As SCMS 2015 drew to a close and the event’s hashtag began to fade from my Twitter feed, #SuggestionsforSCMS16 popped up to help despondent academics beat their post-conference blues. Having been fascinated by the increasing importance of Twitter at SCMS I somewhat facetiously suggested ‘a panel doing meta-analysis of SCMS live tweeting & exhibition of tweets.’ Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking more about precisely how, and why, we use Twitter at the conference. I also read Michael Z Newman’s great piece ‘#SCMS15: The Conference as Media Event’, which makes an interesting point about the tendency of certain fields (video games, media studies) to embrace Twitter, while others (film history) neglect the platform:
‘Some film historians I spoke with were intrigued and impressed by a video screen in the main conference concourse, near the red carpet, displaying recent tweets including the #SCMS15 hashtag. But they found the content a bit puzzling, not entirely certain what exactly the tweets were.’[i]
Consequently, I’ve tried to respond both to Michael’s blog post, which thinks about SCMS tweeting as analogous to a ‘media event,’ and Amanda Ann Klein’s earlier piece ‘Turning Twitter into Work: Digital Reporting at SCMS 2013’, which considers tweeting as akin to journalism. In doing so, I examine (or at least begin to) what I consider Twitter’s archival and cinematic ‘turns’ at SCMS15. In writing the piece, I’m now convinced that we really do need a workshop at next year’s conference that explores what Twitter is, how we use it, and what it means to us as both academics and SCMS members.
Below, I’ve attempted to think about Twitter’s function as an open-access and democratically curated archive, as well as its connection at SCMS15 to the screen and to spectatorship. Two ‘turns’ that might broaden Twitter’s appeal to film historians...
Twitter and the Archive
Traditionally, we conceive of the archive as an institution. ‘The Archive’ (capitalisation deliberate) is a physical entity and a place in which people curate and preserve the idea of what history is. As academics, we often have to prove our worth when gaining access to the archive, which is a privileged space, open only to a chosen few. We provide our university ID cards, give our name and address and sign numerous forms that promise we will not photograph materials, or tamper with the materiality of a curated past. The notions of curating, collecting and preserving are somehow distinct from the academic tasks of discovering, analysing and historiography.
Yet Twitter is a medium that enables us to self-consciously and collectively archive our own history. Before Twitter, the SCMS conference was (I suppose) archived solely through the conference programme, the copious, personal notes written by participants and perhaps a citation or two in articles. Now, the SCMS conference is a locus for professional academics that turn amateur archivists on social media, with Twitter the dominant platform. Everyone at the conference is encouraged to tweet and anyone can contribute to recording the event’s history. The archive created on Twitter is public and has no gatekeeper. All you need to gain entry is a Twitter account, good hotel WiFi and the ability to avoid getting confused by a German conference using the same hashtag. There are no rules about photocopying (see numerous retweets) and you can return to the archive whenever you like.
Twitter and the Cinema
The public-ness of the SCMS Twitter archive is such that anyone can engage in conversations taking place at the event. Those who use the platform will have seen tweets sent by colleagues who are unable to attend the conference but who feel like they are there by following the Twitter feed. As Amanda Klein suggests:
‘The official Twitter feed was a conduit for valuable scholarly exchanges, providing access to the conference to those not physically present, and then relaying their thoughts and questions back into the spaces of the conference.’[ii]
While films do not often invite dialogue with audiences, there is something cinematic about Twitter in that you watch a screen and are transported to another space. Text and images flow steadily down a Twitter feed and so set time in motion, replicating the experience of watching a film. (Of course, the temporalities of cinema and Twitter are distinct – film’s time is sequential and delineated by a frame rate, while Twitter has simultaneous, non-sequential and multiple timelines). Like a movie screen, a Twitter feed has the potential to transpose ‘sight’ and ‘site’ by connecting the viewer to a remote space – although there are obvious differences in the ways that audiences/users engage with the two media. I argue that we can push the spatial analogy between cinema and Twitter (particularly conference live-tweeting) further still, for both media map the body in an onscreen architecture. Drawing on Giuliana Bruno’s thinking about inhabiting the space beyond the screen,[iii] we might conceive of our tweets at SCMS15 as positioning us both within the geography of the conference, and in a mediated environment that exists beyond our phone or laptop interfaces. Interestingly, in Newman’s description of his SCMS Twitter feed, he offers a spatial analysis of the conference that is organised in different rooms:
‘Someone is analyzing Jon Jost’s films, while in another room someone is discussing the cable network Bravo. There’s a paper on computers in education, and another on Minecraft, all simultaneously in my feed this minute.’[i]
Thus by live tweeting, we not only archive conference proceedings, but also our movements through space – a ‘volumetric’ social media experience, perhaps.
Also, I found the 2015 exhibition of tweets—another cinematic ‘turn’ for Twitter by way of a vast screen on the convention floor displaying #SCMS15 tweets to passers by—a fascinating development. The screen made physical my otherwise theoretical observation about the platform’s connections to cinema, and simultaneously foregrounded a widespread desire both to archive (here is a public record of our event) and be archived (Look! My tweet is displayed!). The crossover between Twitter as a platform used on personal devices and one disseminated in public space reminded me of historic attempts to legitimise new media by borrowing from more established forms. Early cinema relied on narratives from classic novels and theatre, early television schedules showed classic films, and now Twitter turns to the big screen – this one’s for you film historians, and what more convincing do you need?
Using Our Twitter Archive in Future
Throughout the post I’ve proposed that Twitter’s spatiality draws on older visual media, and, paradoxically, given the platform’s insistence on immediacy, offers a historical record of events. Is Twitter, then, a kind of utopian SCMS archive, whereby mass-participation renders the traditional logic of curating obsolete?
Well, no. For while Twitter-as-archive democratises the recording of conference history, I suggest that there are issues arising from our (in)ability to simultaneously record history and be present in the passing of time. I live-tweeted Tom Gunning’s paper and was interested to learn (on reading other live-tweets after the event) that I had missed a couple of his examples. While I was busy fan-girling up his images of phantom rides, Drew Morton was tweeting about a reference to Evil Dead 2 that passed me by. As a live-tweeter, you are both in the room and out of it, existing in a liminal, curatorial space (a ‘heterotopian’ online space, if I can push the analogy that far) that both connects you to, and disconnects you from, the speaker. As Philip Rosen contends, ‘there can be no history of now’.[iv] Attempts to archive our experiences fall short, for in trying to make history now, we lose perspective of the present.
I also wonder what our motivations are in live-tweeting SCMS proceedings – or if that even matters. I can’t help suspecting that much as we (here I use ‘we’ to mean live-tweeters) are interested in recording papers, sharing ideas and contributing to a broader conversation, we also have a desire to stake out a personal space in our event’s history. Our tweets say ‘I am here’ or ‘I was there’ (as evidenced by the many images of people’s tweets on the display screen being re-recorded on Twitter feeds as photographs) and assert our presence in the actual, as well as mediated, conference. We are, as in the cinema, an individualized crowd, always experiencing what we see and hear collectively in a shared experience, and yet always conscious of being alone.
At the end of a lengthier-than-anticipated post, I want to sign off with a few questions that warrant further investigation.
First - not every panel is tweeted and so a Twitter archive necessarily erases certain narratives from the conference history (the connections to physical archives grows stronger…). Should we pay greater attention to creating a more complete record of proceedings, and does that necessitate having a curatorial policy? Or does the current, self-selecting nature of the activity make for a more authentic history?
Second, what does our SCMS Twitter archive mean to us and to the ‘institution’ that is SCMS?
And third, what will we actually do with this archive? Does the record have a limited temporality before being made redundant (i.e. the duration of the conference), or is there some value in maintaining a permanent record of every #SCMS (for example, through platforms like Seen, which curate the Twitter feed according to different dates or search terms)?
After all, the SCMS Twitter archive will exist as a world in which we can live and dream perhaps forever... but only for as long as it is preserved.
[i] Michael Z Newman, '#SCMS15: The Conference as Media Event,' http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/03/30/scms15-the-conference-as-media-event/
[ii] Amanda Ann Klein, ‘Turning Twitter into Work: Digital Reporting at SCMS 2013’, http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/03/14/turning-twitter-into-work-digital-reporting-at-scms-2013/
[iii] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (London and New York: Verso, 2002).
[iv] Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 232.