Why Cite a Tweet?

You may have heard that the Modern Language Association (the MLA) has released guidelines on citing a tweet in an academic paper. My local newspaper, the Tennessean, ran a story on this bit of news earlier in the week. I’m quoted in the story, which is pretty cool. Even cooler is that the story was picked up by USAToday and featured in their Tech section.

Here’s a bit of context for my comments in the story, for those interested:

“Born Digital” – An increasing number of scholars are interested in studying texts that are “born digital,” like tweets. Such studies are part of the digital humanities, and they’re of interest to academics in other fields. For instance, check out this Harvard Business Review analysis of tweets including the term “iPad” written during that product’s launch. Or see this Miller-McCune analysis of how the US Congress used Twitter back in 2010. Academics engaged in this kind of work are likely to take advantage of the MLA’s new guidelines.

Conference Backchannels – Another example of research on “born digital” texts is an article coming out later this year that I’ve co-written with Mary Wright, Rachel Niemer, and Kathy Valle of the University of Michigan. We conducted a qualitative analysis of the tweets associated with the 2011 POD Network / HBCU Faculty Development Network joint conference. (I blogged a quick, quantitative analysis of these tweets shortly after the conference.)   This analysis gave us a sense of the extent to which topics discussed on the conference backchannel aligned with a list of topics deemed “important to offer” by teaching centers in a previous study. That is, analyzing the conference backchannel tweets enabled us to better understand our profession.

We weren’t the first to study a conference backchannel, of course. McCarthy and boyd (2005) analyzed Internet Relay Chat (IRC) messages posted during the 2004 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative work. Ross, Terras, Warwick, and Welsh (2010) conducted a similar study of backchannels at three digital humanities conferences. And Ebner, Mulburger, Schaffert, Schiefner, Reinhardt, and Weller (2010) studied the 2010 EduCamp conference in Hamburg. In each case, the study shed light on how professionals in a particular field work and communicate.

Students and Twitter – According to the most recent survey from the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR), 37 percent of college students use Twitter. It’s unclear from the ECAR report exactly how these students use Twitter, but based on their findings about Facebook (that 53 percent of students see the academic value of Facebook as “limited or nonexistent”), it’s reasonably safe to assume that a good portion of students who use Twitter use it for social or entertainment reasons.

My teaching center is conducting a series of focus groups with students this spring, asking them about the ways they use digital technologies such as Twitter.  Initial findings support the idea that only some students (maybe one-third to one-half) use Twitter and those that do use it tend not to use it for academic purposes. (Look for a paper on that study at some point down the road.)

All that to say, I don’t predict that there will be a groundswell of students using the new MLA guidelines to cite tweets in their academic papers just yet. It seems to me that students who think of Twitter as a medium for more academic conversations do so at the request of their instructors. (See, for instance, University of Connecticut biology professor Margaret Rubega’s #birdclass assignment.) I see more potential for faculty to cite tweets in papers, particularly academics studying how people use Twitter.

What are your thoughts on the MLA guidelines? In what contexts do you think these guidelines will be used?

Image: “What Are You Doing?“, Wendy Harman, Flickr (CC)

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