There is such a thing as too much Twitter.
The University of Chicago and Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ recently hosted a talk called “More than a Century of Style” in honor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s historic influence on the written word. A detailed description of the event and its panelists can be found here.
I was interested in the talk, but I didn’t feel like actually going to the U of C campus. Lucky for me, that didn’t matter. I watched and listened to the live stream of the talk on the U of C Facebook page, and I used Twitter to type my comments and questions in real time to @chicagomanual.
After my first question failed to yield acknowledgment from the moderator on my computer screen, I decided to dig deep for the best question I could think of. Recalling an essay titled “Authority and American Usage” that I read in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, I tweeted:
To my surprise, it didn’t take long before I heard my Twitter handle and tweet read aloud. I felt my heart quicken and blood rush to my face.
Several questions popped into my head: Why am I participating more in this discussion than the folks who actually made the cold trip to the university? How did technology just prompt several biological responses? Am I going to get more Twitter followers?
As I lay on my couch in my sweatpants, I listened to Anita Samen, managing editor of the University of Chicago Press Books Division, thoughtfully answer my question. The advantages of using social media for events like these were clear: access and participation.
However, the talk also demonstrated how social media can be burdensome when misused. In this case, it suffered from too much Twitter.
First of all, why would a discussion completely bar those in attendance from asking questions? I think a mixture of live and digital questions would have been more rewarding for the physically present audience. Organizers should think of these live panel discussions as an entree with several complementing dishes. Twitter and Facebook should be the salt and pepper.
The non-stop Twitter feed chopped up the discussion among the featured panelists and even distracted panelist Jason Riggle enough that he lost track of what they were talking about. Events like this should be a flowing conversation and even at times an informal debate. Constant twitteruptions are momentum killers.
It also gives voice to people who don’t always deserve one. Here we had some of the foremost experts and authorities in grammar, style, and linguistics, and they were consistently being interrupted by tweets from the peanut gallery. The questions were at times trivial (numerous questions about the Oxford comma), ridiculous (Would you make Dave Eggers conform to Chicago Style?), and outside the discussion’s scope (What about email?).
As one of the lazy armchair grammarians who stayed in to stream the talk and live-tweet questions, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I appreciate the University of Chicago for consistently sponsoring events like these. The university’s commitment to not only engaging everyone it possibly can, but also directly involving them is admirable. I look forward to more streaming and tweeting in the future, but I hope that the tweets only help tease out the discussion, rather than dominate it.
You can watch the full event here.
You can read David Foster Wallace’s essay as it was published in Harper’s here.