Calcification of opinion

I am hardly alone when I say that recent politics has been a major drag on my mental and emotional energy. I don’t know what is going to happen in the near future, but the current direction scares me in more ways than I care to mention. Still, I find myself thinking a lot about politics and doing my best to stay informed because, as difficult as it might be, that remains a civic duty. I also remain problematically addicted to checking my Twitter feed, albeit recently in shorter and less-comprehensive bursts.

These moments of checking Twitter have led me to a realization about the current superficial maelstrom, as epitomized and led by the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That realization is this:

There is nothing that President Trump could post to his Twitter account that would change my opinion of him.

Sure, there are things that he could post that would change the trajectory of the country and do good in the world, but that would mean one of three things: 1) the account was hacked; 2) someone else was managing the account; or 3) that President Trump decided to make an about-face in order to be more popular. None of those three options would change my opinion of him, while what he does post simply digs deeper. I still see people retweeting (usually with sarcastic comment) what he says or dredging up past posts looking for inconsistency. Neither genre of tweet does much for me and in many cases both distract from the substance of issues—not to mention that feeding the ego of someone who fundamentally wants to be the center of attention, whose interests run toward habitual misinformation and complaining about media coverage.

I could never bring myself to follow Trump’s twitter account, but, for months, I would regularly check in, caught up in whatever the latest utterance was. No longer. The campaign is over and I don’t need to actually see the latest bout of internet logorrhea in order to know what he said, at least in reasonable facsimile. I can’t live isolated from the news, but that doesn’t mean that I have to partake in online farce.

A broken record

I have spent most of the last month feeling downright foggy as I ran the gamut of teaching, revision, and paperwork in the final weeks of my graduate career. But this only partly explains my general silence. I am still working on putting thoughts in order about life, the universe, and everything, and in so doing am developing a newfound appreciation for the genre of “fragment” posts where the author tossing out snippets, thoughts, excerpts, and musings that are explicitly incomplete.

The more ominous issue is one I have had before, namely that I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I think this is why I like writing down reflections (or reviews) of books. It is a genre that allows for a little creativity and reflection, while providing a clear prompt and definite strictures. Increasingly, though, I find myself writing things that I get halfway through only to find them repetitive. Some I find are my own hobbyhorses generally, but also the current political climate has me feeling very much like the topics I think about are ever more limited. Others, though, come from a more debilitating premonition that whatever joke, insight, or observation that I am about to write here or on Twitter has already been said better, but that the extreme fragmentation online means that I have missed it. My fear, then, is that I will be but a pale shadow chasing after someone else’s moment or that I am making a mountain out of a fairly banal, commonly known truism.

At some level I know that I will turn a corner as I work into a new writing routine in the coming weeks, finding new tidbits in my research and teaching. More practically, though, the solution may be that if something is worth saying, it is probably worth saying more than once. Real-time maps of internet traffic are mesmerizing and drive home just how much is said online, so it is a fools errand to be ashamed of repetition. Give credit where it is due, and don’t infringe on people’s economic livelihood, but life is too short to give in to this sort of shame.

Social Media and an Academic Conference CAMWS 2016

Last weekend I attended the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) annual meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is a conference I have been to before, but, for a variety of reasons, some of which are the topic of this post, I had a different interaction with it than usual. For a compilation of the tweets I sent during conference, see here.

I went into the CAMWS meeting figuring that I would be at least somewhat active on Twitter; my posts there ebb and flow depending on a number of offline factors, including an internal debate over what I want the platform to be “for.” But I am active on Twitter and figured, as is my wont, that I would post something. I was not going to make an attempt at live-tweeting sessions, knowing my attention span, but I thought I’d do some posting after the fact. This was facilitated because, for once, the venue had fast, free, widely available wifi.

Then a funny thing happened: early in the conference a debate popped up on Twitter from people who couldn’t make it to the conference asking why there was an apparent zone of silence over the conference. More and more often conferences and meetings are pushing toward digital interaction, often establishing a conference hashtag right up front and, in at least one instance that I saw (on Twitter), offering to put a member’s Twitter handle on the name tag. I think CAMWS was interested in this being a thing at the meeting, but to the extent that the information was there it was somewhat buried.

There are certainly an issue of ethics when it comes to live-tweeting a conference, and the debate on Twitter moved in that direction, including one person arguing that, if done well, this sort of publication actually protects copyright because the idea is linked to the name. For whatever reason, the media presence from this particular CAMWS meeting was limited to a small handful of people.

Partly inspired by this debate, my Twitter “agenda” changed over the course of the meeting and thus my interaction with the meeting changed. Originally I was only going to do sporadic posts, but because of the external debate, I decided to do recaps of papers I saw. A lot of these tweets were developed back in my hotel room in the evening or in the airport waiting for a flight, but I was more assiduous about taking notes while in the sessions knowing that I intended to post them online later. Even so, I found myself struggling to find a consistent format on Twitter, particularly once I was posting more than one comment per paper, and trying to find a way to link the tweets about a given paper together. This was easier once I storified the whole thing, but I wanted to find a way to link on the main feed. Yet another reason to avoid the algorithmic timeline.

I almost called this post “Two Days of Minor Internet Celebrity,” because my conference tweets were picked up by Classics twitter writ large, including Rogue Classicist. This gave me ten new followers and spiked the “impressions” from a few hundred a day to fifteen thousand in two days. Those have since subsided somewhat now that I am falling into more usual patterns of activity, but it was nonetheless an interesting experience, no doubt aided by relatively few people tweeting from the conference and a relatively large number of interested parties who couldn’t make it.

As much as this was a good experience for me, I wish I had been more organized and prepared to tweet from the outset. I did put my twitter handle on my handout, but with so few people doing anything with it, I’m not sure this made an impression. This is not to say that I won’t put my twitter handle on future handouts, but that I might want to call attention to it, either myself or in the introduction in the future. As for the conference as a whole, there could have been a more concerted effort to foreground the hashtag and other social media opportunities in the program and packet. I heard belatedly that there was this information, but I was using the online program and often found myself searching in the page for names or topics, or otherwise skipping around, rather than reading it in a linear way. Similarly, if there had been hashtags associated with particular panels (as Hamish Cameron was adding to his live-tweeting, I think), then there would have been greater awareness that the conference endorsed social media outreach. That said, the conference had the single most important thing for this sort of engagement, which was wifi.

This is the first time I offered dedicated tweets from a conference, but it won’t be the last. As long as I am going to be part of this academic world, I plan to make the most of it.

2016 CAMWS Meeting: Storify

Via Storify, here my Tweets from this past weekend’s CAMWS meeting. In the next few days I will have a post working through various issues concerning social media that came up at the meeting–or, particularly the discussion that took place on Twitter with people who were following along from afar.

Social Networking II: The Twitter

Just about two years ago I deleted my Facebook account with the declaration that, from my perspective, it had failed. I do miss its convenience for contacting people whose phone numbers or emails I do not have readily available and am disappointed by the occasional missed invitation (the “oh right, you’re not on Facebook” by way of apology gets old quickly), but gchat has replaced Facebook chat and my life is improved having rid myself of that attachment.

With Twitter I get all the aspects of Facebook I liked, with none of the annoyances. By using Twitter clients I’ve even mostly managed to avoid the “new layout” angst. In particular, I find the micro-blogging more conducive to mixing work, hobbies, social commentary, and jokes. I also prefer it as a platform for sharing links despite–or perhaps because of–the limited space for commentary.

At its best, Twitter is a place where I can share my love of food, sports, history, and literature with like-minded people, including those I know offline and those who I respect, but who I have not yet met in person. I’ve also had discussions about ancient sources and topics that have proven valuable in my own work. On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter takes on the worst aspects of demagoguery, leading to all manner of harassment both for good and for ill, and sometimes for both simultaneously.

But more than its penchant for channeling outrage, I’ve recently been having a second problem with Twitter: its intensity. As I was with Facebook, I am too capable of simply watching the world flit by on Twitter instead of doing my own work, let alone going out into the world and thus being limited by whatever there is around me. This escapism also prompts me to frequently reopen the Twitter page when it is closed, sometimes for fear of missing out on whatever aphorism, quip, or thought has just been posted, but more often because I am struggling to write or read whatever I am working through at that moment. Unlike Facebook, though, I am much better at closing down Twitter and coming back to it at more regulated intervals and accepting that I am not missing anything important in doing so. Still, this aspect of Twitter is less time-intensive (at least for me) than Facebook was.

What I mean by intensity is that many people I follow have crafted erudite and intelligent professional personae on Twitter and tweet with passion about professional matters from their current writing projects, to the articles or sources they read and recommend, to thoughts about the academy. In isolation, this is a good thing and when my own work is progressing to my satisfaction, I am encouraged to see such a positive and enthusiastic community on social networks–and, in my experience, it is an incredibly positive and supportive group of people on Twitter. The problem is that when it seems that my own progress has stagnated, the same positive and enthusiastic community becomes intimidating. A swarm of Care Bears, puppies, or kittens remains a swarm, particularly if one appears, solipsistically, to be on the outside of the given group.

There appear to be two root causes of this dissatisfaction above and beyond the frustration with my own work. The first is that I do not use Twitter as an exclusively professional medium, but one that brings together a variety of aspects of my life, a fact that make me feel like a dilettante rather than a scholar. The second returns to the idea of a swarm. Everyone has periods where they do not write as much as they would like, if only because most go through periods where the immediate demands of teaching and grading cut into writing time, but, because there are one or two hundred scholars whose social media personae I follow, there is a constant stream of positive information about research in progress. Very often, I find the torrent a source of motivation and encouragement. The problem is that when the current ceases to be uplifting, I find it entirely overwhelming and I am further paralyzed.

I do not foresee myself deleting my Twitter account anytime soon. Rather, I noticed an ebb and flow of my own activity, writing here on my personal blog and production of pages on my dissertation and a correlation with my enthusiasm for and activity on Twitter. Twitter does not cause the ebb, but neither does it always inspire a rebound.

Assorted Links

  1. For the Love of Learning– A blog discussion of schools and the mechanization of teaching such that students are passive and learning is something done to them.

    His quote: “Because school defines learning as passive, learners come to see education as something done to them. When students are stuck in the middle of a problem, they don’t try and figure out what makes sense to do next; instead, they try to remember what they are suppose to do. If this is the premise for learning, is it any surprise that learners become less autonomous, more dependent and ultimately mindless?”

    I agree entirely and find that the part of school my students are least prepared for is analysis and developing arguments. As a general rule, they can find the answer to a specific, factual question, but when asked to draw from multiple sources to analyze a topic vis a vis a specific question, they become panicked and want to know what the “right” answer is. The uncertainty is frightening to them and they are hesitant to take a stand for fear of being wrong. But education is a process. Admitting your ignorance and then seeking to rectify it is the key to education, which is an issue that reminds me of a now several year old essay about the importance of stupidity in scientific research. Certainty is absurd and ignorance should not be an excuse for inaction, but an opportunity for finding answers.

  2. Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate– An thought-provoking piece on Tor.com where the author discusses the the inner workings of fantasy universes, but particularly examining Star Wars. He posits “functional” illiteracy for most inhabitants of that universe, pointing out audio, video, and pictoral records, with most of the literate people having only a working knowledge of the language, enough for their jobs. The comments particularly tear the author apart on the lack of reading in most fantasy (fairly well, I think), and some make counter-examples from the Star Wars universe, including the argument that it is a huge universe. Most, though, concede that this is at least a provocative discussion. The author and at least one blogger make allusions to the modern world in this analogy. I wonder if this is at all paired with a discussion that I saw over the weekend (using the 50 Shades main character as an example) that characters in stories people are drawn to often are more well read than the audience itself.
  3. Why Handwriting Matters– Another story in the Guardian about handwriting, specifically focusing on the personalization and intimacy that digital writing eliminates.
  4. Brewmaster Makes Beer from His Beard Yeast– A curious story about the brewmaster from Rogue Brewery finding a new yeast with which to brew. I am not sure I’d want to try it, though the process of brewing should eliminate anything harmful.
  5. Dark Social– A discussion at the Atlantic about the nature of social media and how people interact with the internet. The author seeks to debunk the pervasive notion that social media sites created a social web. Instead, the author posits that the majority of social interaction on the web takes place through mass emails, chat programs, and message boards. Social media has lent structure and a public appearance to some of the same communications, but has not replaced them.
  6. Inequality and the world economy: True Progressivism– An article in the Economist that calls for a new progressive era in radically moderate way (promoting competition and capitalism while mitigating inequality). I don’t wholly agree with the article, but the intention is laudable.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Midnight musings: social media

When Google+ first released I resisted joining, adamant that I was more likely to quit social media altogether than to join yet another new craze. I was a freshman in college when Facebook first took off (along with the ill-fated i2hub), so of course I joined. Joining Facebook was almost a rite of passage that helped define the college crowd and enabled communication, interaction, planning, and, of course, procrastination. For similar reasons I had a blogger account, which quickly gave way to a Livejournal. I also joined Twitter, which removes much of the excess baggage from the other social media accounts and provides a platform for shorter statements. The stereotype that Twitter (much like the Facebook status update) is for announcing publicly that one has taken a shower or eaten dinner has some truth to it so I will not deny that, but I find that it is actually a good medium for some discussions that would not otherwise take place, commentary on shows, movies, games, and books, among other uses. By and large it is far less private or personal than even email or Facebook messaging, but it is meant as an immediate form of communication. So, since I have all these platforms, some of which are not actually actively used (even to the extent that I blog), why do I need Google+? Or, perhaps more to the point, why did I change my mind?

The short answer is that I do not and did not. I have two blogging platforms, six or seven emails, Facebook, Twitter, and probably a Myspace account out there somewhere, and now Google+, all with varying levels of (in)activity. I added Google+ for several reasons, not least of which because it still has limited membership and so, when the opportunity came, I took it. I was genuinely curious as to how it was set up, and did feel some drive to sign up for the new toy when it arrived. Moreover, I like the setup, and would like to have a social media platform finally live up to the promise of the bringing me closer together with people, if for no other reason than that it gets lonely in the middle of the country.

It seems logical that when I left my job managing a Quizno’s for a university some of the technological opportunities and impulses would grow rather than shrink. The reverse has been true, which I am reminded of each and every time I return to the east coast. While I was in New York I overheard a business meeting wherein a programmer made a pitch for a phone app that would help bring together fans of particular teams, which struck me as just one example of the way in which the application of technology is consistently commonplace in metropolitan areas (New York and Boston are the two with which I am familiar), while any application at all only trickles slowly to more rural parts of the country. I have also noticed a growing disconnect with these sites. In particular, I have made it a practice not to comment on birthdays or anniversaries on Facebook. This is a policy I may wish to reconsider, but it is borne of the thought that if a) I cannot otherwise remember a birthday or b) I would not otherwise wish that person a happy birthday, then my wishes are not really of any value. Of course, I do allow Facebook to remind me of birthdays, and then I will sometimes put in the extra effort to make a more direct birthday wish. Perhaps this is all semantic, but I find that social media (at least on my pages) is more often a silent acknowledgement of posts than active participation. Then, if there is no actual interaction, what is the point of social media?

Right now, in no small part because of various apps on my iPod that allow me to post directly, I mostly use Facebook to post links to articles that I find interesting. I will likely do something similar, but to a more limited extent, with Google+. The bulk of my intended audience remains on Facebook right now, but if that changes then the bulk of my post would also change. Otherwise the bulk of my thought, writing and activity remains in pen and paper. I hope to replace some of that pre-digital activity with a set of social and communal sites, but until I find a way to do this efficiently and with wider participation I suspect that it will remain nothing more than another of my idealistic, unrealistic ambitions.