On #2013ASA and the Value of Free Wifi at National Conferences

There was a widespread debate last year about the value and ethics of Tweeting at academic conferences. This debate was called Twittergate, and rather than rehash everything here I will point you to Ernesto Priego’s HASTAC post on the matter, which collected some of the major perspectives (including Adeline Koh’s storification of the original conversation). Suffice it to say I am very much in favor of tweeting (with permission, and with ethical citation practices) conferences that I attend.

I tend to share the opinion of Priego, Alexis Lothian, and others that conference tweeting is something of a public service, a way for folks outside of the academy or for those who couldn’t make it to a particular meeting for a given reason to keep connected and up-to-date. It doesn’t replace reading a full paper or watching a livestream, but it does give a basic idea of topics of conversation and gives people the opportunity to ask questions or make connections from afar. This was no more apparent for me than during the ASA town hall meetings on the proposed resolution to support the academic boycott of Israel. The resolution, which was highly controversial, attracted attention from all over the world.

My Twitter stream has never felt so visible as it did during those sessions, with new followers, RTs, favorites, and trolls pouring in by the minute. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way:

The BDS resolution really brought out the public reach of a conference Twitter stream. The amount of attention I received, even as an avid conference tweeter, felt disproportional until I realized that for a major national conference, #ASA2013 was relatively underpopulated. I wasn’t the only one covering BDS, but it was possible that I was one of the fastest because the American Studies Association still does not provide wifi for its attendees and I have magic video game thumbs that can text almost as fast as I type. Thank goodness for Swype keyboards.

Some folks had AT&T accounts that gave them access to the Hilton’s wifi. Others had a one-day login distributed at the Friday morning DH panel. A few, I’m sure, paid the exorbitant fees for access. For the most part, however, those of us tweeting were doing so from cell phones. My hands were cramping and falling asleep by the end of any one session.

While the critique that the (somewhat) one-sided Twitter stream indicates a conspiracy on the part of the ASA or BDS advocates to silence oppositional voices is disingenuous at best, I do like the way that Jonathan Marks’ satirical post on the Chronicle of Higher Education points to the possibility that a hashtag can create a kind of “public imaginary” of a conference that resonates beyond the halls of the meeting space. The MLA has dealt with this extensively before, with the #MLA11 debates about DH cool kids tables and whatnot. Twitter, for better or for worse, is one place that folks look to determine the character of a particular conference.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, except when this coincides with the tendency of conference tweeters to overlap with digital humanists, particularly in the face of obstacles such as no free wifi. At ASA last year, I made it a point to attend sessions I didn’t think would be tweeted because of their more oblique relations to technology and digital humanities. The situation in Puerto Rico was even more dire, with no wifi and unclear international/national/colonial data plan practices. At one point, many of us were piggybacking off of Marta Rivera Monclova‘s mobile hotspot when we were in the same room as she was.

(Famous last words. That password only lasted for one day.)

The Modern Language Association offers free wifi for conference attendees and has tables available in the back of session rooms for those using laptops. In the words of Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Yet it was the WiFi that created the most profound (and invisible) change: a channel for constant discussion of what was going on at #mla11 (the Twitter hashtag for the conference), a forum for debate, and a connection for those following #mla11 offsite. I managed to tweet from most of the sessions I attended (and even tweeted during portions of the Delegate Assembly as well as in sessions in which I participated!). Twitter made the MLA convention experience unbelievably rich for those who followed the stream (which we ran front and center on the MLA home page).

Conference backchannels foster community both within and beyond an organization, and free wifi enables greater access for those who lack the digital dexterity, proper equipment, or desire to engage conference social media from a cell phone. We know it costs money. Shane Landrum wrote a blog post about the expense and hassle of ensuring free wifi for conference attendees at the 2009 ASA conference, along with suggestions for bringing institutional influence to bear on hotel fees. In 2009, members were already clamoring for ASA to catch up with the times. We’re still in the same spot 4 years later.

Yet with the widespread emphasis on social justice and politics at ASA conference panels compared to an organization like MLA, it seems even more important for the conference imaginary to spread beyond the confines of the convention center. This year, the BDS debates proved just how far a Twitter stream can reach. What better way to invest institutional funds than by ensuring access to ideas and conversations to those who can’t afford it, those who couldn’t come, or those who might be able to contribute from afar?

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