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Enabled backchannel: conference Twitter use by digital humanists

C. Ross (Department of Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)
M. Terras (Department of Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)
C. Warwick (Department of Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)
A. Welsh (Department of Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 8 March 2011




To date, few studies have been undertaken to make explicit how microblogging technologies are used by and can benefit scholars. This paper aims to investigate the use of Twitter by an academic community in various conference settings, and to pose the following questions: Does the use of a Twitter‐enabled backchannel enhance the conference experience, collaboration and the co‐construction of knowledge? and How is microblogging used within academic conferences, and can one articulate the benefits it may bring to a discipline?


This paper considers the use of Twitter as a digital backchannel by the Digital Humanities (DH) community, taking as its focus postings to Twitter during three different international 2009 conferences. The resulting archive of 4,574 “Tweets” was analysed using various quantitative and qualitative methods, including a qualitative categorisation of Twitter posts by open coded analysis, a quantitative examination of user conventions, and text analysis tools. Prominent Tweeters were identified and a small qualitative survey was undertaken to ascertain individuals' attitudes towards a Twitter‐enabled backchannel.


Conference hashtagged Twitter activity does not constitute a single distributed conversation, but rather multiple monologues with a few intermittent, discontinuous, loosely joined dialogues between users. The digital backchannel constitutes a multidirectional complex space in which the users make notes, share resources, hold discussions and ask questions as well as establishing a clear individual online presence. The use of Twitter as a conference platform enables the community to expand communication and participation in events amongst its members. The analysis revealed the close‐knit nature of the DH researcher community, which may be somewhat intimidating for those new to the field or conference.

Practical implications

This study has indicated that, given that Twitter is becoming increasingly important for academic communities, new, dedicated methodologies for the analysis and understanding of Tweet‐based corpora are necessary. Routinely used textual analysis tools cannot be applied to corpora of Tweets in a straightforward manner, due to the creative and fragmentary nature of language used within microblogging. In this paper, a method has been suggested to categorise Tweets using open coded analysis to facilitate understanding of Tweet‐based corpora, which could be adopted elsewhere.


This paper is the first known exhaustive study that concentrates on how microblogging technologies such as Twitter are used by and can benefit scholars. This data set both provides a valuable insight into the prevalence of a variety of Twitter practices within the constraints of a conference setting, and highlights the need for methodologies to be developed to analyse social media streams such as Twitter feeds. It also provides a bibliography of other research into microblogging.



Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C. and Welsh, A. (2011), "Enabled backchannel: conference Twitter use by digital humanists", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 67 No. 2, pp. 214-237.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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