My attention was directed today (via Twitter, appropriately), to this post about the competing ASA Bingo Cards.  I don’t have a lot to say about the deeper meaning of “gentle ribbing” or negativity, whatever you want to call it, in the original card.  However, I do think that the “chronically hip grad student” square was not just, as Nathan Jurgenson asserted, a mainstream culture-embedded dig at hipsters, but also an indication of a general discomfort among less technologically savvy sociologists at the increasing use of technology to augment professional scholarly activities, often though not always by colleagues younger than themselves.

In particular, I suspect that the characterization of Twitter as “like passing notes during a talk, only if those notes were posted on a giant whiteboard behind the speaker so that everybody but her could read them” is quite accurate in terms of how the unfamiliar (and vaguely suspicious) think about Twitter.  Twitter users think they’re better than us, just like those iPad-using hipster grad students, and they’re trash talking about it where we can’t see them. While it makes sense, I think it’s a very misguided analogy.

The critical difference between notes, or for that matter late-night trash talk at the hotel bar, and Twitter is that Twitter creates (for the most part) a documentary record.  As interview participants have expressed to me over and over again in my dissertation research on self-presentation and information disclosure on Facebook, this record presents a concern that is very much a part of the communication process for users.  People speak more carefully when they know that that their remarks are being recorded, and that even if they later think better of them and attempt to delete them from the record, a split second is all it takes for someone else to RT them.  The documentary record of the Twitter stream may actually enhance civility at the same time that it enhances audience interaction.

That interaction doesn’t just benefit audience members who might otherwise be struggling to stay awake.  As Nathan and Jessie Daniels highlighted in their admittedly Twitter-centric Bingo card (and PJ Rey commented indignantly on my behalf when I found myself shelling out for hotel wifi in an area of the conference that didn’t get the ASA signal), Twitter discussions are value added.  While a Twitter stream may, in a pinch, substitute for session attendance, it’s more likely to allow for conversation among audience members that is all too often stymied by session time constraints if not some more sinister conference culture.  In a worst case scenario, this may mean that the Twitter stream “turn[s] an otherwise boring session into something engaging”; more often, it may mean that audience members are able to hash their way to truly interesting questions by the time the question period begins, so that presenters are not left with a room full of people who won’t think of what they really wanted to ask for another 45 minutes.  If conferences are supposed to create space for conversations, it’s hard to imagine a better tool.

E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she tweets about sociology, social justice, and various and sundry personal interests at @cabell and probably qualifies as “chronically hip” by virtue of her weird hair alone.