"SPEP is not a mini-APA."
--Anthony Steinbock, 25 October 2013
That quote is from a plenary address delivered this past weekend by Tony Steinbock, Executive Co-Director of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, entitled "SPEP and the Continental Divide." SPEP is the second-largest organization for professional philosophers-- the largest is the American Philosophical Association (APA)-- and for reasons too many and varied to recount here, SPEP has always been a little hung-up on distinguishing itself as something more than a "mini-APA." As one of about a dozen SPEPers who were live-tweeting not only Steinbock's address, but the entirety of this year's annual SPEP conference, I'm happy to report that, at least with regard to the integration of new technologies and social media into this year's proceedings, truer words were never spoken than Steinbock's above.
For the uninitiated, let me explain just how live-tweeting a conference works, before going on to say why I think this was (to borrow @AdrielTrott's formulation) such a "value-added" development for SPEP.
First, the basics: Twitter is an online social networking site (some call it a "microblogging" site, and I hope you already know what a blog is since you're reading one now) that allows users to post "tweets"(short text messages, images, or weblinks) that can be read by anyone who "follows" the author/tweeter's "feed." Like any other medium for public communication, the content of Twitter's tweets range from the substantive, informative, even erudite, to the mundane, profane and pedestrian. Unlike most other public media, though, Twitter has a unique restriction governing its content: all tweets must be composed in 140 characters or less (that includes spaces and punctuation). As every Twitter user knows, tweeting demands an incredible-- at times, seemingly impossible-- economy of words. And as everyone who has ever met a philosopher knows, economy of words is not our strong suit. So, tweeting by philosophers or about philosophy is a frustrating and challenging enterprise, but also a uniquely rewarding and sometimes even genius one.
"Live-tweeting" is exactly what is sounds like, that is, posting tweets about an event in real-time synchronicity with that event. So, if you were live-tweeting a football game, for instance, you might tweet the score every quarter. However, live-tweeting a conference is different because, in its best form anyway, it is not simply reportage ("he said this and then she said that" or "this is the score") but more akin to having a conversation about the sessions/lectures/receptions/dinners/etc that you are attending as you are attending them. Because the social norms governing academic lectures do not (thankfully!) permit audience members to chat amongst themselves while the speaker speaks, this sort of real-time response and interaction is usually verboten. But because anyone can tweet from his or her smartphone, iPad or most any other mobile device while still sitting quietly as a well-behaved audience member ought, Twitter opens up a space for that otherwise missing real-time response and interaction to take place without interfering with the event. Think of it like this: when you sit with your friends and watch a Presidential debate or address on television, you're all listening and paying attention, but it's also likely that you spend some of that time commenting to one another about the substance of what you're hearing ("I don't think he's considering x" or "how does he think that y follows from x?" or "that's an incredibly nuanced and important insight!"), which you wouldn't be able to do aloud, of course, if you were sitting right there in the room with the speaker. That conversation, the one you would be having with your friends if you were watching an address on television and weren't restricted by the norms of audience behavior, is what we SPEP live-tweeters had with one another during the conference this past weekend.
We SPEP tweeters were all able to keep up with each other (and those who were not in attendance at the conference were able to keep up with us) via hashtags, which are the markers that Twitter users employ to "tag" the content/topic/issue of their tweets. Chris Long from Penn State (@cplong on Twitter) collated all of the tweets with the hashtag #spep13 using Storify, and I encourage you to take a look at it here if you're not familiar with Twitter. Thanks to Chris' good work, in addition to whatever benefit the Tweeters may have experienced, there is now also the benefit of having an archive of audience reactions and responses beyond what was given voice in the (always-limited) Q & A sessions.
Above and beyond the added value of real-time conversations mentioned above, the #spep13 Twitter feed also allowed me to keep up with what was happening in sessions that I was unable to attend. As SPEP has grown larger and as it has increased the number of concurrent sessions it runs, it has gotten harder and harder for attendees to see all of the papers that they really want to see. This year in particular, there were at least three panels in every time slot that I wanted to attend... but, alas, space and time can be so limiting to a body. At least once, I stepped out of a session I was in to drop in on another session down the hall as a consequence of what I was reading from my fellow SPEP-Tweeters. And, in the several instances in which I found myself in a session with other live-Tweeters present, I felt like I had what can only be described as a "real sense" of the room, both as the presentations were delivered and during the Q&A. Unbeknownst to many in that same room, I'm sure, there was a whole lot being said that wasn't being voiced, but which added no less value to the conversation.
My experience live-tweeting SPEP this year has made me a convert to the practice, for sure, and I genuinely hope that the Executive Committee of SPEP takes notice of how much value it added to our proceedings even with the small number, relatively speaking, of SPEP-Tweeters. Because those of us who were tweeting this year are (I hope) the vanguard, there were a few awkward moments. (I'm not sure it was always clear to the ancien regime that we were, in fact, attentive and working and we weren't just playing on our tech devices. And it was a little weird to have people come up to me between sessions or at the receptions and quote my own tweets back to me.) Still, as far as I could tell, the number of SPEP-Tweeters at least doubled just between the first and last day of the conference, which goes to show that this idea may have legs.
Or wings. Whatevs.
Thanks to my fellow SPEP-Tweeters for making this work: Adriel Trott, Ammon Allred, Christopher Mayes, Andrew Dilts, Linda Alcoff, Robin James, Jane Bunker, Rick Elmore, Christopher Long, Bob Vallier, Falguni Sheth, Dylan Trigg, Tony Sanfillippo, and Dave Mesing. Next year in NOLA!