How do archaeology conferences work?: engagement from my sofa

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of going to archaeology conferences and tweeting from them like a particularly chirrupy and attention-deficient budgie, so I’m finding it quite interesting to observe the goings-on at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Bournemouth on #TAG2013. As a reasonably informed outsider (edit: to this particular conference, I mean. C2DE I ain’t), how much of a picture am I getting of discussions and papers as they unfold?

The first thing I observe is that, ooh, about 80% of the tweets I’ve seen so far this afternoon are from the CASPAR Researching Audiences session (see p17 here (pdf)). Not so much the session about cave art or the one about animal-human interaction or the one about actor-network theory, which if I’m reading the programme correctly are running concurrently. So, yeah, a lot of people who are interested in AV/digital media and archaeology are (a) attending the session about AV/digital media and archaeology and (b) on Twitter, and it is their output which currently constitutes the public face of #TAG2013. On which I, another person interested in AV/digital media and archaeology, am now commenting, and perhaps someone else interested in AV/digital media and archaeology will write a little post about Twitter engagement at #TAG2013 using these very tweets and this blog post as material, and so it goes on until we all disappear up our collective meta-arse, or at least until more archaeologists with wider interests start using Twitter. Lots of people who already know other people are talking to them about stuff they know is of mutual interest. No surprises there.

The second thing, which surprises me, is that I am unfeasibly thrilled when someone posts a picture. This is something I scarcely thought about at Monstrous Antiquities, CHAT and Sharing the Field, although I posted pictures from the first two. A spectacularly dumb reptilian bit of my brain likes images of places and people and having a visual hook on which to hang conversations I might have, or read about. This is despite the fact that I do at least vaguely know some of the people there. What seems to matter are pictures of that particular experience.

The reason I comment on all this is that, meta-related cynicism notwithstanding, I suspect academic conferences are currently under-utilised as a potential source of public engagement with the subject. Conferences, as live events, have a natural, attractive tempo that really works on social media pretty much regardless of how dry the content – and Twitter, even more than most other social networks, is tempo-driven. That’s why BBC Question Time amongst other things is so famous there. It’s not that the socio-economic group that watches QT is disproportionately represented on Twitter – although I’m sure they are – it’s that all those people sit down on a Thursday night and start tweeting about it at once.

Plenty of academics thoroughly see the point of Twitter and other social media as a way of sharing their work and engaging both their colleagues and the public. But there is an inevitably static quality to a lot of this busy communication, which is particularly obvious to me as a former political blogger. In politics we had the natural tempo of The News to blog to. Making allowance for hobby horses and specialist subjects, a lot of the time we were all blogging about the same stuff. Reading and writing blogs fitted seamlessly into a large single conversation that was also being conducted on social networking platforms, in newspaper columns, and on TV. And it was important to Have Your Say there and then, because, you know, otherwise The News might have gone by the time you next looked!

Archaeology and history blogging, with rare news-driven exceptions, doesn’t have a natural tempo (unless you count the business of being an academic itself, the calendar, the pressures etc; referencing all this is effective social glue for academics but does not engage anybody else or speak to the work they would like to promote). Everyone is talking about their own stuff, in the order that seems best to them, and there is inevitably a certain narrative-driven cast about a lot of historical and archaeology blogs. They know Stuff, we don’t, they are going to tell us Stuff, and unless we are specifically heading out into the internet with the aim of learning about iron age oppida, or whatever, we probably aren’t going to experience the Stuff as being of relevance to the concerns that are uppermost in our minds, far less be moved to post a reply. “Joining the debate”, which is what every empty comment box tempts you to do, feels less urgent if the debate has no particular timetable.

But if there is any regular feature of a researcher’s life where debate might usefully be showcased and used to pique interest, it’s academic conferences. They’re highly stylised as a form of debate, of course, and it’s difficult to report debate accurately anyway, but they do at least have the potential to suggest that archaeological and historical research might be about something more than everybody agreeing on a narrative – which as Donald Henson’s opening paper in the Researching Audiences session apparently pointed out, is the picture presented on TV. Differing interpretations, debate, discussion are largely ironed out by producers who believe the viewer wants a single story.

It could be that the producers are right, of course, and nobody wants debate or discussion or to follow the salient points of an archaeology paper as it’s given and respond to it. Social media offers a cheap and low effort way of testing this point, but on the basis of my impressionistic scan of the #TAG2013 feed, there needs to be a lot more content and a lot more participants for the test to be fair.

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