Scholarly conversation on Twitter
By Frédéric Clavert (University of Luxembourg, @inactinique) and Caroline Muller (University Rennes 2, @caro_ligne).
Original post in French. Translation: Sarah Cooper (University of Luxembourg). The authors would like to thank Ed Summers (MITH, @edsu) for his proof-reading and remarks.
The social networking service Twitter suffers from a bad reputation in the academic world and, more broadly, among those who do not use it. How many times have we heard, in informal conversations, that Twitter attracts “the dregs of humanity” or “the basest form of all thought” (translations of real quotations in French), or simply that it is a place where people waste time instead of engaging in more legitimate, useful activities?
We clearly should not downplay the way in which this digital space can be a place of harassment and aggression, a place where domination can be reproduced1. I myself (Caroline) have been on the receiving end on several occasions. But we feel that there is a need for a discussion about the other aspects: the scholarly and intellectual conversation that takes place on Twitter and is all too often overlooked or discredited. There are many definitions of the notion of “scholarly conversation”, and practices also vary significantly from one discipline to the next. But we need to start somewhere, so we will consider scholarly conversation as a fruitful exchange of ideas, resources and skills that can result in an overall enhancement of our research processes. In its traditional form, scholarly conversation can take place in seminars, conferences or thesis defences, or alternatively in writing, in the expert analysis and collective discussion of articles submitted to journals. With the advent of the Internet, other forums for scholarly conversation began to emerge, such as research blogs, which serve as spaces for what Marin Dacos and Pierre Mounier refer to as a “decentralised scholarly conversation”.2
Some might object that high quality research requires groups of experts that are hard to find online. But if that is the case, by implication scholarly conversation can only take place at thesis defences, between ultra-specialists – if at all. Who has never experienced conference panels composed of people with eclectic interests? Are we suggesting that none of these spaces – conferences, informal conversations with colleagues from other disciplines – can serve as forums for scholarly conversation? We cannot reduce scholarly conversation merely to a specialist discussion of a given historiographical hypothesis – although this type of discussion does sometimes take place on Twitter. Our aim, then, in taking issue with the superficial image of discussions on Twitter, is to seriously examine the idea that the network is a forum for scholarly conversation, inasmuch as it is a place where discussions occur about literature, theories and research practices, a place where discussion networks are formed which can then interact with the other spaces for scholarly conversation mentioned above.
A research and teaching community
Twitter is what is known as an online social networking service or social media platform.3 It was set up in 2006 and was initially oriented towards “small talk”. Twitter invited its users to discuss their daily activities (the home page asked the question “What are you doing?”). The main function of Twitter was – and remains – very simple: it allows users to publish messages of no more than 140 characters (280 since September 2017), akin to text messages, on twitter.com. But Twitter’s users soon deviated from the intended model and began to discuss topical issues. Twitter progressively moved from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” and, adapting to user behaviour, the Californian company added new features to the platform: the hashtag (a word preceded by a hash symbol which can be used for organizing discussions), the retweet (quoting a tweet from another account, either as it is or with a comment), and the “favourite” (now “like”). So in the space of a few years, Twitter had become a platform on which information, in a broad sense, was circulating increasingly quickly.4 In 2009, the plane that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River elicited comments on Twitter even before it was reported in the press.
Twitter’s ability to circulate information more and more rapidly can have positive and negative impacts,5 and I (Frédéric) observed an example of the latter with the controversies that arose during the events held to commemorate the Battle of Verdun. But the undesirable consequences of this memetic circulation of information should not conceal the fact that Twitter is also home to smaller-scale communities and discussions, which can give rise to fruitful conversations and positive achievements. Remaining with the example of the centenary of the First World War, we can see this in the response to the database of individuals who were declared “dead for France” (Mort pour la France), which largely developed around the hashtag #1j1p (1 jour 1 Poilu, or 1 day 1 fallen soldier). The database was indexed (images of text were turned into computer-readable text by participants) before 11 November 2018, facilitating the use of its content in remembrance (in the tribute to those who died for France in WWI) and also for scholarly purposes.
So while Twitter is a global platform that has created a sort of worldwide community, at the same time it is also a community of smaller, often highly independent communities – such as the academic community –, which are capable of engaging in focused, specific, meaningful discussions.
Sticking to the area that we know best – historians –, we can see that this community has already been the focus of multiple observations.6 We would particularly cite the chapter published by Caroline on Le goût de l’archive à l’ère numérique entitled “Autour d’une machine à café virtuelle. Les historien·ne·s sur Twitter” (Around a virtual coffee machine. Historians on Twitter), which explores various types of discussion within the community of historians, including those that take a controversial turn.
The accounts created on Twitter vary hugely in terms of their profile, representing a real wealth of diversity: institutional accounts (universities, journals, laboratories), accounts to monitor research projects, accounts linked with teaching projects, accounts for publishers, and also – and this will be the focus of our attention in this blog – personal accounts created by individuals with links to research and higher education. These individual accounts relate their holders’ day-to-day lives in research and teaching, in tweets that may be aimed at wide-ranging audiences, from specialists (a request for a very specific bibliographical reference) to interested parties (sharing and discussing an exciting new find in the archives)7 or even the public at large if the subject matter combines professional and personal considerations and reactions to topical events. That is why it is so difficult to precisely define the scope of an “academic Twitter”, other than by observing the way in which profiles describe themselves – and even this does not enlighten us fully because many profiles prefer to remain anonymous or to avoid mentioning an institutional affiliation or a specific status.
Circulation of scholarly information in real time
These accounts all foster the circulation of scholarly information in real time: journals and/or researchers announce publications which are then relayed among their followers. Some reproduce the tables of contents, and authors sometimes even present their works with images to illustrate the text. This process of publication monitoring can also take the form of detailed reviews published online in the form of “threads”. Here is a first example in history and a second example in sociology and political science.
The example of thesis defences/vivas is particularly compelling. It is now customary to propose live tweets providing real-time coverage of thesis defences or the vivas required for research supervisor accreditation, thereby giving anyone not actually in the room an idea of the nature of the discussions. This initiative is all the more interesting since the person relaying the discussions is aware that he/she is addressing a non-expert audience and often therefore makes an effort to communicate the information in an understandable way. We were able to follow a defence on women in the Castilian nobility in the 15th century (2019) and another on Resistance networks from 1940 to 1945 (2020). This custom may be a little less relevant this year because the pandemic means that we can now attend any defences or vivas that interest us virtually via video conference.
There are recurrent discussions on literature – the hashtag #VendrediLecture (“Friday reading”) is used to discuss what people are currently reading. In the small survey launched by Caroline, several answers referred to the circulation of books. Cited by our colleague at the University of Luxembourg, Benoît Majerus, the hashtag #histpsych is a way of keeping up to date with the latest publications in the history of psychiatry. On Twitter, literature discussions are a space for scholarly conversation, for exchanging arguments about the importance of reading such or such a publication, or even for discussions about the approaches of different historiographical schools.These discussions are not confined to the “virtual” realm. We ourselves are a good example of this: the project Le goût de l’archive à l’ère numérique (“The allure of the archives in the digital age”) developed out of an exchange of tweets when we did not yet know each other, and the project began before we had ever met in a “physical” space. More generally, these discussions lead to encounters, publications, lessons and much more; they feed into and enhance our academic and teaching activities.
Exchanges of this nature take place despite the limitations of the network: a tweet is a particularly limited “object” that cannot exceed 280 characters. The criticism most often levelled at Twitter focuses on this brevity. How can we develop a thought in so few characters without caricaturing or weakening it? The complexity and nuance of arguments developed in ad hoc spaces is set against the superficial nature of discussions on Twitter. But this claim fails to take into account both the imagination and creativity of the platform’s users and also the potential of “linking”, a practice that is central to the web. We can only understand Twitter if we are familiar with user practices: an entire argument can be presented by using a “thread”, a series of interconnected tweets that create an intelligible discourse. These threads are often used to present history to a broad audience or to describe archive discoveries, as here by Catherine Kikuchi. Merely criticising the brevity of tweets also overlooks the role of hyperlinks in a conversation on the web; in a tweet, links can offer examples to back up an argument, refer users to a research blog post setting out a case in full, or point them to an archive document, a journal article, a book, etc. Like Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and others, Twitter needs to be contextualised in a much larger digital environment.
A call for testimonials launched on 8 February provided us with a range of different accounts of how Twitter has contributed to the scholarly work of dozens of researchers. The array of benefits identified can be visualised by clicking on this tree:
Examining the various responses reveals some aspects that particularly stand out. First, users point to very practical help in resolving problems such as identifying an object or deciphering an inscription – Twitter is widely used to address palaeography problems. The help offered is not only technical: researchers highlight displays of solidarity and support, the development of discussion networks that result in invitations to conferences and seminars, and offers of mentoring. The platform is also a way of finding out about work taking place in other laboratories that may be geographically distant. And users can find ideas and observe discussions via the monitoring feature. This possibility for monitoring leads users to engage with a sort of serendipity which, in the words of one researcher on the network, results in a considerable widening of one’s viewpoint, whether in terms of objects or approaches, and consequently a widening of one’s epistemological, methodological and bibliographical perspective.
Of course, this does not mean that Twitter is a magical space where researchers trip through fields of flowers bathed in golden sunlight. We will look at these aspects in more detail later.
A space for scholarly controversy
On Twitter, scholarly conversation sometimes turns to controversy. Some of these controversies have seen researchers take a stance in opposition to political statements, for example historians reacting to Emmanuel Macron’s comments about Philippe Pétain in November 20188 or sociologists who had to defend themselves against claims that they were spreading a “culture of apology”, a phrase used by Manuel Valls in 2016. These controversies can also pit members of the academic community against each other. We will look in more detail at two examples: the recent publication of a book by Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel, and the complex chain of events surrounding the “Duclert commission” for French archives on Rwanda.
The recent publication of a book by Gérard Noiriel and Stéphane Beaud, Race et sciences sociales: Essai sur les usages publics d’une catégorie (“Race and social sciences: Essay on public uses of a category”), gave rise to extremely intense and heated discussions about the concepts of race and intersectionality in social sciences. The conversation actually began before the book was released, following the publication of an article entitled “Impasse des politiques identitaires” (Identity politics at an impasse) by the two authors in Le Monde Diplomatique. This article elicited a number of responses that were presented on various platforms, including Twitter threads (as explained above) and blog posts published on Mediapart and then relayed and discussed on Twitter, as here by Norman Ajari. The publication of the book confirmed the intensity of the debate, which subsequently took a contentious turn. A wave of criticism followed: in this long thread, Pascal Marichalar took the time to go back over his experience reading the book and to identify what he saw as its many problems: the failure to address themes that are vital for the subject, the absence of references to the literature in a field that has been amply addressed by other authors, and a misleading presentation of researchers who draw on the notion of race. The thread includes some twenty tweets and concludes with bibliographical recommendations for readers. So it would be pointless to suggest that the discussion was merely a personal attack prompted by a desire to criticise the book’s authors. In this debate, Twitter is a particularly interesting space to analyse because we do not only see researchers debating among themselves but also discussions being read and taken up by a wider audience and the use of a wide range of different debating techniques. The lengthy careers of the two authors and their considerable contribution to their disciplines are regularly mentioned, and any detractors are encouraged to read their other work. The controversy was both scholarly and political – some criticised the authors’ method and the data they chose to highlight, while others speculated more directly on the political consequences of a strategy that refused to “see” race in social configurations.
Representations of Twitter as merely a place for “social media lynching” and/or a collective lack of intelligence can unfortunately lead to a misinterpretation of the discussions that take place on the network. On 28 October 2020, Le Canard Enchaîné and then Guillaume Ancel challenged a dictionary entry by historian Julie d’Andurain about Opération Turquoise, a French-led intervention carried out in response to the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. The text by Guillaume Ancel, then the article by Théo Englebert on Mediapart, point to the historian’s use of biased sources that cast a revisionist light on events and support the double genocide theory. The discussion moved to Twitter when Théo Englebert published his article, which was then commented on and reached academic circles. Tweets – forceful but not abusive – sought to challenge the historian and other colleagues. On 6 November, the French Association of Contemporary Historians in Higher Education and Research (AHCESR) sent a public message of support to Julie d’Andurain via its mailing list, in the following words. The association:
wishes to express its absolute indignation at the scurrilous social media campaign attacking our colleague Julie d’Andurain, a Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Lorraine and a member of the commission for research in French archives on Rwanda and the Tutsi genocide (1990-1994). It is in the latter capacity that she has been scandalously accused of “publishing writings that draw on negationist theories”.
With regard to France’s role in the tragedy in Rwanda, it is clear that once the results of this commission chaired by Vincent Duclert have been published, there will be a wide-ranging academic debate, which will have to comply with the ethical rules of practice associated with historical research: it will have to be based on arguments and counter-arguments rooted in a critical, comparative analysis of the relevant documents; develop contextual analyses of events and social representations of these events in the period under study; be carried out in a spirit of mutual respect between opposing parties, if there are opposing interpretations; and refuse to engage in condemnation, diatribes or personal attacks. In this campaign launched on social media against Julie d’Andurain, the messages are characterised by a hateful desire to delegitimise our colleague as a means of neutralising the long-awaited debate before it actually happens.
This text is particularly interesting in what it shows about the perception of social media; it contrasts social media with the “wide-ranging debate which will have to comply with the ethical rules of practice” and the “condemnation, diatribes or personal attacks” that it attributes to social media (in this case Twitter); and it adds that there has been a “campaign” characterised “by a hateful desire”. This “campaign” actually only consisted primarily of tweets referring to the well-argued publications by Ancel and Englebert. In this case, we can see that the hardening of the response to the criticism levelled at this colleague is indicative of a perception of the network as an irrational space in which the existence of a well-argued discussion is not seen as a real possibility. The disciplinary reflex therefore prevailed over any analysis of the actual content of the tweets criticising the text by Julie d’Andurain. When other colleagues intervened – colleagues who are well established in the academic field and whose credibility is hard to dispute –, the association soon reviewed its initial position, recognising its error and announcing the resignation of its bureau. But it is worth noting that the second message released by the association does not shift in its presentation of “social media”; it clarifies that its initial reaction was linked to the fact that the historian “had been taken to task on social media, whose growing role in academic debates and violence is a cause of concern for us”. While we cannot speak for Facebook, a detailed analysis of tweets does not reveal a hateful campaign aimed at Julie d’Andurain, but on the contrary some three hundred tweets challenging the academic community and calling into question the legitimacy of the working commission on archives. Similarly, we may well ask what justification there is for the assertion of the “growing role” of social media in academic debates, and why this is presented as a problem: on what data is this assertion based? Is it a case of intuition, the experiences of colleagues? Or does it reflect a desire to prevent scholarly conversation from taking place on a social media platform as a matter of principle? One might have expected that, rather than casting doubt on the legitimacy of what had just taken place on Twitter, the association would instead have welcomed the fact that the community of historians had “spokespeople” on Twitter who were paying particular attention to texts produced on the subject of Rwanda.
As these two examples show, the “Twittersphere” is not the hushed setting of breakfast buffets during conferences; the criticism that can be expressed on the platform is done so in a much more direct, cutting way than the “questions framed as remarks” traditionally asked at the end of a conference or presentation.
The scholarly conversation that takes place on Twitter is not immune to the aggression that occurs in “real-life” academic exchanges. It can even be particularly uncomfortable, since the “rules” governing discussions are rarely as explicit as in the corridors of research labs or conference halls, despite the fact that the very nature of the network encourages horizontality and the erasure of the differentiated (but very real) statuses of researchers who express their views on the platform. Should we adopt an informal tone (by using “tu” in French, for example)? To what extent can a frank discussion take place if it sets non-tenured researchers against their tenured counterparts? Power relationships and “awkward situations” do not disappear. We recently witnessed tenured colleagues with a well-established reputation in the media treating the views of a young researcher with the utmost flippancy – one might even say contempt. We are obliged to admit here that if scholarly conversation is to take place on Twitter, those involved in the conversation must themselves make sure that they comply with its codes of conduct.
The airing of the scholarly conversation – the fact that it takes place in public, involving a large number of people – gives rise to other problems. It means that the discourse of academics sometimes meets with audiences who have different ways of reasoning and are not necessarily expecting a patient demonstration of nuanced facts, or with individuals who willingly resort to verbal abuse or terse accusations. The sheer volume of reactions provoked may lead some colleagues to deactivate or protect their accounts on a regular basis to get away from the constant activity. While Twitter clearly serves as a space for scholarly debate, this debate does not play out in a space that is “sheltered” from other environments, unlike conventional scholarly discussions – not that the conventional framework is “safe”, but it is undoubtedly more restrained in its mode of attack. It is worth pointing out that other commonly used tools, such as mailing lists, are not the focus of the same type of criticism, despite the fact that they can be just as harmful even if they are specifically academic.
Conclusion: a call for a lucid, calm discussion about social media
The aim of this post is not to present a naive, romanticised vision of Twitter. We have both been on the network for long enough to have witnessed countless episodes of harassment or abuse. The responses to our questionnaire also highlight the limits and risks of scholarly conversation on Twitter. We realise that many researchers would appreciate calmer, less volatile spaces for discussion online. But we simply believe that casually dismissing the possibilities offered by the platform or refusing to admit that it is a forum for scholarly conversation is not the best way of working to secure this calmer framework. Diatribes aside, if researchers are making use of Twitter, it is because it meets a need. With this post, we wanted to show the wealth of activity that takes place on the platform.
Finally, there is another aspect that we believe particularly stands out: Twitter is open, in the sense that the discussions among researchers reach a broad audience. This openness is both an advantage – it enables us to showcase our methods, our research – and a risk, in that it raises the spectre of abuse from accounts that care little about academic discussion. This twofold dimension must be borne in mind when, in relation with the public history movement, we discuss the issue of scholarly conversation online.
- Some examples are provided in this article from Le Monde, which also shows the ambivalence of the social networking service. [↩]
- Marin Dacos, Pierre Mounier, “Les carnets de recherche en ligne, espace d’une conversation scientifique décentré”, in Lieux de savoir, vol. 2, Gestes et supports du travail savant, Albin Michel, 2010. [↩]
- For a definition of online social media platforms, see: Boyd, Danah M., and Nicole B. Ellison. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 13, no. 1, October 2007, p. 210-30. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00393.x. [↩]
- Burgess, Jean, and Nancy K. Baym. Twitter: A Biography. New York University Press, 2020. [↩]
- For examples of negative impact and ways of countering it, see Boullier, Dominique. Comment sortir de l’emprise des réseaux sociaux. Le Passeur, 2020 [↩]
- See also: Mehlman Petrzela, Natalia. “31. Navigating Social Media as an Academic”. The academic’s handbook, edited by Lori A. Flores and Jocelyn Olcott, Fourth edition, revised and expanded, Duke University Press, 2020. [↩]
- On archives, we may cite the example given by Véronique Beaulande. We have been sent many other examples and are unable to reproduce them all here. Many thanks to all those who completed our survey. [↩]
- Frédéric wil be publishing an article about the topic in the next few months. [↩]