Why tweet while someone else is talking?

Since joining twitter, my “presence” has been sparse and mostly carefully curated from the comfort of my own home. From there I can scan the internet for things that I am sure are worth sharing, mull over a clever 140 character-description, and then type it out on my laptop to avoid potential embarrassing autocorrect mistakes on my phone. As far as I can tell this is the opposite of how twitter is supposed to be used. So when I offered to livetweet from a conference last week for JustPublics@365 I was kind of throwing myself into the deep end.

What I discovered surprised me. Audience members used twitter as a space for props, critique, and documentation. Watching the thoughts of other audience members unfold on my phone screen deepened my own listening experience. It was far from being the distraction I thought it might be. (Disclaimer: I know people have been doing this livetweeting thing for a while now! I am late to the game – let this be a little “aha!” moment from one open-minded-but-not-very-tech-savy person to another).

The event was called “a Symposium on Race, Law and Justice: Strategies for Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” It was organized by the Office of the District Attorney (Kings County) in collaboration with Medger Evers College (CUNY). The panelists and audience members were a fantastic array of social workers, academics, politicians, school administrators, religious leaders, and activists. My own research is about the criminalization and management of racialized youth in Canada and I was excited for this opportunity to learn about how these issues play out in New York. I’m familiar with the broad strokes of debates around the school-to-prison-pipeline but I was hoping to figure out what the particular dynamics/disagreements/nuances are in discussions among New Yorkers who broadly agree that the “school-to-prison-pipeline” is a problem. Twitter was a space where some of these dynamics were made visible. Here are a few examples that surfaced under the hashtag #RLJ13 (RaceLawJustice2013):

(@marlon_79) “Being patient, but I am disturbed when ppl are surprised when they hear black kids get suspended 2 much” #RLJ13

(@ruby_beth) “Do NOT ignore the courts as resources.” – Judith Kaye \\ this is hard to do when courts are sources of anxiety & not support for many #RLJ13

(@marlon_79) Not 2 many men in attendance at #RLJ13 this is an issue on most forums. Where r the men? Y aren’t convos marketed for us? Y we don’t come?

These tweets (and others) were counter-conversations; questions; people making visible (and then attempting to fill) gaps in the official program. Without twitter I think these thoughts would have probably remained as private notes scrawled on people’s free conference notepads.

There weren’t that many people tweeting under the #RLJ13 hashtag (which was developed by a few of us in the absence of an official suggestion). But it was easy to see how, at a larger event (or one which explicitly promoted the use of twitter), many different sub-conversations could emerge. An event organized around sitting and listening to presentations about the school-to-prison pipeline could become, in the twitterverse, a collaborative project of thinking through the issues being raised in real-time.

Just like any other digital technology, twitter doesn’t change anything about conferences, or activism, or academia independent of us deciding to use it in particular ways. But it does provide a space for conversations to be layered and laid-out in ways that I think are unique. The way we were using twitter at #RLJ13 made the summit feel like a more interactive and more participatory space than the official set-up actually allowed for. There are barriers to tweeting that make it less than totally democratic – the most obvious being that you need a material electronic device that costs a lot of money in order to participate (and I would love to hear more about what others think about the democratic potential of twitter). But I definitely heard voices I wouldn’t have otherwise heard and made connections with other audience members that I wouldn’t have otherwise made.

  • Please join me as I tweet for JustPulbics@365 from this event next week. Beth Richie will be talking about her new book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation at King Juan Carlos Center in New York, and I will probably literally tweet everything she says because she is brilliant.
  • You can also follow the upcoming Theorizing the Web (#Ttw13) conference on twitter. There will be an official hashtag moderator livetweeting from each session and compiling questions from the twitterverse.

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