Pointless Babble or Enabled Backchannel: Conference Use of Twitter by Digital Humanists

  1. 1. Claire Ross

    Department of Information Studies - University College London

  2. 2. Melissa Terras

    Department of Information Studies - University College London

  3. 3. Claire Warwick

    Department of Information Studies - University College London

  4. 4. Anne Welsh

    Department of Information Studies - University College London

Work text
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Microblogging, a variant of a blogging which
allows users to quickly post short updates
to websites such as twitter.com, has recently
emerged as a dominant form of information
interchange and interaction for academic
communities. To date, few studies have
been undertaken to make explicit how such
technologies are used by and can benefit
scholars. This paper considers the use of
Twitter as a digital backchannel by the Digital
Humanities community, taking as its focus
postings to Twitter during three different
international 2009 conferences. This paper
poses the following question: does the use of
a Twitter enabled backchannel enhance the
conference experience, collaboration and the co-
construction of knowledge, or is it a disruptive,
disparaging and a inconsequential tool full of
‘pointless babble’?
Microblogging, with special emphasis on
the most well known
microblogging service, is increasingly used
as a means of extending commentary
and discussion during academic conferences.
This digital “backchannel” communication
(non-verbal, real-time, communication which
does not interrupt a presenter or event,
Ynge 1970) is becoming more prevalent at
academic conferences, in educational use, and
in organizational settings. Frameworks for
understanding the role and use of digital
backchannel communication, such as that
provided by Twitter, in enabling a participatory
conference culture are therefore required.
Formal conference presentations still mainly
occur in a traditional setting; a divided
space with a ‘front’ area for the speaker
and a larger ‘back’ area for the audience.
Implying a single focus of attention. There is a
growing body of literature describing problems
with a traditional conference setting; lack of
feedback, nervousness about asking questions
and a single speaker paradigm (Anderson et
al 2003, Reinhardt et al 2009). The use
of a digital backchannel such as Twitter,
positioned in contrast with the formal or
official conference programme, can address
this, providing an irregular, or unofficial means
of communication (McCarthy & Boyd, 2005).
Backchannel benefits include being able to ask
questions, or provide resources and references,
changing the dynamics of the room from
a one to many transmission to a many to
many interaction, without disrupting the main
channel communication. Negatives include a
cause of distraction, disrespectful content and
creating cliques amongst participants (Jacobs
& Mcfarlane 2005, McCarthy and Boyd 2005).
Nevertheless research consistently shows the
digital backchannel as a valuable way for
active participation (Kelly 2009) and that it is
highly appropriate for use in learning based
environments (Reinhardt et al. 2009). Recently
microblogging has been adopted by conferences
such as DH2009 to act as a backchannel as
it allows for the ‘spontaneous co-construction
of digital artefacts’ (Costa et al 2008). Such
communication usually involves note taking,
sharing resources and individuals real time
reactions to events.
This paper presents a study that analyses
the use of Twitter as a backchannel for
academic conferences, focusing on the Digital
Humanities community in three different
physical conference settings held from June to
September 2009. During three key conferences
in the academic field (Digital Humanities 2009,

That Camp 2009 and Digital Resources in the
Arts and Humanities 2009), unofficial Twitter
backchannels were established using conference
specific hashtags (#dh09, #thatcamp and
#drha09, #drha20091
) to enable visible
commentary and discussion. The resulting
corpus of individual “tweets” provides a rich
dataset, allowing analysis of the use of Twitter in
an academic setting, and specifically presenting
how the Digital Humanities community has
embraced this microblogging tool.
1. Method
Data from the three conferences was collected
by archiving tweets which used the four distinct
conference hashtags. (These hashtags were used
prior to and after the conferences, and have
been reused by other conferences, therefore the
corpus was limited to tweets posted during the
span of each conference). This provided a data
set of 4574 tweets from 326 distinct Twitter
users, resulting in a corpus of 77308 tokens,
which were analysed using various quantitative
and qualitative methods which allowed us to
understand and categorize the resulting corpus
Quantitative measures were used such as
identifying prominent tweeters, analysing the
frequency of conversations between users
and the frequency of reposting messages
(“retweeting”), and the differing use of Twitter
at the three separate events. Text analysis tools
were also used to interrogate the corpus.
Tweets were then categorized qualitatively using
open coded content analysis where each post
was read and categorized, determining the
apparent intention of each twitter post. It
was necessary to develop our own categories:
although Java et al (2007) present a brief
taxonomy of Twitter user intentions (daily
chatter, conversations, sharing information and
reporting news) they are based on general
Twitter use and were too imprecise for our
needs. Ebner (2008) discovered four major
categories in his study of the use of Twitter
during the keynote presentation at the Ed-
Media 2008 conference, but this is a small study
limited to 54 posts made by ten distinct users,
whereas the DH conferences involved a much
larger user population. Through our analysis,
Tweets were divided into seven categories:
comments on presentations; sharing resources;
discussions and conversations; jotting down
notes; establishing an online presence; and
asking organizational questions. Tweets which
were highly ambiguous were placed in an
Unknown category.
2. Findings
Conference hashtagged Twitter activity does
not constitute a single distributed conversation
but, rather multiple monologues and a few
intermittent, loosely joined dialogues between
users. The majority of the activity was original
tweeting (93%): only 6.7% were re-tweets (RT)
of others’ ideas or comments. The real time
interchange and speed of review of shared ideas
appears to create a context of users offering
ideas and summaries and not spreading the
ideas of others verbatim. 45% of the tweets
during the conference proceedings included
direct references to others’ Twitter IDs, using
the ‘@’ sign, as the source of a quote,
object of a reply or debate. This implies a
form of collaborative writing activity, driving
a conference community of practice (Wenger
1998) who are involved in shared meaning
making and the co-construction of knowledge
(McNely 2009). However, the content of
the tweets indicate that the discussion was
between a few Twitter users rather than mass
collaboration and was not necessarily focused on
conference content.
Jacob and Mcfarlane (2005) discuss
polarization in digital backchannels,
highlighting a conflict between an inclusive
and participatory conference culture and a
fragmentation of conference participants into
cliques only intermittently engaged with the
main presentations. This, in some instances
seems to be the case during the Digital
Humanities conferences, suggesting that newer
members of the discipline or newer uses to
Twitter may be excluded from the discussion.
This also raises the question about official and
unofficial backchannels. When communication
is digitally mediated, backchannels may not
be obvious. That is, even if participants know
who else is participating in an interaction,
this doesn’t guarantee (as it does in the
front channel) that it is an accessible
backchannel. Therefore by its nature an
unofficial backchannel does not enable active

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None