On #UNL_DHS & #hastac2011

Perhaps it was because I finished my reflection for Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together before hopping on my flight to Ann Arbor, but her argument and the UNL Digital Humanities Seminar was on my mind quite a bit during HASTAC V. Particularly Turkle’s argument that networked communication was making people isolated by distracting them from real relationships and giving them false relationships. Cathy Davidson began the conference with a wonderful talk in which she brought up a famous psychology experiment. (Check it out here before I spoil it)

Davidson noted that when she first saw the video at a public talk, she was distracted by other things going on, but because she was distracted from the “task” (counting the passes) she was able to see the gorilla. This anecdote struck me as counter to Turkle’s argument. By being distracted, Davidson was able to properly see experiment. In very much the same way I found being “distracted” by twitter during the conference enlivened my experience and I think made the conference a a more meaningful experience than it would have had I chosen to “pay attention.”

Choosing to tweet was a self-conscious choice I made the morning of Friday’s official start to the conference. I had attended the #alt-ac workshop the night before and only brought a pen and paper, so no tweeting. Friday morning, however, I grabbed my computer and cord, leaving the paper behind. My reading of Turkle’s argument was that online networks like twitter encourage false personas and false relationships. However, over the course of the conference I found twitter to enrich, encourage, and facilitate my “real” interactions with people.

Cathy Davidson’s talk had a small experiment, in which she gave instructions for the audience to write down a couple of things in a short amount of time after which she told the audience to share their answers with a person next to you. Afterward she revealed the activity was very much a gorilla in the room situation. We were not told to silently write down our answers, though the entire audience worked that way. We had to be told to collaborate. Davidson then began to describe the fascinating history of how the educational system conditioned people to default to quiet, individual work. That is a side note, however. Getting back to twitter, when discussing my answers with a neighbor, I met a grad student from the University of Michigan, who followed me on twitter and I later followed on twitter. Before networked communication we simply would have shaken hands, had a few words and maybe seen each other at another conference. However, the possibility for extended communication exists beyond the occasional accidental meeting.

Similarly, a senior scholar followed me on twitter after I briefly talked with her at the Friday night reception. Twitter does not guarantee any further communication. This senior scholar may never remember the UNL grad student she talked to at HASTAC V (I imagine she talked to a lot of people) but my name appearing in her twitter feed every so often certainly raises the possibility that she may remember me if we meet again. Are these relationships, which began with an introduction, but will now exist on twitter, “real”? They are certainly more real than having no professional relationship.

On Friday night I also met an early career scholar who had led the pre-conference #alt-ac workshop. Saturday morning after the first keynote, I began a conversation with him by saying I like his tweets about that talk. There are many ways to begin a conversation, but having a low pressure online relationship, the one that Turkle argues will lead to human’s reliance on robotic relationships in the future, does not erode person relationships. Rather, it helped to have a (in Turkle’s sense) “fake” relationship to begin a “real” relationship.

The same thing happened when I met another senior scholar. He mentioned he had heard of me through my blog (and I had certainly heard of him). While we did not have a real life relationship before meeting, networked communication allowed us to have familiarity with each others’ work and ideas. This sort of groundwork for in-person relationships does not have to happen online; I read the senior scholar’s work before meeting in-person. But what was this senior scholars going to read of mine before social media? Networked communication does not actually degrade “real life” communication. Rather, the online facilitates and enriches the “real life.”