what, if anything, actually happened (though I hate reading storified tweets, so I may have missed it). Far from being the revelation of some scandal (as the -gate suffix might seem to imply), the conversation’s origin now simply appears to be this tweet, Joshua Guild’s plaintive lament:

still waiting on that “ethics of live tweeting in the academy” convo.

It may be that I just invented the scene, that I conjured up the image of an appropriately cantankerous old professor yelling at a bunch of punk tweeters to get off his lawn, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Twittarino, because it made the conversation that flowed out of it into a story we all know so very well: The youngs with their social networking! The olds with their curmudgeonly disdain for same! Certainly I invented most of the pertinent details in my mind; I turned a bunch of things I didn’t know into a coherent event that brought the conflict into high relief. It was, to be jargony, a primal scene, retroactively marking a failure of symbolization and simultaneous producing the structure of the symbolic order. Now it all makes sense!

We do this a lot. We all know the big narratives: Modern Technology! Stodgy Academics! Uppity youngs and slappy-downy olds! As a result, when a thing like this—a conference, handful of tweets, then a river of them, and then blogposts and articles—becomes a Thing, we reach for those easy narratives in our deep toy-box of cliches and just-so stories, filling in the gaps in our knowledge and gluing them together into something that replicates what we expected to find. But the probem is this: when we retroactively make the whole thing into a reiteration of what we already know—when we make it into an opportunity to re-stage the timeless ritual conflict between the olds and the youngs—we lose everything that makes the event specifically what it is, or was. We beg the question that it’s the same thing we’re accustomed to expecting seeing, overlooking the extent to which it is not.

Why have all the academics I know on twitter suddenly been talking about livetweeting academic conferences? Whether or not there was any dramatic moment of conflict that produced the raft of commentary is irrelevant; the important thing is that the material was primed to explode. We’re at a kind of ambient near-boiling point, where the friction of the digital divide in academia requires only the slightest irritation to hit a rolling bubbling, um, boil

See, the, um, divided digitals rub together and produce friction, which produces heat, which makes the, um, friction boil, and, um, oh never mind.
; a single mildly reproachful tweet sets off waves of academic chatter, and pretty soon all the usual suspects are joining in. And in a way, this fact—this baseline near-boiling point tension—is the most important thing to observe. We wouldn’t have been having this conversation a few years ago, and not only because we wouldn’t have all been on twitter. The problem is new, and precisely because it is new, we reach for the hoariest of old narratives—the olds! The youngs!—in order to make it make sense.

What’s interesting to me about the whole conversation, in other words, is what it reveals to us about what we don’t know, the lack of a consensus about how to behave in such situations. And so, people invoke fetish objects like “basic manners” and “common civility” as a way of papering over the uncomfortable fact that no such commonality unites us, and that no “basic” set of manners (taught to us by an imagined “didn’t your mother?”) can be assumed to obtain. In other words, it’s precisely because “livetweeting” creates a situation that never existed before—and which could therefore not have a clear set of understood norms of conduct—that the most conservative among us suddenly start shouting about how It’s Obvious and Clear and They Should All Be Banned: it’s not the tweeting they object to quite so much as the way it dis-establishes conventions and, as such, represents the principle of change and dis-establishment. It’s very much like—exactly like—the conservative legal doctrine of originalism, by which the constitution provides guidelines for regulating videogames, and the fact that no right to privacy is explicitly in the constitution means, in fact, that there is none.

The thing we’re unsure about, I think, is whether academia has a responsibility to be public. Of course, talking about “academia” (and using a “we” as if it’s a single monolithic entity) is yet another way of gliding soundlessly over the fractures and contractions that a thing like “twittergate” reveals. But when an event like this reveals that many of us have been operating from different definitions of the word “publish” and different understandings of who it is that we take to be our publics, it demonstrates a crisis in our understanding of the public sphere. The public is something many of us gesture towards, but perhaps it’s as available as it is to be gestured towards precisely because none of us know very specifically what we mean by it. “Public” is not something we can take for granted, especially when academic publishing essentially means putting information where the non-academic “public” can’t get it.

So let’s get specific. Is an academic conference public? Was this one? I don’t know, and for most of this discussion, it doesn’t actually matter, since we’re talking less about a single event than about The Digital in The Humanities. But at the same time, specific context is always—in general—the key. Did the person giving the paper ask that no one live-tweet the paper? Did the live-tweeter ask permission? Were there any broad conference-level guidelines on the matter? What would it be normal to expect and what were the specific circumstances that might or might not have altered expected that norm?

These are the questions to ask because one does not simply assume that everyone shares the same reasonable expectations of privacy or publicity as you. Only if you live in an imaginary world in which all is ever as it was and shall be, world without end, would it seem like this is a reasonable expectation. The rest of us live in a world where a changing media landscape has made privacy a moving target, since before it even existed. The claim that there has always been a clear sense of the divide between private and public is not only always false, but it tends to mask (in an ideologically informed way) the much more complex and messy social reality we actually live in, one in which different kinds of information flow are appropriate for different places, and in which the dividing lines are constantly in flux and constantly being debated. A space or a venue is not simply private or public, black and white; it’s the shades of gray (and the way we deal with them) that mark the actual social contours of our engagements, and they extent to which we constantly re-make our social world and our social order to suit the needs of the present.

Here, I want to expand on my original contribution to the original conversation, where I suggested that Helen Nissenbaum’s notion of “contextual integrity” would be a much better way to address this issue than the binary between public and private that we tend to otherwise adopt. As Nissenbaum points out, we often often understand

a right to privacy in terms of dichotomies—sensitive and non-sensitive, private and public, government and private…That which falls within any one of the appropriate halves warrants privacy consideration; for all the rest, anything goes.

In other words, as long as the conference paper existed safely within a “private” space (the speaker’s head, the confines of a closed academic seminar, however we define it), it would seem reasonable that he or she could maintain a proprietary right to it. No one would have the right to publish it without the speaker’s permission. Whereas, by contrast, the moment it went out into “public”—however defined—it becomes fair game for almost any kind of fair use or commentary. Once something is published, to try to stop others from quoting or discussing it would be laughable. And that laughter would index the point at which theory and practice have become completely estranged.

This clarity is deceptive, though; it promises (and aims for) a neat resolution that it can only provide by abstracting out of existence the actual social situation in which the actual event occurred. “Anything goes” might describe a useful legal principle, but it’s a very poor way of describing how most people actually behave. As Nissenbaum points out,

there are no arenas of life not governed by norms of information flow, no information or spheres of life for which “anything goes.” Almost everything—things that we do, events that occur, transactions that take place—happens in a context not only of place but of politics, convention, and cultural expectation…Observing the texture of people’s lives, we find them not only crossing dichotomies, but moving about, into, and out of a plurality of distinct realms. They are at home with families, they go to work, they seek medical care, visit friends, consult with psychiatrists, talk with lawyers, go to the bank, attend religious services, vote, shop, and more. Each of these spheres, realms, or contexts involves, indeed may even be defined by, a distinct set of norms, which governs its various aspects such as roles, expectations, actions, and practices. For certain contexts, such as the highly ritualized settings of many church services, these norms are explicit and quite specific. For others, the norms may be implicit, variable, and incomplete (or partial).

Her point is that, as a legal principle for regulating who owns a commodified piece of knowledge—say, rights to publish an article or piece of research—the public/private binary provides the necessarily simplistic distinction between a fish which is fast and a fish which is loose. The simplistic either/or allows us to rule in practice whether a thing is privately owned or if it is freely available, if our primary goal is the essentially commercial problem of managing private property. But most of the time, we don’t really think that information is a commodity, or at least we don’t act like it. It takes a special effort—the statement “This is off the record” or “Can you keep a secret?”—to take a freely circulating piece of information and curtail its movements. This is especially true because information is either this kind of fish or not a fish but a shark, one that dies if it doesn’t keep moving: a story that isn’t told ceases to exist. But this is also what people mean when they say that information “wants” to be free: information’s baseline state of being is to be an uncommodified common property, because if it doesn’t circulate, it doesn’t exist.

But, of course, “free” is a misnomer; we always operate within the norms that we use to describe the extent and limitations of our freedom. After all, the one thing you cannot do with a piece of information that someone else owns is claim that you own it. You can’t print it or sell it if you didn’t make it. And you can do a lot of other things with it. Any information that’s available to you is, by default, available to you to comment upon, paraphrase, reference, or quote: we tend to find the idea that one could be privy to information but not allowed to comment on it, paraphrase it, or reference it, as being in the domain of security clearances and censorship, extraordinary and usually perverse. But within print publishing, for instance, “fair use” describes the norms that divide quoting from plagiarizing, describing exactly the extent to which information is allowed to indulge its desire for freedom. For almost all venues of dissemination, a variety of different norms describe where and how information is supposed to flow, norms which we respect and understand so well that we often don’t even realize we’re following them. But most of the time, we do know how and where to circulate information, where the lines are, and how to finesse them.

What are the norms governing the information flow in academic conferences? The problem arises because livetweeting is new, and there are no “norms” that everyone can take for granted. The MLA has been tweeting for a while—and many conferences explicitly encourage it—but many academics have either not noticed or don’t want to observe this as a new norm. And because it has only just become an issue, we haven’t discussed it or thought very much about it. Just as the emergence of technologies and practices of mass media—instant photography and the penny press—in the 19th century made it necessary for Warren and Brandeis to invent a “right to privacy” which had never before existed, we have to have that conversation now as well. The fish is out of the stable.

For some reason, mixed metaphors are cracking me up this morning. Deal with it.