Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gendered Twitter

I find Mark Sample's Twitter stream and blog invaluable for thinking about the use of new media for teaching, especially since he actually tries things that, so far, I haven't dared try (blogging and tweeting?). A while ago he posted about his technology-driven syllabus and the role of Twitter in his class. "Twitter is," he wrote, "a snark valve":
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.

But today Mark tweeted:
Danah Boyd's experience with the Twitter backchannel has me reevaluating my praise for Twitter snark.

The link is to Danah Boyd's thoughtful reflection on what sounds like an absolutely harrowing experience in giving a talk. The short version is that Boyd gave a talk at Web2.0 Expo in which a live twitter feed was visible to the audience, but not to Boyd, during the talk.
Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn't even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn't know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone's attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare.

This is interesting as a media phenomenon: the backchannel is, as Boyd says, turned into the frontchannel--at least for the audience. But it's still backchannel, too, since the speaker can't see it. The Twitter feed becomes a way for the audience to talk to itself without the speaker hearing, the speaker now no more than a conversation piece.

But then I wondered whether this rather radical frontloading of the Twitter feed, at a tech conference, was really the same kind of snark as the kind going on in Mark's class. The same technology that turned Boyd's talk into a "twitter circus" was, in Mark's class, "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." And it seems clear that this is because the power dynamics were radically different.

In the classroom, the professor has structural, institutional power; as it happens Mark also gets some more institutional authority from being a white male professor, and his students lose some by being young and structurally placed in the position of the less knowledgeable parties. And of course, in the classroom the teacher doesn't have the twitter feed right next to his head.

And there's one more element to it that's worth considering, which is that when we teach twenty-year-olds, the bar for engagement is set a little lower. It's our job as teachers to help cultivate those moments of snark, or misgiving, or anger, or euphoria into more thoughtful reflection, to translate the personal reaction into a more sustained critical stance. Snark is then, as Mark puts it, "a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all," and ideally--and I think this is one of the potential strengths of classroom Twitter--a platform from which to cultivate engaged critical thinking.

But the people at Web2.0 Expo are grown-ups. They're supposed to have made it past the "any engagement is better than no engagement," "make it a teachable moment" point. They should already be able to make that leap from instant reaction to thoughtful response on their own. That's not to say that snark can't be productive for professionals, but it might not be the appropriate or most useful mode for discussion at a professional conference.

And then there's the power dynamic. At a conference, you're among peers at best. But Web2.0 Expo is not just any conference; it's a conference situated within a field dominated by men. Boyd, as a young female scholar at this particular conference, was not in the position of power vis-à-vis her audience that Mark was in. And the twitter feed, now, was not an outlet of creative engagement (sarcastic or otherwise) but a steady stream of in-group chatter that structurally excluded the speaker, and therefore functioned primarily to reinforce the sense of being an in-group.

There's a break in Boyd's blog post that puts me in mind of (because I've been teaching it) the moment in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, when the narrator lights on a break in the text of Jane Eyre. Jane is walking along the roof at Thornfield, delivering an interior monologue about the injustice of keeping women from traveling and finding adventure. Abruptly, the novel switches back to the plot, as Jane suddenly starts telling us about Grace Poole's laugh (well, she thinks it's Grace Poole at this point).
That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. (68)
As Woolf reads it, the anger brought on by inequality erupts in the text; the text's roughness is a symptom of Brontë's real, felt, justified anger.

Something similar happens in Danah Boyd's post, marked with a self-consciously abrupt transition, "Speaking of which":
Speaking of which... what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

Who blames Danah Boyd? Many, no doubt. Up to this point she hasn't said a word about sexism or insults directed at her person, but it erupts here and never leaves for the rest of the post. Nor can it: it's the suppressed element that's been here all along. Misogyny structures the entire experience, not only in the specific comments directed at Boyd's body but in the in-group dynamic of the audience tittering to itself as Boyd tries to assume authority over her own talk. The shoring up of masculine (if not necessarily exclusively male) in-groups through the violent objectification of women's bodies has been documented elsewhere.*

Which brings me to Mark's reply to me, which raises even more questions:
Definitely. It's making me think about Twitter as a gendered space, something I hadn't considered before.

Partly, I want to say that the issue is not whether Twitter is a gendered space. It wasn't the gendering of Twitter that was the problem. It was the gendering of the conference, and of the room, which was set up not only so that the audience could see everything (Boyd, the Twitter feed) but also so that Boyd could see, literally, almost nothing:
A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn't actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn't look like I'm reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn't going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I've learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn't know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn't get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn't know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the "audience" was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough. (my emphasis)

Boyd's post opens by cataloguing the ways in which she was blinded, first by having her normal reading medium changed, then by having her substitute medium not be accommodated by the physical layout of the podium, then by having no visual knowledge of the Twitter feed, and finally with the glare of hot white lights, "complete white-out." The only person she can physically see is, in fact, photographing her, his gaze augmented by the apparatus. Spectacle indeed.

Which is to say that while Boyd's experience could not have occurred without the Twitter feed, the way in which she was reduced and objectified had little to do with the medium per se (i.e. microblogging) and much to do with its physical installment in an already-gendered social space.

And yet -- I'm still intrigued by the question of Twitter's gendering. With its cute round bird logo and the word "twitter," its marketing calls up long-held (but not true) stereotypes about women's talk, which is held to be as plentiful and meaningless as bird noises:

This is, of course, also the stereotype about Twitter.

There's no conclusion here, but it's something I'll likely think more about.


Addendum: I can't help noticing the discussion of age that keeps surfacing in this post. I compared Boyd's audience to boys by citing C. J. Pascoe's book on the performance of masculinity by high-school boys; the post also follows through on Mark Sample's original comparison between the Web2.0 Expo audience and the younger (undoubtedly coed) population of his classroom. And of course, Boyd herself brings up the maturity factor when she writes, "writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12." There's a lesson here about the idea of puerility (is snark by definition puerile?) and what kinds of boyhoods we cultivate and reward, but it will have to wait, I think, for another day.


*"[T]he sexual tall tales these boys told when they were together were not so much about indicating sexual desire as about proving their capacity to exercise control on the world around them, primarily through women's bodies" (Pascoe 104).

Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: U of California P, 2007. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Annot. Susan Gubar. 1929. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.


Gladys said...

really excellent post, natalia. and my god, what a horrific experience to have speaking at a conference!

Natalia said...

Thanks, Gladys. I agree; I was impressed that Boyd decided to turn that experience into something insightful.

Will Fitzgerald said...

Lots of food for thought; thanks.