Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Twitterati: Twitter Activism

These are my notes for a presentation in a roundtable discussion on “The Twitterati: Using Twitter in Medieval Scholarship and Pedagogy” organized by Carla Thomas at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, which took place yesterday.


I became an environmentalist when my mother loaned me her copy of Diet for a Small Planet somewhere around 1983, and I learned that Argentinian subsistence farming was under threat from beef grazing for the US hamburger market. And after  spending the past year writing a book about the Anglo-Saxons’ ideas about the environments they lived in, I’ve come to an increasingly strong conviction that a global capitalism predicated on constantly increasing consumption and production is a major contributor to global warming. I’ve long been a believer in the old green mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” to which environmentalists have recently added “refuse,” i.e. refuse to buy, reject consumption. As a result of concentrated thinking about the issues while writing a book over the past year it has become clearer to me that capitalist economies are pushing consumption and growth, while pushing governments (especially that of the US) to enable them to maximize production growth, for instance through the recently passed trans-pacific partnership (TPP) trade agreement. We are long past the point of “sustainable” development.

In writing and speaking in academic contexts about my work, whether scholarly or pedagogical, I make it clear that my work on ecotheory and the Anglo-Saxon world comes with environmental commitments. Writing about attitudes toward the environment in a scholarly forum or teaching students about the environment is based on the assumption that information can lead to change. But for me, environmentalism involves the further commitment to activism. I tell my students that in my courses we assume that climate science is valid, and that I am convinced that climate change is the greatest crisis of our time. We all need to stop consuming. Meat, clothing, water, gasoline, whatever it is, we all need to reduce consumption. Drastically.

But in a scholarly or pedagogical forum, the main goal is to educate. If I push an activist message too hard in a conference paper or in the classroom, I risk alienating the audience or the students. My audience on Twitter, however, is self-selected. If they don’t want to hear my exhortations about climate change, they can un-follow me, and regularly, they do. But if they’re willing to listen in, I will try to educate them as well, in more activist manner.

I’ve been blogging since 2007 and, more recently, tweeting, to try to reach a broader audience and to write in a forum where I don’t feel I have to self-censor. Friends, family, and complete strangers can choose to read my blog or follow my tweets, and can unfollow me if they find them too extreme. I have developed my Twitter account and my blog without reference to friends or family, but rather as a digital space in which I can connect with other people with similar ranges of interest: environmentalism, feminist and queer and anti-racist politics, and issues around disability and chronic illness.

I also participate in Twitter as a follower of other activists. I often hear about demonstrations and protests and, yes, on-line petitions, via twitter. These are the Big Twitterers, with thousands if not millions of followers. But we Little Twitterers have a role to play in Big Twitter Activism: we can boost signal and get the word out to people who might not be following the big accounts. Most of the well-know twitter activist activity has taken place in physical places where I’m not present: Ferguson, Arab Spring, Charleston, and more. Following the twitterstream allows me to know, faster than from the news media, what’s going on. And again, I can retweet in solidarity and support. When demonstrations are happening near me, I often find out on Twitter.

As HuffPo writer 2morrowknight writes in an article on twitter activism, “What is a great activist, you ask? I'll tell you: one who informs you of the issues, inspires you to take action, and empowers you to make a difference.” I can count on one hand people I know I’ve made a difference to, whether writing about vegan cooking or living with chronic illness or moving farther away from consumption and toward a minimalist life. But that’s still a handful of people I’ve made a difference to. And in ripple effect, they’ll have an impact on other people they know. It’s not huge, but Ama Yawson, another HuffPo writer, points to the millions of people using social media and the importance of posting about stories. “Spreading articles about police brutality and intelligent commentary on the subject has led to new highs with respect to awareness and action. Moreover, as news stories relating to the police brutality gain attention, news organizations are encouraged to continue to devote resources to covering cases of police brutality.”

I also live-tweet conferences, which may seem to be very different from hashtag activism. But tweeting, for instance, ecocritical sessions from this conference allows me to let a wider audience – academic and non-academic – know about the fact that people are doing ecologically based work in a variety of humanities disciplines. It also brings my identity as an academic into play with my identity as environmentalist and activist. And it lets non-academics in on a secret: English professors are regular people, too.

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