MLA 08 Panel Report I – Microblogging: Producing Discourse in 140 Characters or Less


Well, this is the probably the least prompt series of posts you’ll read on this year’s MLA in San Francisco. But, working on the basis that even in the fast-paced Web 2.0 world, late is still better than never, here is the first in a series of some panel highlights for me from this year’s convention.

Sunday, 28 December
174. Microblogging: Producing Discourse in 140 Characters or Less
8:30–9:45 a.m., Golden Gate 6, Hilton
A special session
Presiding: Brian L. Croxall, Emory Univ.
1. “Textual Aggregators: Tweets, News Feeds, and Search,” John Jones, Univ. of Texas, Austin
2. “TinySyntax: Twitter as Networked Space,” Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York
3. “Political Microdiscourse: Deciding the Presidency in 140 Characters or Less,” David Parry, Univ. of Texas, Dallas
For abstracts, references, and additional information, visit

This was a very interesting panel and, in keeping with the focus on working within a limited 140 characters, the panel was kept tightly to time.

John Jones noted that, although Twitter is sometimes criticised in terms of the (occasionally banal) information transmitted, we need to think in terms of text that can be aggregated. Wikipedia is an example of the many aggregated.

He cited an example of Twitter aggregation which used political hashtags in various tweets to create a live geopolitical map during the 2008 Presidential Election (akin to Written on the fly, the map enabled the spectator to see live commentary unfold for example on the Presidential debates.

He then also brought this topic back to the question of literature analysis and how we might deal with such ambient aggregative texts.

Matt Gold, describing Twitter as a networked texting system, tackled some reasons for which the service has received criticism:

1) Texting and Twittering are destroying the English language – an argument that David Crystal has challenged in his Txting: the gr8 deb8 [look out for David Crystal as one of the keynote speakers at our upcoming Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference taking place Oct 19-30, 2009!].

2) Twitter’s 140 character limit only allows simple, uncomplicated communication – he gave some examples of the multilayered ways that Tweets have been used, one of which involved the use of a TinyURL and that old favourite, the Rickroll.

3) Twitter makes you feel weary and over-connected – he countered that participation is NOT an obligation and that many people just dip in and out when they time and inclination.

He quoted Barbara Ganley’s widely-used summary: “blog to reflect, tweet to connect” [Link care of Dan Cohen].

As David Crystal’s book argued, these new technologies represent the remediation of print, not its destruction, as the texts work with the conventions.

But what is new? – a networked collectivity, a shared understanding, or an ‘ambient intimacy’ as Clive Thompson has outlined where snippets of information form a detailed and current portrait over time.

Matt also mentioned a performance of a chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses on Twitter which took place on Bloomsday in 2007 and where roles were assigned to different people. See here for the organiser Ian Bogosi and here.

He then outlined three concerns with Twitter:

1) What effect are services like Twitter having on our time? Too many instants frozen in time?
2) What happens to the user data we’re all entering into these databases?
3) How will the companies monetize this information? Manufacture has essentially been outsourced to the user?

David Parry looked at Twitter as political discourse. He began by outlining the short history of political blogging which came to the fore in 2004 during the Iraq War, turned a Senate race in 2006 over the use of the word ‘macaca’ by Senator George Allen and, by 2008, had fully arrived as a location for political discourse.

In 2007 Nicholas Carr had simply dismissed Twitter as “the telegraph of Narcissus”, but in 2008 Twitter was used extensively for politics and breaking news. Barack Obama currently has over 500,000 followers, while many top journalists and politicians such as Al Gore have entered the fray.

But why in 2008? David Parry argued that Twitter was able to appeal to a ‘collective consciousness’ of people interested in politics, resulting in a hyperconnected polis, as never before. Geopolitical organisations are no longer so important as people can connect to like-minded individuals in far-flung places, not just in their own neighbourhood or town.

David also raised some open questions and concerns –

Firstly, what happens when politicians tweet live as politics unfolds? One tweeting politician, John Culberson, fought last year to be able to tweet from the US Senate floor.

Secondly, how long until we see a political Twitter smart mob – in a negative, even dangerous sense? The technology makes it so quick to mobilise.

The ensuing Q & A also threw up some interesting comments:

One audience member considered whether the deep texture of Twitter is actually like the deep texture of the novel which similarly provides insights into the personal lives of its characters. Another noted that the dissonant structures of Twitter will appear at some point in fiction, perhaps indicating even a return to serial fiction.

Another pointed out that the politics + media combination of the soundbite means Twitter is perfect for that purpose.

Picking up on David Parry’s suggested move away from regionalism, another noted that Twitter has a collectivity, not a collection of individuals. Geographically-organised movements have less power, while time-organised movements can have more power.

Brian Croxall noted however that he has connected with more people who live in his area. Twitter is often used for social events at a local level, and can be a great extrovert tool for introverts.

Another noted that the great advantage of Twitter is that any basic phone can receive updates via text, it does not require a high-end phone.

Overall, this was a fascinating discussion and certainly inspired us at Compass to look more closely at how we might have a presence on both Twitter and Facebook this year.

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Or why not tell us on Facebook if you’re attending the October Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference

Kivmars Bowling
Senior Managing Editor, Literature Compass.

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