I have watched with interest the conference hashtags for the 2014 Annual Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, currently taking place in Seattle. I am especially intrigued by AWP’s endorsement of conference tweeting, up to and including the possibility of being an “official” livetweeter of conference panels, as represented in the #AWP14 Tweet Sheet.
Two years ago, when I last attended AWP in Chicago, I was taking a graduate course on Culture, Politics, & Society in Network Environments. It seemed obvious to me to write a paper on my conference-going-and-tweeting experience. It also seemed obvious to me that I should write said paper sitting in the Hyatt Regency Chicago hotel lobby late at night while drinking moscato and Red Bull from to-go coffee cups liberated from my hotel room’s hospitality table, so that’s what I did. Below, for your entertainment, is the paper in full.
Twitter Hashtag as Protocological Control at #AWP12
1. The AWP Annual Conference, or ‘Just another excuse for writers to drink’
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference, a three-day conference with over 10,000 registered attendees in 2012, is the premiere event in the American creative writing academic world. Staged by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the AWP conference (informally referred to as “AWP”) draws hundreds upon hundreds of college and university instructors, graduate students, and unaffiliated writers who step away from the rigors of a spring academic semester or the comfortable routine of a day-to-day life and descend on the conference location to attend panels on writing-related topics and also network at receptions and offsite events.
Since 1978, when the first AWP conference was held in San Francisco, California, this gathering has been the main method for creative writers, mostly those affiliated with college and university-based creative writing programs, to network and present ideas to peers outside their respective programs and universities (“Association of Writers and Writing Programs”). However, with the rise of the network society, another layer has been overlaid on the conference, once that both completely encompasses it and, in some ways, supersedes it: the Internet layer, specifically the social media layer.
2. The Rise of Social Media Disrupts Yet Another Existing Conference Narrative
A key part of social media layer overlay involves the use of Twitter hashtags. In 2008, the first year I attended the Annual Conference in New York City, I livetweeted panels and events using my Twitter account without using hashtags; at the time, the Twitter hashtag was less than a year old and I had not yet adopted its use (Gannes). By the 2009 conference in Chicago, I decided to use the Twitter hashtag #AWP09 when livetweeting in order to get those tweets seen in hashtag searches. As far as I know and recall, I was the Twitter user who originated that hashtag. The next year, AWP itself adopted the #AWP10 hashtag as the official one for conference use, tweeting it repeatedly from their Twitter account to their followers (“Poetry Foundation”).
In 2012, a record number of writers, over 10,000, attended the conference; a growing subset of those attendees are Twitter users, as well as of other networking-friendly social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. After taking three years off from attending the conference, I traveled to Chicago for AWP 2012 (official Twitter hashtag #AWP12) with the intention of livetweeting my entire conference experience from arrival to departure, and I expected a large number of this year’s attendees to do the same thing, tweeting their experiences traveling to the conference, attending panels and offsite events, and relaxing at hotels and other public/private spaces in the city of Chicago.
I want to advance a radical theory involving Internet governance, taken to a granular level: AWP’s endorsement and promotion of an official Twitter hashtag for the Annual Conference is a form of protocological control placed upon conference attendees by a “corporation”–in this case, AWP, the conference organizers. By making a hashtag available and giving it an official endorsement, AWP is attempting to establish a protocol for discussing conference proceedings on Twitter, one it hopes will be followed by all the conference goers who use the hashtag. #AWP12 is a deceptively small delivery package for AWP’s desire to exert control and direct Twitter discourse directly and indirectly related to the Annual Conference. Gilles Deleuze wrote in the essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” that “the old societies of sovereignty made use of simple machines–levers, pulleys, clocks; but the recent disciplinary societies equipped themselves with machines involving energy, with the passive danger of entropy and the active danger of sabotage; the societies of control operate with machines of a third type, computers, whose passive danger is jamming and whose active one is piracy or the introduction of viruses” (Deleuze). Also, Deleuze stated, “The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it” (Deleuze). In the case of AWP, the code in question is the #AWP12 hashtag. If one knows the conference hashtag exists, one can acquire information and personal reporting on the event using either a personal computer or a mobile phone.
Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker build on Deleuze by relating protocol to the societies of control in their essay “Protocol, Control, and Networks”: “In the broadest sense protocol is a technology that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships, and connects life forms” (Galloway and Thacker, 10). “Whether it be a political roadmap, a disease pathway, an information superhighway, or a plain old freeway,” or perhaps a Twitter hashtag stream either searched for directly or exported into an RSS reader for later viewing, “what Deleuze defines as control is key to understanding how networks of all types function” (Galloway and Thacker, 11). The AWP Annual Conference is a temporary network, a happening that exists in real-time in the conference location and in real-time/temporary-to-permanent archive form online via Internet postings from conference attendees, a network of networks operating in real, physical space while simultaneously influenced by connections made in virtual space of social media. For example: a panel I attended on the first day of the conference was organized after the panel’s moderator wrote a blog post on the topic of fiction writers in creative writing MFA programs submitting novels as their MFA thesis project rather than a collection of short stories. That blog post was picked up by a prominent online website focused on creative writing and which received a large response from fellow writers in comments section and via private communications (Day).
3. Self-Promotion Via Twitter Hashtags, or ‘Just Another Excuse for Writers to Show Off’
I also want to advance the theory that AWP conference attendees using the official Twitter hashtag before and during the conference are aware of this protocological control on a certain level and choose to conform or not conform to expected protocols due to their desire to bolster their perceived image to others. Attendees are aware of the hashtag’s visibility and global reach. Conference attendees aware of #AWP12’s potential worldwide audience may feel as if they have a certain amount of pressure applied upon them to behave and/or perform for an unseen audience of readers. Attendees also know that academic peers at other universities and writing peers both inside and outside academe could be observing tweets tagged #AWP12. Concerns about professional image and appropriate behavior may come into play, especially for attendees navigating the current academic job market or tenure-track professors who have not yet been awarded tenure at their college or university. The possibility that tweets in the #AWP12 hashtag stream could be archived using a Web-based service or a software application is also a form of protocological control.
AWP 2012 attendees who want to project positive images may choose not to say anything untoward while tweeting with the #AWP12 hashtag. This restraint in expression may extend to other tweets sent during the conference but not hashtagged, for fear that someone will stumble upon their entire Twitter feed. AWP 2012 attendees less concerned about projecting a professional image on social media or actively courting controversy could choose to tweet provocative statements using the official hashtag to boost visibility of their dissenting opinions. An example: The parody Twitter account @awp2012, run by a “Robert John” (possibly not his real name), posted caustic comments about the conference and its attendees and hashtagged everything with the #AWP12 hashtag so that the tweets appeared in a hashtag search (@awp2012).
Of course, AWP conference goers can also choose to not use the #AWP12 hashtag while tweeting conference experiences, but they are also choosing not to gain exposure to a potential audience. However, an interested party looking for information or impressions of the conference could discover those tweets using the Twitter’s search functionality. Searching for the keyword “AWP” will return results for both hashtagged tweets and ones that simply use the keyword (“Twitter.com”). Choosing against participating in the #AWP12 tagged discourse is no guarantee that an AWP 2012 conference attendee will not end up controlled by it. A perfect example of this was performed during the conference by AWP’s official Twitter account, @awpwriter. Using Twitter’s retweet function as a subtle form of control, the AWP staff members responsible for updating @awpwriter located tweets using the #AWP12 hashtag and other tweets with conference-related material, but not hashtagged, and retweeted them to their 4,742 Twitter followers (@awpwriter).
4. The Lingering Effects of #AWP12, or ‘Has the Open Bar Hangover Worn Off Yet?’
How long the protocological control exerted by #AWP12 is, to me, unclear. It is possible that conference attendees who became aware of each other via tweets made using the hashtag have followed each other on Twitter and now enjoy a robust e-relationship as writing peers, but it is also possible that those connections have been lost as the conference experience recedes into the recent past. I feel this is an area with a lot of potential for further study. I have been involved in studying Twitter use at conferences in the past, but that research involved technological-oriented conferences and did not consider the post-conference effects (Parthasarathy). It would be an interesting topic to explore, especially a comparative study involving conferences from varied academic fields.
Hashtag usage at conferences has spread from technical-oriented conferences like SXSW to conferences across all academic disciplines and fields. Conference organizers, like those in charge of the AWP Annual Conference, can use officially endorsed hashtags to exert a certain level of protocological control over Twitter discourse. While some conference attendees could choose to rebel against hashtag use for their own personal or professional reasons, conference attendees desiring to be noticed in their academic field could utilize those hashtags in ways beneficial to their careers and egos, while recognizing on a certain level that the “corporation” (the conference organizers) controls them.
“AWP – Past Conferences.” Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Association of Writers and Writing Programs, 2012. Web. 1 Mar 2012.
@awpwriter. “AWP (awpwriter) on Twitter.” Twitter.com. Twitter, 1 Mar 2012. Web. 1 Mar 2012.
@awp2012. “Robert John (awp2012) on Twitter.” Twitter.com. Twitter, 2 Mar 2012. Web. 2 Mar 2012.
Day, Cathy. “The Millions : The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” The Millions. The Millions, 18 Jan 2011. Web. 1 Mar 2012.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (Winter 1992): 3-7. Print.
Galloway, Alexander, and Eugene Thacker. “Protocol, Control, and Networks.” Grey Room 17 (2004): 6-29. Print.
Gannes, Liz. “The Short and Illustrious History of Twitter Hashtags.” GigaOM.com. GigaOM, 30 Apr 2010. Web. 1 Mar 2012.
Poetry Foundation. “Twitter / @PoetryFound.” Twitter.com. Twitter, 30 Mar 2010. Web. 1 Mar 2012.
Parthasarathy, Ramanujam. “Twitter Usage at Conferences.” Social Couch. 1 Jun 2010. Web. 5 May 2012.
“Twitter / Search – awp.” Twitter.com. Twitter, 1 Mar 2012. Web. 1 Mar 2012.