AHA Annual Meeting 2.0: Tweeting the Meeting

Vanessa Varin, February 2013

More than 4,300 historians landed in New Orleans last month for the AHA annual meeting, no doubt looking for good food, great conversation, and—as one historian candidly remarked—at least a few Mardi Gras beads to take home. While nervous job seekers and anxious presenters mingled in the thoroughfares of the Marriott hotel, I was hidden away behind the curtains that formed the temporary AHA headquarters office, monitoring the AHA Today blog and Twitter feeds.

Despite my self-imposed exile, I never felt more connected to the action of the meeting because a group of historians provided live blogging and Tweeting throughout, offering up-to-the-minute updates on session discussions and happenings. These history Twitterazzi1 stalked sessions and meeting events, documenting everything from the sessions they attended to the nightlife in New Orleans to William Cronon's presidential address. They not only captured the soul of the meeting for those who couldn't attend, they created a platform for academics to meet, share ideas, interrogate the scholarship being presented, and further expand academic debate beyond the confines of physical meeting space. With over 5,000 tweets, and dozens of distinct blog accounts related to the meeting, it was clear that historians are inviting this shift with open arms and putting it to good use.

Here are just a few issues that dominated the AHA social media feeds during and after the meeting:

Digital History Front and Center

The role of digital media in history played a central theme throughout the meeting. In response to the opening night's plenary session, "The Public Practice of History in and for the Digital Age," historians fell into a conversation about the relationship between historical writing and blogging. When Claire Potter mentioned during the discussion that blogging can bring history closer to the field of journalism, Jeffrey Pasley tweeted, "This is a good thing?" while Amy Bass responded on Twitter, "no. Not a good thing." To be fair to Potter, this is an example of one the downsides of live tweeting: the loss of context as panelists' words are repurposed for a 140 character format (more on that below). The rest of the Twitter conversation has been collected on Storify.

THATCampAHA also had set of avid tweeters who diligently updated as the first day progressed, eager to share their digital spoils. This included Dan Cohen of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, who tweeted, "We played around with overlaying historical maps in Google Earth at #thatcamp #aha13. New Orleans in 1759 and today," while @Urbanhumanist posted session notes from some of the panels at THATCamp, including, "Teaching a Hoax."

Storytelling: William Cronon Looks at the Current State of Historical Narrative

Outgoing AHA President William Cronon's presidential address instantly trended on Twitter, opening debate over current discussions over historical writing, methodology, and the state of the long narrative. John Fea tweeted, "@JohnFea1: Cronon is on fire. Closest thing I have seen to a historical sermon. Reflecting his voice with authority. #aha2013," while Lincoln Mullen tweeted, "Really wonderful speech by Cronon. Now to revise a dissertation chapter in response to it. #AHA2013."

Advantages and Potential Problems with Live Tweeting

Live tweeting was ubiquitous during the meeting. Twitterstorians John Fea, Dan Cohen, Adam Arenson, and Anne Whisnant were some of the regulars who offered minute-by-minute updates on sessions, even creating distinct hashtags for particular panels and events. According to Whisnant, who wrote on Twitter, "I tweeted like crazy thru #aha2013 and it really enhanced my exp. Plus, felt I was helping." Sharon Howard did an incredible job of archiving tweets during the meeting (over 5,100 at press), and you can read through many of the session reports.

But there are potential issues with live tweeting that have yet to be fully explored and debated in our discipline. What are the boundaries and ethics of live tweeting at conferences? In several conversations I had with bloggers and tweeters during the meeting, these questions were of central concern. While live tweeting certainly offers an instantaneous and global platform for a scholar's work, its format can often skew an author's point, or even mischaracterize the argument altogether. Even the most careful and accurate tweeter is sending out messages in a format that invites decontextualization through retweeting and modified tweeting. Other issues include author consent, privacy, and intellectual property. Several concerned voices are asking for a discussion about guidelines, protocol, and etiquette for people who wish to live tweet during a panel. Especially in an age where so many have access to a smartphone and Twitter, it is becoming apparent that this conversation needs to happen sooner rather than later. If you have thoughts on this issue, please tweet us at @AHAhistorians.

Historians Explore New Orleans

Arguably the best tweets related not to the annual meeting, but the city of New Orleans itself. The conference was situated in the heart of the French Quarter, a stone's throw from some of the city's best restaurants and bars. @TenuredRadical playfully tweeted, "Do these people know there are historians infiltrating the whole French Quarter????" while others treated themselves to the famous Sazerac bar in the Roosevelt Hotel for one of our official AHA 2013 cocktail winners, the "Revise and Resubmit."

Overall, it seemed that our choice of setting was met with great excitement and interest. According to Deputy Director Robert Townsend, who tweeted the total number of registrants, "In case you were wondering, we had 4,300 register for #AHA2013. Terrific for one of the smaller cities in rotation."

Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.

Notes

1. Steve Kolowich used the term "Twitterazzi" in an article for Inside Higher Ed regarding tweeting in academic conferences, titled "The Academic Twitterazzi."