In his well-known work on media events, Elihu Katz describes occasions including state funerals, moon landings, Olympic games, and the Eurovision song contest, as “high holidays” of media, with their ritual function, their experience by a mass television audience all watching at once. A major academic conference can be quite similar if you put aside the mass media part. It’s an annual gathering of the tribe to reiterate shared ideas and reproduce customs. We prepare extensively, dress up and don our nametag lanyards, engage in ceremonial rites (conventionalized panel introductions, congratulations on recent accomplishments, awards ceremonies, citations of canonical literature), share food and drink, tell our stories (often the same stories we have told before), and reaffirm our adherence to the group’s values. Although academic gatherings in the humanities tend to be secular, there is a quality of priestly authority in the presiding panel chair or the audience thronging to hear an accomplished “big name,” and participants read from their work, quoting and citing authorities like scripture, offering exegetic knowledge about texts familiar to the group.
A conference like SCMS reminds me in some ways of the high holidays of my childhood, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which I experienced as crowded shul (synagogue) services of long duration when everyday life stopped and the days had a higher purpose and their own rhythm and temporality. While SCMS is missing the participatory chanting and call-and-response liturgical song, we do have what feels like the special gathering of a whole community and a cyclical sense of another year’s passage. It’s a break from our ordinary surroundings and duties, and we feel (or wish to feel) that we are among fellow adherents. We often leave feeling at once energized by new ideas and exhausted by the intensity of the experience.
Just as Katz’s media events were first real-world events, even if they become substantially shaped through mediation, the academic conference existed before we began to treat it as a media event, or should I say, a social media event. It’s obviously not a mass media event like the Olympics. To the extent that the mass media give any attention at all to our conferences, it’s as dismissive mockery. But through Twitter and other social media we do represent the conference as it is unfolding and attend to it as a live audience. The conference is also shaping itself to suit this representation.
One reason why old people seem to never stop telling young people about life before the internet is that things really were quite a bit different! At the first conferences I attended there were VHS decks with TV sets on metal carts, and occasionally someone projected photographic slides. It was not uncommon for a paper to be read to the audience without any pauses for illustration and without visual aids. Word of an impressive (or terrible) paper might trickle out and spread by word of mouth. Perhaps a few months after the event a conference report would be published in a journal.
Now the temporality of the conference includes mediated liveness through the twitterstream, along with some video livestreams. As I write this from the airport departure lounge on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m., I am also following a number of panels via Twitter as the conference still rolls on. Someone is analyzing Jon Jost’s films, while in another room someone is discussing the cable network Bravo. There’s a paper on computers in education, and another on Minecraft, all simultaneously in my feed this minute. Someone just tweeted a photo of a presenter’s PowerPoint slide. It has a quote from Jonathan Sterne’s book MP3 alongside a cat, naturally, holding a tin can to his ear as if to listen. And meanwhile 20 other panels are underway, from which no one seems to be tweeting.
At some panels I attended last weekend I tweeted from my phone, trying to capture key insights and hot phrases. Typing by thumb is slow for me, and I frequently stop to correct errors. I see only the tweet I am composing on the screen while I’m typing. But using your phone all day drains the battery, so for a couple of panels I switched to using a laptop with a big display and a full keyboard. In the Chrome Tweetdeck app, you can track multiple constantly refreshing columns at once. I kept open the usual “home” column of my regular timeline of tweets from the accounts I follow, as well as a #SCMS15 column of all tweets posted with that hashtag next to it on the right. I also kept open columns of my mentions and notifications, so that I could see if others were engaging with my tweets and could participate in backchannel conversations. During one paper I heard about US imports on UK TV, this conversation included at least one person joining in from the UK.
During the panels I was tweeting from, the #SCMS15 column was a perpetually cascading torrent of updates from multiple other panels. It can feel like perpetual information overload. I was usually accompanied by only one or two others tweeting from my panels, but some concurrent sessions were being tweeted by several participants, and some people tweet practically every point a speaker makes. Every time I picked up my eyes to look at the scholar giving the paper in my panel, the movement on the screen of fresh tweets arriving brought my eyes back down to Tweetdeck. In the backchannel, I often noticed people who were not present in the room, or not even in Montreal, participating in the conference by replying or even just by retweeting or favoriting tweets.
I know from my own account’s Twitter analytics that someone with more than 1,000 followers may expect a tweet to be seen by 100-200 others, which is a bigger audience than at any panel I attended at SCMS. If retweeted a few times, that audience can increase to 1,000 or more. (I’m just a humble media scholar; celebrities and commercial media institutions like CNN of course command much greater attention.)
Clearly the social media coverage is bringing awareness and participation to SCMS and to our work that cannot be compared with the old-fashioned in-person attendance. I think we should see this as open-access publishing. It also provides for distant participation by Society members and scholars in cinema and media studies who for various reasons do not attend the conference. Twitter isn’t always a great substitute for being there, and the live-tweeting sometimes feels fragmentary and confusing. Sometimes tweets seems to amplify and even glorify the ideas expressed in a presentation, and sometimes they seem to simplify or trivialize them. But when done well, live-tweeting can bridge distances and expand the conference’s reach in very productive and satisfying ways. It’s not the conference itself, but a remediation of it, projecting SCMS to broader communities.* One tweet I saw in my feeds and retweeted during the conference said, “I’ve never heard of #SCMS15, but the tweets I’m seeing from it pop up are fascinating.”
The ritual functions of the social media event extend well beyond the content of the panels. For days and weeks and even months before the conference, some of my Twitter friends were premediating** #SCMS15 by sharing details of submissions, acceptances and rejections, travel plans, outfit plans, karaoke plans, poutine plans, etc. I saw tweets of people’s passports ready for travel. At the conference, on the main concourse level, a red carpet was set up with a backdrop suitable for photography, a poster nearby encouraging sharing photos online. I heard both positive and negative reactions to this and I wondered if anyone was using it as intended, but eventually the pics of conference participants posing as if to appear in the pages of US Weekly appeared in some friends’ Faceboook feeds.
Sometimes the tweeting felt overwhelming, and I think I prefer the phone over the laptop despite my clumsy thumbs. The heightened interactivity provides a buzz, but I can’t imagine sustaining it for a whole day or two or five. I also don’t like the distorted impression you get from keeping your eyes on the hashtag twitterstream as a conference news ticker. Each session of the conference has 24 concurrent panels. At any given time, most of the papers being presented were not being covered at all. The TV studies and fan studies contingents, who already have robust Twitter networks firing every day of the year, tweeted the hell out of panels on topics of interest to them. Some film historians I spoke with were intrigued and impressed by a video screen in the main conference concourse, near the red carpet, displaying recent tweets including the #SCMS15 hashtag. But they found the content a bit puzzling, not entirely certain what exactly the tweets were.
This may be a problem of Twitter, which is notoriously hard for many non-users to “get.” I told one accomplished scholar who doesn’t use Twitter about the many admiring tweets from his panel, one of which I sent to him via email. I thought he’d be excited to have made such a strong impression. Although grateful for the positive response to his paper, he is ambivalent about actually reading any more tweets broadcasting his work. He told me, “I wouldn’t even know how to get on Twitter.” So whether because of how communities of interest have formed online, or how unevenly Twitter has been adopted, SCMS as social media event is functioning to include and exclude.
While this may be just one person’s subjective impression, there seemed to be much less tweeting about film than other topics. (I hope that analysis of the conference Twitter data will help us understand more.) I often think the name “cinema and media studies” is illogical in its implication that cinema isn’t media, or that media studies and film studies are necessarily separate — if related — fields. But in this instance, I think it’s fair to say that the social media event is really a media event more than a cinema event. One thing distinguishing this social media event from a mass media event is how fragmentary and narrow its community can be. It has the mass media event’s qualities of liveness and drama and communal ritual. The dimension of common experience is much more fractured and tribal, though. At least for now, it doesn’t appear to bring us together as one scholarly Society. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing worth thinking about.
Michael Z. Newman is on Twitter.