Essays

Digital vs. IRL: A Tale of Two Superscripts

(GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)
(GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of reflection posts by the three participants in the Superscript Blog Mentorship program, for which Hyperallergic partnered with the Walker Art Center to provide guidance, editing, and publishing opportunities to emerging arts writers at the #Superscript15 conference (May 28–30).

Being at Superscript was quite the meta experience. As soon as the bloggers were acknowledged at the welcome address, I left the Walker Cinema — where all the talks and screenings were taking place — to sequester myself in the windowless Walker Library, where our “enterprising” blogging chops were put to use in an impromptu “newsroom.” But I didn’t miss the panels entirely; I watched the live Twitter feed and kept one earphone in to listen to the live-streaming video.

(screenshot via @adriannerussell/Twitter)

Even for those in attendance, the feeling was that there were two parallel Superscripts — one on the web and one IRL, so to speak. This was, in part, intended. Essays were commissioned for the Superscript Reader and will continue to be published in the near future. Merray’s, Sam’s, and my blog posts were published on the Walker’s Media Lab blog and Mn Artists, creating further content about the conference. But this more formal material was and remains more of a resource or archive than an integral part of the live conference.

(screenshot via @larissaarcher/Twitter)

What created a sense of disconnect was the feeling that the live Twitter commentary was just noise, a series of knee-jerk reactions rather than proper responses that could interact with the talks they were critiquing. As far as I know, the only time a #Superscript15 tweet succeeded in being a quick, effective form of communication was when someone reported an unidentified man who had wandered in and was handing out flyers for a local strip club, prompting the organizers to call security. Tweets live-commenting on the speakers’ presentations, calling out the lack of racial, sexual, and socio-economic diversity of the panels, complaining about the way-too-strong AC in the room, and interrogating or rallying behind points made in the talks were hardly, at least not directly, addressed. Some questions asked by remote viewers on Twitter were brought into the live conversation, though they were oddly transcribed by hand onto paper, then handed to the moderator, creating a delay and limitation in the flow of commentary that contradicts the very nature of tweeting.

(screenshot via @tweetartcrit/Twitter)

On the one hand, we can’t necessarily expect 140 characters to allow for nuanced commentary — or, as Eugenia Bell of Design Observer put it during her panel at Superscript, “No one is saying anything of substance on Twitter about anything.” On the other, doesn’t exploring the critical possibilities of new means of communicating ideas get to the heart of the conference itself? So why didn’t the live Twitter feed have any effect on what was going on onstage? What does this tell us about the fairly orthodox and familiar short presentation/panel discussion model of a conference claiming to embrace technological progress? What’s at stake in this division of digital chatter from serious discussion IRL?

(screenshot via @pushinghoops/Twitter)

After the panels I was able to attend, I definitely heard people mention notable tweets that popped up during the session. But these were mostly treated as parallel to the action, more of an inside joke (‘Did you see that tweet? It was hilarious.’) for those following the feed than legitimate criticism. And for those who will watch the video footage or read the transcripts in the future, the rich collection of online commentary will almost undoubtedly be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Besides, we’re over the #Superscript15 hashtag now anyway. But the issue is structural: tweets are archived on a separate website and a pain to search through, and there’s no way to know the exact moments at which specific tweets were responding to specific speakers.

(screenshot via @Terorco/Twitter)

It’s as simple as platform design; multiple conversation threads happen in multiple locations (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) without referencing each other or being easily accessible (or integrated) in one place. Twitter felt disconnected because it is disconnected, reminding us that the internet is far from a bastion of unlimited, utopian connectivity — an idea that harkens back to Ayesha Siddiqi‘s talk at the conference highlighting the fundamentally corporate, that is, non-public, nature of social media space. The old anxiety around conferences is whether anything productive will result from them, because, essentially, they’re comprised of a select group of people sitting and talking in a room while others listen. Though Superscript’s live-streaming video, simultaneous transcript, and Twitter feed gave many beyond the Twin Cities a glimpse into the room, the discussion itself wasn’t brought online.

(screenshot via @culturalcatgirl/Twitter)

An expanded notion of the conference for the digital age might include sessions dedicated to questions asked through Twitter or video chat; new spaces of gathering — less like theaters and more like cafés, living rooms, or diners — that encourage casual engagement with other people, both physically and virtually; panel discussions in online chat form; and a cross-platform aggregator of comments, questions, raves, and rants — because why shouldn’t a Facebook post lead to a heated Twitter debate and a meme on Instagram?

(screenshot via @james4texas/Twitter)

For me, Superscript surfaced a wide range of new ideas and old tensions, showing that we are definitively at yet another transformative moment brought by technology — from the arrowhead to the iPhone — and just how much we remain burdened by old mindsets and ways of doing things. Throughout the weekend the phrase “We might not answer these questions here” kept coming up, which frustrated me, because as much as I respect time and process, I found myself asking: If not now, then when?

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