Tweeting Dangerously

David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric

David Gooblar, Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric, is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth (Continuum, 2011). He writes a column on teaching at  His twitter handle is @dgooblar.

It is impossible to talk about Twitter, it seems, without talking about danger. In the first minutes of Ivan Kreilkamp’s “flipped lecture” on Twitter and the academy on Tuesday, the following subjects were broached: the lack of control one has after a tweet makes its way into the world; the “context collapse” that can allow viral tweets to be easily misinterpreted; the tendency of some graduate students to maintain two twitter accounts (one professional, one personal) to be on the safe side; and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and the case of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke before boarding a plane, flew to South Africa, and disembarked to find herself a newly jobless pariah. Tweeting, it would seem, is a dangerous activity, best practiced with an abundance of caution.

I think this sense of danger arises from something particular to Twitter’s design: it feels private, but it definitely is not. Kreilkamp mentioned a number of times the “conversational” appeal of Twitter, how the medium is filled with what Walter Ong called “secondary orality.” We type tweets quickly, often on our phones, and use the informal vocabulary and syntax of texting. As well, the only people reading our tweets, the vast majority of the time, are the people who have elected to follow us. For most of us, this is a small number of people. This can fool us into acting as if we are at a cocktail party, speaking freely to people we can trust. Even if we can’t trust them—they’re just a handful of people.

But if using Twitter is like conversing at a cocktail party, it’s like conversing at a cocktail party on a reality show. We are free to confess our most shameful secrets to our fellow contestants, but we’d be wise to remember the cameras recording us, all the time.

Every tweet you compose and send out into the ether remains inscribed on your profile page, searchable for as long as the service remains online. In addition, the Library of Congress wants to archive every tweet ever sent (although, with more than 500 million tweets a day being added to the archive, it is by no means certain that the project will succeed). So even if you delete that embarrassing joke you made back before you had any followers, you can’t be sure someone won’t find it someday and use it against you.

This built-in confusion—the way Twitter masks its publicness—leads directly to the cautionary tales that make us want to warn graduate students to be careful. Of course we have no such fear of scholarly articles, say, or other kinds of public writing. We don’t warn our graduate students about the necessity of maintaining professional personae when they give conference papers—there’s no need to. When any of us speak or write publicly, we accept that there are certain risks we take. We are free to express whatever dubious personal opinions we have, but we understand that someone out there might be listening, and they might not like those opinions.

For those who are on or will soon be on the job market, caution seems wise. But this caution is medium-independent: it wasn’t Twitter that caused the University of Illinois to rescind its job offer to Steven Salaita; it was that the university’s chancellor objected to what Salaita said publicly.

Whatever else Twitter is—promotional megaphone, generative writing lab, networking tool, community space—it is, first and foremost, a public medium. If we are to help graduate students, or indeed anyone in the academy, navigate the world of social media, we could do a lot worse than to underline this fact: Twitter is public, Twitter is public, Twitter is public.

If we say it enough, maybe we’ll remember.

Questions, We’ve Got Questions for Ivan Kreilkamp



We look forward to Ivan Kreilkamp’s conversation with the UI Next Gen PhD planners on Tuesday, November 1, at 3:30 (BCSB 101), part of a series of symposia organized around rhetorical forms. In our grant proposal, we described this event as follows:

Symposium 3: The Tweet The speed of Twitter communication presents an opportunity and a challenge. As they compose 140-character missives, tweeters can try out different identities, throw out fishing lines, and sharpen lures. On the other hand, an ill-considered comment can have an alarming permanence as it rockets across the Twitter-verse. This symposium will attend to how graduate students can craft professional personae online, with particular attention to voice and tone. The symposium will consider how the same rhetorical skills that allow Twitter-users to disseminate scholarship can be marshaled in careers beyond the academy.

We’re especially interested in talking to Dr. Kreilkamp about how he has come to write for both scholarly and popular venues, and about how his Twitter persona has evolved. To sample Ivan Kreilkamp’s writing in advance of the symposium, check out his essay “Against ‘Against [X]’” in the New Yorker, or his Twitter handle @IvanKreilkamp. Listed below are the questions we’re poised to ask him on November 1. Feel free to add more in the comments section.

Will you talk a little about how you made the transition from writing for scholarly venues to writing for magazines like the New Yorker, Village Voice, or Public Books?

Are there ways in which you (or others at your home institution) are helping PhD candidates develop skills that will serve them in careers beyond the academy?

What advice do you have for graduate students who want to cultivate a Twitter presence?

Are there aspects of voice curation on Twitter that you think are especially important for graduate students?

Do you encourage your graduate students to develop an online presence?

Are there Twitter mistakes of which graduate students need to be especially cognizant? How does one rebound from a Twitter mishap?

Who maintains the Twitter presence of Victorian Studies (@VictStudies), the journal which you edit?

How, or to what extent, is it possible to use Twitter to advance a research program?

What are the potential positive and negative effects on scholarly production of an active Twitter presence?

How much time do you think a graduate student should spend on curating an intellectual presence online?

Do you recommend that graduate students follow certain communities online? In your field, are there “must-follow” online entities? What are they?

To what extent does Twitter help you keep up with your field?

How do you feel about the live-tweeting of conference papers?

What would you say to skeptics who think that Twitter is about self-promotion and little else?

What is the shelf life of a tweet? Do you anticipate a future in which tweets get cited in scholarly articles?


Ivan Kreilkamp on Creating a Twitter Voice


Guest post by Kate Nesbit, PhD student in the Department of English.

How can we craft personae and build professional and intellectual communities in posts of 140 characters or less? On Tuesday, November 1 (BCSB 101), Ivan Kreilkamp joins us to discuss the genre of the tweet in our third Next Gen PhD symposium. Kreilkamp, co-editor of the journal Victorian Studies and professor of English at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, curates a lively Twitter account. His tweets engage in intellectual debate, promote others’ scholarship, link to his publications, and—of course—mourn the woes of the current election season. Young scholars and graduate students admiring Kreilkamp’s Twitter presence may wonder: How can I cultivate an online voice that feels authentic and conversational, but also scholarly and professional? How can I create a community of thinkers who take interest in what I have to say?

What we hope to accomplish through Twitter, Victorian authors like Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charles Dickens hoped to accomplish through novels. For, as Kreilkamp argues in his book Voice and the Victorian Storyteller (2005), Victorian novelists tried to create in their fiction an “imaginary-voice-in-writing.” Victorians figured the novel as the utterance of an authentic, charismatic storyteller, he argues, in order to reconstitute isolated readers as a community of rapt listeners. Kreilkamp challenges characterizations of print culture as oppositional to oral culture. He reads Victorian fiction in relation to the phonograph, Victorian shorthand systems, and other attempts to represent the sounds of speech in writing.

So, how can we describe the “Voice of this Victorianist Tweeter”? Kreilkamp, too, is adept at crafting a personable and smart imaginary-voice-in-typing, a voice accessible and engaging to a community that extends beyond the academy. He has published scholarly articles on topics ranging from speech and voice in the nineteenth century to Victorian pet-keeping and animal studies. Yet he also publishes regularly in venues geared toward wider audiences—The New Yorker, Public Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books—on issues literary, academic and otherwise. In short, his is a voice worth listening to, whether in the form of an article about dogs in Great Expectations, an opinion piece on pulp comics in Public Books, or a 140-character tweet about whether men should be pictured squashed under skillets instead of high heels.