Professor in pieces

One of the small changes I’ve made in moving to a university is to adjust to the fact that every time I stand up in front of more than, say, 15 people, I’m being broadcast. Not quite literally, but what I say is being tweeted more or less every time and livestreamed quite often. Nothing to do with me or anybody’s expectations of what I might be going to say. It’s just routine to tweet speeches and talks.

Without intending to, I ran a Twitter experiment last week when I did a formal, inaugural lecture (versions here and here)  lasting about 40 minutes to an audience of about 500 people. Because we were encouraging questions from abroad, one of our students (@heatherchristie) was tweeting energetically throughout.

She wasn’t the only one (see #isnewsover). Analysed as a platform, Twitter seems to have three kinds of use. As conversation: cheap, fast and with opportunities for haiku-like wit. My favourite from that evening: “best lecture foliage EVER”. As link spreading: a quick skim down a lot of short entries can give you the headlines and links to what you need to know. Lastly as work-in-progress summaries of a speech, debate, lecture or discussion. A lot of people retweeted a severe lecturer who said, when a number of students left during the Q&A to go back to their politics class, “don’t that when you’re doing this for a living.”

But the package of advantages comes with a downside. There’s a huge amount of repetition and endless distraction. Whether or not having several digital communications devices on the go at once is going to alter the way our brains work, I can’t know.

But twitter culture quite certainly reduces peoples’ concentration on meaning by providing endless distraction. And the live relay of an argument, in my lecture, was perfectly accurate (except when our tweeter-in-chief suddenly began calling me Brick). But 140 characters bites don’t follow an extended argument even when they’re put together.

Two conclusions. (1) Extended prose is not under threat. (2) What we most need from the geeks is software that de-fragments and improves coherence, welding pieces of the mosaic into a whole picture.


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