I prepared the ground for thinking about a Twitter conference by tweeting out some of the results from the research project students had completed on military service and exemptions from a selection of streets in the London borough of Poplar – including this link to the resulting map.
We talked about how many people had seen these tweets and why historians might want to share their ideas in public before they were fully formed. Then I put it to them that we might try and run a Twitter conference and showed them some examples.
I explained some of the points about networks I’ve made above. Students drew up a list of ways that having a supportive network could help them and their research (advice, ownership, sandpit for ideas, rigour, kindness, belonging) and the things that you have to do to keep a network going (participation, contribution, mutual respect, effort, gratitude, openness to others). Then we talked about the ethics and practicalities of using social media for academic purposes. I wanted to make sure that they had thought and come to their own conclusions about these, and I made it clear from the start that no-one had to take part if they didn’t want to. There was no grade for this activity, and we would prepare for it in a way that created a benefit for everyone, whether they took part in the conference or not.
I had some concerns about safeguarding issues – what if someone was horrible or commented destructively on a student’s work, what if one of them inadvertently tweeted something that was incorrect or caused offence? There had to be a degree of trust on several sides – I believed that they would do a good job and that my online friends would support them, but that meant trusting that the students could trust me to step in if something was going wrong. I had not worked out in advance how to do that: they were sensible enough to say that we ought to schedule the conference in such a way that we would all be in the same place as the replies started coming in so we could go through them together (as an aside – this common sense is typical of my experience giving complex historical tasks to groups of third years: they usually come up with a better version of anything I can think up).
My bigger concern was that we had all thought about the ethical compromises involved in producing free content for a website that capitalises on the attention economy and which has a reputation as a platform for hateful political interactions. I was happy with any informed decision that they came to about participation. This is the sort of devil’s bargain they are likely to have to make frequently throughout their lives – the immediate benefit of participation and publicity versus the contribution to a ruthless corporation that does not have your interests or those of the academy at heart. The important thing for me was that students started to work whatever their position was. In the end, eight out of eleven members of the group took part, with one explicitly stating a decision to opt out of the Twitter element.
The key piece of practical preparation was that everyone prepared a ‘silent presentation’ on their dissertation. This was run on Powerpoint but the rules were like those for a Twitter conference – a maximum number of slides; no more than 240 characters per slide; every slide had to have an image, there had to be a clear outline of the research; an indication of directions of enquiry or (for those whose research was more developed) the argument they were developing. The whole thing had to have a structure – introduction, explanation, conclusion. Images could include archive footage, art, photos (all with proper accreditation) but also visual gags and memes. They had a week to prepare these, then we worked on them in a seminar before holding a silent conference – each paper consisting of just the slide presentations with no commentary from the author. The audience wrote down comments and questions and emailed them to the presenter. This was by itself a great exercise – the students had to think about structure and content more than they normally would, it tested a different set of skills to the usual oral presentation, and we got through the whole class in about half an hour (which was intense, but avoided the drop in attention). I gave everyone suggestions for how they might improve as well as comments on the research, and for those that wanted to take part in the Twitter conference, these presentations became the basis of their Tweet slide deck.
In the meantime, my own network had swung into action to tell me how to do things better. Kate Lindsay, who I remember telling me ages ago how fun it was to live-tweet the Battle of Arras 95 years after the event (at a point when I didn’t really know what Twitter was), had seen me tweet about running a conference and got in touch to give me some more good advice about how to do it! This included setting up a dedicated account (I was going to run it through the School account), getting students to organise a timetable with 10-15 minute slots for each paper, and giving each presentation a separate hashtag to make keeping track of all them easier.