It is the first evening at BAVS 2012 (@VictorianValues). Delegates lounge around the bar at The Edge, our venue at Sheffield University, discussing such critical matters of Victorianist interest as William Morris’s relationship to bubble-wrap, the various ‘funny Victorians’ Tumblr pages, and the benefits of ice cream provision.
In a dark corner, a table is surrounded by silent academics, lit only be an eerie glow from beneath. The sparse light falls on fast-moving fingers and slightly glazed eyes. Conversation in this corner is sporadic, often monosyllabic. Their fingers, however, stay busy.
This is the #bavs2012 tweet-up. As @clamourousvoice tweeted, it seemed to be the death of verbal communication. We tweeted about how great it was to finally meet each other in person. Meanwhile, IRL we talked about tweeting. We tweeted about talking about tweeting, and the tweet-up became a discussion about meta-tweeting, and even meta-meta-tweeting.
This self-conscious Twitter talk encapsulated my experience of BAVS 2012. I was one of the conference reporters, and had promised to tweet diligently from the panels I attended. Because I had said (or tweeted?) that I would in a slightly less-than-informal way, I took my tweeting seriously; the skin of my thumbs was well-worn at the end of the two days. On the other hand, this self-imposed tweeter responsibility meant that I took my role as Reporter far more seriously; after all, my Twitter silence would have indicated my actual absence.
When I arrived on the Thursday (#excitingtimes) this was as far as my motives went. By the time the conference came to a close on the Saturday, however, my reasoning had changed. I became aware quite quickly that people from outside the conference were reading these tweets; more than that, they were interacting with them, commenting upon papers, picking up on the jokes and adding their own interpretations. By the Friday night, #ruskin was the most-used word in my Twitter feed; and, I imagine, in that of many Victorianists, BAVS-attendees and otherwise. Indeed, #Ruskindrinkinggames were swiftly adopted too (‘2 shots of absinthe per hard, gem-like flame’, as @lmhager suggested).
Interactions over Twitter meant that jokes both within and outside of papers could be transmitted to non-attendees; the rather dry tone of the traditional conference report could be upheld when necessary, but undermined at will. Entertaining asides (such as Wendy Parkins’s comment that Morris really hated margarine) were shared on Twitter, and thus entered into the conference record. It’s difficult to imagine that they would have been remembered by a more formal report.
Readers of the #bavs2012 thread could follow several papers simultaneously – those of us at the conference could vicariously attend multiple panels – and so that usually difficult decision of which panel to go to was lessened; if there was a tweeter in the room, you didn’t have to miss a thing, and because of the high concentration of avid tweeters in attendance, there was scarcely a panel missed.
Perhaps, then, Twitter can do for Victorianists what sites like Tumblr can do for the Victorians: that is, remove us from that rather dry, humourless stereotype, and reveal us for the lively, comedic bunch we really are.
Jo Taylor is a second-year PhD student at Keele University, researching issues of literary inheritance in the Coleridge family.
She tweets at @JoTayl0r0 and her Academia page can be found here. She also blogs at romanticresearcher.blogspot.co.uk.