What would Spenser have chosen as his Twitter handle, and how many accounts might he have run (@EK? @colinclout? @immerito? @belphoebe is taken). The capacity to construct and project a range of voices and identities would have appealed to him, as would the endless capacity of Twitter to grandstand, amplify and nit-pick. There would have been a parody account (@gabrielharvey?) and bids for poetic ownership (curating a @philipsidneyspeaks account, possibly). From his house in Kilcolman, Spenser would also have appreciated the power of Twitter to supply texts, sources, references in multiple languages – a favour he would most likely not reciprocate. Spenser would have been an inveterate subtweeter, given his fondness for opaque allusions and veiled meanings dependent on the assumption of shared, but covert, knowledge – forms of knowledge that tie together complex connections between overlapping groups of people, jostling for prominence and position. He would have blocked or unfriended people who challenged his views – Spenser would have fully exploited (for good and for ill) all of the rhetorical resources Twitter offers.
Twitter, as Sjoerd Levelt has outlined in detail, replicates many aspects of premodern exchange and debate, except that it does so in real time(zones). As much as it generates new material and connections, Twitter can help us rethink key early modern ideas about form, about networks, about sociality. It enables aspects of academic life that, paradoxically, have been lost to the tyranny of the algorithm – serendipity, moving beyond disciplinary boundaries and specialisms, exchange of knowledge and ideas between academics at different career stages, and on different trajectories. Twitter’s capacity to hierarchize equality would have been utterly familiar to most literate early modern people. A mere social media platform cannot paper over the very large cracks in our profession, and indeed, generational conflict is a feature of academic Twitter generally, even where this is couched in apparently supportive terms. And indeed, like other potentially oppositional modes, Twitter too is easily co-opted as part of the commodification and data-obsession of modern humanities disciplines. The idea that Twitter is easily separable from the profession as a whole seems unsustainable – it has become a mainstream medium for accessing conferences and papers, for example, and precarious scholars and ECRs fear the surveillance of their institutions, seeking to patrol their reputations.
There are multiple ways in which #earlymodern Twitter provides support; it is an extraordinarily efficient way of resolving a palaeographical challenge (#palaeography), explicating an obscure reference, or establishing questions of fact. If you need to know what fake French wine was made of, or what an unusual form of citation refers to, someone on Twitter will probably know. It enables speculative discussions about an image, artifact or passage of text unsurpassed by in-person networks. It generates new areas of research and collaboration (#herbook). Individuals’ promotion of their scholarship often expands the parameters of one’s own specialism, and scholarly activism (#ShakeRace in particular) remakes the field. Pandemic twitter has been a vital source of support, for everything from access to texts (#lockdownlibrary) to shared syllabi and tips about online/remote teaching. Twitter’s early modern corner is mostly a force for good: but will these fragmentary and occasionally fractious exchanges mean in 400 years’ time?
The recent Netflix series The Chair – an inglorious look behind the scenes of academic bureaucracy – portrays students’ use of social media as a double-edged sword: an uncontainable instrument that propels a tenured faculty’s downfall, or a hip pedagogical apparatus that accommodates Melville to undergraduates’ taste by a young scholar of color, Yaz.
Before Twitter, there was Spenser’s ‘Blatant Beast’. The Beast “rends without regard of person or of time,” not dissimilar to the students in The Chair, who are portrayed in a reductive binary, with their political energies identified with the need for unrigorous ‘woke’ pedagogy in the form of Yaz having her class rework Moby Dick into tweets, counterposed to the traditional, yet out-dated, rigors of ‘close reading’ (6.12.40). The show sees the social media-addled students like the Faerie Queene sees the Beast: frivolous engines of slander and disorder who petulantly test an already-stretched academic bureaucracy, as the Beast threatens to “blot” the poem’s infrastructure itself through its discourteous discourse, spelling “licentious words, and hatefull things” (6.12.41).
In one sense, these works embody a paradigmatic fear of the masses: they cannot begin to ascribe rational faculties to the unregulated and anti-institutional possibilities enabled by such “fowle commixture[s],” instead reducing them into caricatures (6.1.8). The Book’s final lines ruminate on the Blatant Beast’s ultimate uncontrollability, and Isabel MacCaffey sees it as the poetic form’s final, and unconquerable, opponent, serving as “the enemy of poetry” itself, where a superficial rhetoric of delight subsumes an ethical pedagogy: “Therfore do you my rimes keep better measure, And seeke to please, that now is counted wisemens threasure” (6.12.41).
But in another sense, the Faerie Queene keeps its measure in the face of the Beast’s subversive role, ultimately fulfilling the humanist “fashioning” discussed in the prefatory letter to Ralegh. The poem lurches along into the Mutabilitie Cantos, balancing its disciplined meter with a persisting capacity for rhetoric as those lines promise. Faeryland is not upended: Spenser’s readers can take the Beast—and those it attacks—as another lesson.
And indeed, what can we gain by thinking about the politics of learning in Spenser by reading such subverters of discourse alongside each other, Twitter and the Beast? I wrote earlier this year that the discussion spaces opened up by programming like #GettingStartedWithSpenser, which gathered scholars to comment on different ways of teaching Spenser in a free discussion surrounding a hashtag on Twitter, can be sites of reflexive critique. This ‘pedagogification’ of online spaces and other initiatives enable greater access to decentralized knowledge production, but also emerge as institutional responses to much more unruly and unadaptable kinds of activism. With academia pushed to reform by the likes of the movement for Black lives, we see departments and administrations responding to the need for ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusive pedagogy’ through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and other kinds of institutional capture, which Rima Saini defines as “the process by which demands for structural change get absorbed into already existing management policies.” With this in mind, social media like Twitter, still embodies an ambiguous position in today’s discourse: seen as either distractions from the academic discipline’s ‘genuine’ labours or discursive ephemera incorporated into the familiar parameters of ‘public scholarship’ or ‘scholarly service’. Threatening the institutional limits of discourse itself, Spenser’s Beast similarly calls to question the poem’s internal legitimacy and coherence from a position within its form. These noisy, foul beasts necessitate an auto-immune response from institutional power—in other words, the need to domesticate critique.
Ultimately, the Beast in the poem and Yaz’s hip Twitter pedagogy in the show can redefine how academic discipline is policed just as they reinforce its power, performing what Roderick Ferguson names as “formalizing certain forms of difference gives those forms permanence and institutional protection and will lift difference from the netherworld of marginalization and informal curiosity.” The Beast need not tear apart the poem’s cohesive fabric; it can continue in a disciplined stride, and to teach and please, as those final lines augur. Katie Kadue indexes a similar, albeit Miltonic, paradox that characterizes Twitter as both “hell” and that which “suspends hell,” with its endless content offering a respite from the precarity and contradictions of academia, bringing about “the capacity of stuckness to disrupt the usual flows of capital or discourse and to create, instead, new wandering mazes of collective linguistic pleasure.” Such a description has often also been used to describe the Faeryland, though Spenser’s labyrinth may prove even more adept in ultimately circumscribing its internal disruptions back around the discipline of the poem’s ‘better measures.’
I have tried a lot to use social media in teaching, with mixed results. My Twitter thumbnail has been a picture of Milton since I joined the platform, which is a legacy of this. Whilst it is difficult to make work, social media *can* provide a place for engaging discussion and innovative interaction, and in particular they provide new spaces for assessment. My students have created Youtube posts, Vlogs, online reviews, animations, gifs and memes, podcasts and Tumblr pages, and reflected often upon the interrelation between the form of their presented work and the content.
More practically, for me social media provides an interesting and suggestive space, a useful analogous location to place early modern concepts within. In teaching I have used the internet generally and social media particularly as a means for exploring issues in relation to early modern concepts of public space, censorship, utopia thinking, performance and the ‘printing revolution’. It is really useful for me when teaching religious radicalism, for instance, to be able to talk about the potentiality offered (seemingly) by new media and new iterative spaces. Whilst it is a cliche that the internet is akin to the expanding marketplace of print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the notion of being able to articulate new identity and reconfigure agency via a transformative, global, and (to an extent) unlegislated or uncontrolled set of media can be extremely suggestive. Furthermore, students are extremely conscious of issues regarding privacy, copyright, censorship, activism, and transgression in relation to online public space. They are hyper-aware, and very experienced, in thinking about ideas of articulation, identity, and agency in relation to social media, and can therefore be engaged through these means.
I joined Twitter in 2014 under much duress and after the university I then worked at insisted we had to be on social media for public engagement purposes. For a while I didn’t really understand what the space was for, beyond cat gifs, and its public engagement possibilities seemed, to my mind, quite limited. In time, however, I began to understand its appeal for community building. It can be a space to extend conversations beyond the space of the conference; clicking on a conference hashtag before a conference is a great way of connecting with people and finding out who else might also be attending. For those who are not in the room, following live tweeting can help them to engage with the broader questions a conference poses. But live-tweeting also presents challenges with regards to consent and the ethics of placing a speaker’s unpublished research on a public forum: conference organisers need to ensure that there are policies in place to enable speakers to opt out from having their work tweeted.
Research projects such as MEMOs (see Lubaaba al-Azami’s contribution below) and TIDE have made me less sceptical of Twitter as a platform for public engagement, though I still wonder if the reach of social media is as wide as we assume. From looking at the analytics of the Society for Renaissance Studies’ Twitter feed and Facebook, a post might been ‘seen’ by over a thousand people but a tenth of that number might click on the link in the post for more deeper engagement with the materials. The somewhat scattered approach of social media means that it can reach wider audiences but this raises questions about who is the audience and what purposes the post serves. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) conversations that can be had with teachers in and beyond Higher Education and with those who are working in the heritage sector have been truly transformative, perhaps especially around diversifying and decolonising the curriculum. The #ShakeRace hashtag has helped me to think more critically about what we teach, how, and why, and to reflect upon my own research and citation.
The trite answer to the question ‘How has (or might) social media change(d) our understanding of Spenser and Renaissance literature?’ might be a dismissive ‘not much’ as it is sometimes difficult to navigate all the material on a timeline, but it has been a tool for change in many imperceptible ways: from the conferences that have been developed as a consequence of an enthusiastic response tweet, to the kindness of scholars who are willing to answer queries someone might have about something they have found in the archive, to scholars seeking thoughts on how to make spaces more inclusive, to hashtags that invite us to take a fresh look at our work, to scholars announcing publication of their recent book or research project. At its best, social media can help to build a sense of community and through this community inform our critical thinking. And there’s always the cat gifs.
Twitter has been a key part of my academic life for the past five years or so. Even before Covid19 caused disruption to standard scholarly forums, this dynamic social media space has allowed me to listen to and learn from a tremendous global community of Renaissancists in so very many ways. My understanding of the field has grown – and continues to grow – immeasurably, from finding about the latest publications and conferences to less formal modes of discussion and debate which appear on my timeline. It’s also great fun to join in with collegial ‘watch parties’ of streamed productions of early modern plays and to generally be part of an encouraging and supportive group of people with shared interests. For me, the most enduring kind of social media scholarship is a fusion of planned activity and spontaneous comment, for example Dennis Britton’s and Kim Coles’ #TeamFQandRace which started on July 16 2018 and continued online for 6 weeks. As Kim Coles’ tweet on that first day explained:
1/ Today, @DennisBritton3 and I propose a challenge: we are reviving the #TeamFQ convo with a focus on Spenser and race. We invite you to read a book of the FQ each week (about 2 cantos a day) and tweet out your thoughts on race in the FQ #TeamFQandRace
Without doubt, the #TeamFQandRace thread compelled me to scrutinize my own research and teaching practices as a privileged white academic. Specifically, Britton’s and Coles’ 2018 initiative made me realise that this wasn’t a discussion I could take part in: I had far too much to learn about premodern critical race studies to do anything but read #TeamFQandRace and reflect. I still have much to learn. By following Dennis Britton @DennisBritton3 and Kim Coles @kim_a_coles I subsequently found out that they had summarised the #TeamFQandRace thread for The Spenser Review 50.1.5 (Winter 2020) and had co-edited a special issue on ‘Spenser and Race’ for Spenser Studies 35 (2021) which includes the editors’ introduction on ‘Spenser and Race’ and Ayanna Thompson’s ‘Afterword: Me, The Faerie Queene, and Critical Race Theory’. I’m not a Spenserian and I’ve no idea how I would have known about Britton’s and Coles’ crucial work – which extends far beyond this individual author’s writings – without Twitter. Thank you both very much indeed for your labour – in all media.
What does Mariah Carey have to do with Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene? Not very much except in the networked world of social media. The Twitter account Spenser Dispenser (@SpenseOMatic), a bot that tweets out lines from the Faerie Queene, includes a Gif response featuring Carey saying ‘I don’t know her’ to the line ‘In hast was climbing up the Easterne hill’(https://twitter.com/spenseomatic/status/902740852178649088?s=21). The combination of text and moving image is the quality of the Gif as distinctively 21st century communication within networked media: the deployment and repurposing of existing media content allows users to intervene in – and continue – the flow of content online. The appropriation of Carey’s performative ignorance in this tweet might suggest a wider ignorance about Spenser on social media or online. Though Spenserian text is as reducible to social media content as any other text in the sense that it is text and, as rendered online, becomes an unseen computational thing that can be read by other computational things, it is less evident in online platforms and communities when compared to, say, Shakespeare. For reasons well known, though not uncontested, Shakespeare has entered into the terrain of the quotable, returning with uncanny familiarity, finding new media as hospitable as more traditional modes of literary quotation in print culture. Spenser, for reasons less well known or pursued, is curiously inhospitable to social media, not quite as readily (re)appearing online as Shakespeare. For instance, there is no Spenserian equivalent to the Twitter initiative, #ShakespeareSunday that calls out to users to share a quote on a pre-set theme.
The Spenser Dispenser in its endless work of tweeting lines from The Faerie Queene provides quotable material — as tweets, the Spenserian line becomes a computational thing, a hyperlink that can be variously shared, reposted, copied and pasted to become something else. In this way, the FQ bot working behind the Twitter account’s interface, the thing we cannot see in our interactions with Dispenser / Spenser, is a tool of becoming, with its own agency in terms Ian Bogost applies to the ontology of objects. It’s also a connecting tool, drawing us into related Spenser content. In searching for Spenser on social media, I began to notice more — and the Twitter algorithm “helps” here in shaping and even determining search — accounts and interactions with the texts. Some of these fall within the wry and ironic tone associated with Twitter discourse. For example, to FQ Bot’s first post, ‘Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske’, one user replies, ‘get to the point’ (John Gallagher, https://twitter.com/earlymodernjohn/status/897596392482451456?s=21). The extracted line of verse hints at but also separates itself from the copia of Spenser’s epic. With such disaggregation, we encounter the limits of Twitter Spenser, a platform inhospitable to the flow of Spenserian verse and epic.
But elsewhere the platform proves hospitable, and affords forms of close reading. The #GettingStartedWithSpenser, the hashtag for a online conference run by the International Spenser Society, provide synchronous and asynchronous access to current research. Ambereen Dadabhoy quotes (https://twitter.com/drdadabhoy/status/1338905995477565440?s=21) Debapriya Sarkar’s paper on the Anthropocene, climate fiction, and gendered and colonial violence in the poem, with an image attached quoting Guyon’s destructive logic ( II.I I.83). In this Quote Tweet, Spenser is not so much dispensed online as made accessible and archived. Twitter users, including those beyond the community of scholars attending the online conference, can interact with this (Spenserian) content and discover new work on Spenser. As such, social media Spenser is a research resource for scholars and students of the poems, a network comprising users and content.
But social media Spenser can become more than this too – perhaps inaugurating a series of Spenser hashtags to extend The Faerie Queene’s quotability, to share its artistry and its contexts. Assignments set for students might encourage the use of digital text-image tools as well as the affordances of networked media to share such work and build or extend existing communities online. Mobilising social media in these ways can imagine and reimagine rather than dispense with Spenser.
Social media might change our understanding of Spenser and Renaissance literature to the extent that it shapes our experience of time. Features such as news feeds, timelines, and “memories” invite us to consider temporalities, and how they impact us as readers. These features have changed our expectations, making us comfortable with turning from the present to the past as we read short-form responses. Social media encourages us to scan texts, but certain features such as “memories” and markers of time slow us down. News feeds display what is happening now, are capable of reminding us of what has happened, and, insofar as we write about the kind of world we hope for, can capture an ideal future. Time is present, yet it is easy to get lost in all there is to see, and say.
This process can be meaningful. Shifts in time on social media change our expectations as readers because time hopping changes how we read. What we see in others’ posts, and what we have previously said or posted, can and do impact us. The added feature of looking backward (“memories”) suggests that, to some extent, we want to record our past, and we want to make sense of who we are by rereading it.
These concerns are familiar to readers of Spenser. In The Faerie Queene, one way the poet challenges us as readers is by shifting us from the present to the past. In these moments, we are asked to take a second look (at the poem and ourselves). To do so involves a sustained attention on the text. In social media, news feeds seem perpetual, but can only hold our attention for so long. Temporal features on social media might not be something that would have surprised Spenser given time’s presence and significance in The Faerie Queene.
In Book III, canto ii, Spenser moves our gaze from the present to the past, going backward in the narrative to Britomart’s memory. This shift in time causes us to consider what we are seeing—to get to the heart of Britomart and her pain. Near the beginning of the canto, she describes Artegall to Redcrosse, but she attempts to delete what she has said after she has spoken it. Redcrosse provides a second depiction of Artegall, wherein he is “noble,” news that gives a small reprieve to Britomart’s wound (III.ii.15). The next portrait of Artegall appears when she glimpses his image in Merlin’s glass (III.ii.24-25).
Merlin’s mirror anticipates something not unlike social media: its magic is displayed via a glass object, it is recognized worldwide, and it is an image reflective of the world (18-19). (Whereas the mirror reveals a true image of the future, social media presents texts we must work to assess). Because Britomart’s memory is one in which she envisions her future love, this canto offers a glimpse into Britomart’s past and future. Her vision of Artegall leads to the wound “on which her life doth feed” (37.4), and feeding it influences her perceptions. Lost in this feed, she remembers a once-bright image as a “shade” (37.4). To make sense of who she is and what she sees, we must move forward in the book and reach its final canto, where it makes sense to turn back and revisit this one.
The attention to Britomart’s memory here contrasts what we find in the Garden of Adonis, where species-forms, after they have returned, grow again as if absent from “fleshly corruption” and “mortall payne” (III.vi.33.4). Without memories, there is no ability to regret. We see a longing in Britomart to reverse her words to Redcrosse (III.ii.9.1-2), and a similar moment occurs when the gods “relent” Tyme’s destructive actions in the garden (III.vi.40.1). Mortality seems reversible for species-forms, yet time’s overarching presence cannot be recalled, even by the gods.
I believe we can approach social media with the same goal as Spenser’s for The Faerie Queene: to “fashion a gentleman or gentle person in virtuous or gentle discipline.” When I recognize my less-than-virtuous online behaviors (untagging unflattering photos: Vanity; doom-scrolling: Despair), I am reminded to reflect on the person I am fashioning through my likes, follows, and retweets.
During the pandemic, however, my move to mainland China to work for NYU’s Go Local program at NYU Shanghai overhauled my perspective on social media and its potential Spenserian connections. I now know how much digital connection depends on powerful but invisible national boundaries. And I had to confront how my own body could sabotage my will to connect. While isolated for my 14-day central quarantine and by my language barriers, social media became my main outlet for deep connection. I became adept at country-hopping from the same geographical location via my virtual private network (VPN), skirting past national bans of certain platforms: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Google in China; TikTok in Hong Kong. If I ran into a dead end, I could rally. I just had to reconfigure my whereabouts, and I could be anywhere.
This confidence in my abilities was premature, however. Turns out I had world enough but not time. Living in GMT+8, I was never awake for a Twitter moment as it happened, and my VPNs kept foisting me into unfamiliar bubbles. Hours behind news, I struggled to piece together threads and subtweets to locate the latest outrageous OpEd or find Twitter’s “main character” of the day. Drowning in the platform’s onslaught of new and geographically specific narratives, Twitter’s supposed “Trends for you” were never really for me. The advent of the trend for scheduled-Zoom-lectures gave me such hope! I could see a Tweet advertising a scholar’s talk and book a simultaneous connection. I was especially drawn to the International Spenser Society’s “Spenser @ Random” sessions (see Joe Moshenska’s contribution in this issue). In these Zoom calls, a stanza from The Faerie Queene is selected randomly and studied in depth, apart from the narrative thrust of the romance. At least, I think that’s what happens. I’ve slept through each session—despite my will to attend and multiple alarms. Those who attended the last session considered how stanza 3.6.39 depicts “wicked Time” pitilessly cutting down all “goodly things” in the Garden of Adonis. In my case, Time is not the only problem. Externally, I’m contending with Time Zones. But internally, it’s traditional vices like Sloth, Despair, Fury, Shame, and Pride. Never before in my life have I been so surprised and humbled by forces I’m apparently unable to control.
I now understand more fully how difficult fashioning gentle discipline can be. Despite having all the tools at my disposal to facilitate the social media connections I crave, I have not yet been physically able to grasp those precious and fleeting possibilities. And this is perhaps one lesson about social media’s influence on our understanding of Spenser and Renaissance literature: our tools that allow us to transcend space and time might promise social connection, but they can do so at the expense of our connections with our own bodies, which couldn’t be more bound to space and time. Still, I keep hoping for a moment to truly connect.
In the summer of 2015 I decided to reread The Faerie Queene. I had read the whole poem twice before, but that had been a good 15 years earlier, and as both a teacher and a scholar I felt I’d lost touch with the poem as a whole. My plan was to read a canto a day, with Sundays off, meaning it would take me three months. I posted about this on Twitter and encouraged other early modernists to play along at home. Our hashtag would be #TeamFQ.
Although part of my motive in rereading the poem was to see if my current book project needed a Spenser chapter, my twitter persona was not a scholarly one. Rather, my tweets were the equivalent of textual underlining and marginalia:
“I enjoy this enjambment & I bet Milton did, too: ‘The fearfull Shepheard often there aghast / Under them never sat.’ #TeamFQ” (May 29)
“Hate how most eds disambiguate S’s pronouns. Why might it *not* be Una who ‘pray[s] / That plagues & mischief’ fall on her enemies? #TeamFQ” (May 30)
“Shorter FQ: you should risk everything for a lover you saw in a dream! But actual lovers = way too much drama. And prolly have STDs. #TeamFQ” (June 5)
Unlike with actual marginalia, however, I sometimes got answers from smarter readers. On May 29, I tweeted, “I’ve never understood Fradubio’s name: what it means in context, why it suggests monasticism/mendicantism.” I had been taking “Fra” as the shortened form of the Italian title for “brother” (frate), used by friars. I got a response from Stephen Guy-Bray explaining that he always parses it as the Italian preposition fra, or “amidst doubt”—an equally logical reading I had not considered.
Intermittently throughout those months, other early modernists read and tweeted along; a couple read the whole poem while others joined for just a book or two. That said, although I would have quit tweeting without the larger community, it’s clear that my social media strategy was not really about fostering conversation and still less about tackling serious scholarly questions; some of this may have been due to my sense of inadequacy as a Spenserian, but I was also interested in keeping the bar to entry low, as I do in the undergraduate classroom: we’re just readers together, tackling one deeply weird poem. For that reason, although I was sometimes inspired to do a little research, I rarely reported the results, or only if there was something that might interest or amuse others. (For example, I was curious enough about the monastic associations of “Palmer” to trawl through the whole period 1560-60 on EEBO. But the only thing I shared was the fact that, in the time period, a palmer could also refer to a caterpillar or a ferule.)
Reading Spenser with #TeamFQ was a pleasure and I hope it brought pleasure to others. But it had some limitations. A couple of years later I realized that I was already forgetting things, so I sat down and read the entire poem again, this time typing up short summaries in a Word document as I went. And these days, I’m mostly off Twitter: it doesn’t feel like the same welcoming, free-wheeling community. Maybe it’s simply that I’ve aged out of Twitter, or maybe it’s that no genre or medium is forever.
Except, of course, for the English allegorical national epic.
Let me begin by saying that I do have a social media account, on Facebook, though I don’t use Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, or any of the other digital platforms one hears about. Over the past few years, I have asked myself what is ‘social’ about social media – is Facebook like an extended conversation with one’s friends, is it a platform for voicing private anxieties and public concerns, or is it a means of self-promotion, even exhibitionism? Since there are Facebook groups like Early Modernists, Shakespeare and Early Modern Friends, and Rethinking World Literature (though none devoted to Edmund Spenser) it is abundantly possible to use the ‘reach’ of social media to keep in touch with scholarship in one’s chosen areas, to advertise publications or conferences, or put questions to what is called the ‘hive mind.’ But though these groups do have dedicated members, my experience of them has been slightly random. In flattened, Zuckerbergian digital space, all controlled by unknown algorithms, they pop up on my newsfeed with no more frequency than recipes from a food group I also belong to, and I’ve never seen a debate on any of them acquire the kind of intensity I recently witnessed on the Sidney-Spenser ListServ. I rarely search for these groups on Facebook to find out what’s happening, while emails on ListServ, of course, are delivered directly to your Inbox, and are hard to ignore, even if they implicitly ignore you.
For a South Asian scholar like myself, the digital revolution created unprecedented access to early modern European texts, despite the obstacles still put in one’s way by archives, libraries and rapacious publishers. Could one say the same about the social media revolution, potentially connecting researchers not known to each other, and scattered across the planet? Sadly, the huge and continuing obstacles to research are only being addressed by Internet piracy and the open access movement. For a while, I was a member of a Facebook group called Ask for PDFs from People with Institutional Access, an eminently worthy venture that I dropped out of largely because I didn’t have institutional access any more, and the unauthorized resources of sites like Library Genesis (LibGen), and even the Internet Archive expanded beyond imagining. One does meet fellow-scholars on social media, but to keep up with them, email would be preferable. Social media operates on the principle of short attention spans and instant forgetting. Self-proclaimed Knights of Truth wage battles with Error, there are supporters and trolls, but next morning – despite the psychic scars and digital cache – the ‘wall’ is wiped as clean as Freud’s Magic Writing-Pad. I wage such battles myself, posting angrily on politics, social justice, or the environment, and occasionally I put up notices of books or articles. But though there are Early Modernists, even Spenserians, among my Facebook friends, I never post on Spenser, or indeed on work at all. Perhaps I’m afraid I will forget what I said, as Facebook undoubtedly will?
Twitter is the social media platform that I most use for work (OK: the only social media platform). In the fairly early days of Twitter (around 2010), I set up an account (@Tudorbilia), through which I intended to disseminate profound and/or humorous snippets from sixteenth-century texts – ‘leeks be evil’, ‘a beard makes not a philosopher’ – with the aim of generating interest in less canonical or well-known material. This was a short-lived experiment: the length and complexity of most sixteenth-century sentences, my pedantic insistence on providing a precise reference for each quotation, and the then 140-character limit meant I was taking an inordinately long time to craft my Tweets, and I soon lost momentum. Plus, it all felt a bit whimsical and self-indulgent. Twitter wasn’t a thing that many academics really did back then (phenomena like @earlymodernjohn were just starting off; @wmarybeard was in its infancy).
It all looks very different now. Academic Twitter is a thriving on-line community, which I’ve found immensely valuable in terms of teaching and research since re-joining in 2015. It’s great for sharing news about academic jobs, events, calls for papers; for asking about reading list recommendations, how to tackle a particular topic, a palaeographical conundrum, or even if someone has a particular book to hand (a godsend during lockdown). Unlike many other parts of the Twitterverse, the Academic Twitter I’ve experienced is a mostly benign and supportive space, where people are quick to rally round and provide advice or a virtual shoulder to cry on. Nevertheless, there are inevitably spats and faux pas, and institutions would be wise to include advice on the effective and ethical use of social media as part of the career development training they offer.
One of the challenges of using Twitter for academic purposes is sifting through the vast amount of stuff that gets posted, not least because many people – myself included – use their Twitter account for both professional and personal purposes, and things that hover in between (in my case, sixteenth-century images of dogs and horses, and Tudor swearwords that I think merit reviving: work and play gets very close in such instances). But that also has its productive, generative charm.
As an early modernist, my research centres on recognising Renaissance literature as global and transcultural. It is a perspective often at odds with my own early training that centred a White, Western European normativity in the field. The ‘Global Renaissance’ is a lens championed particularly by Scholars of Colour, such as Jyotsna Singh, whose crucial work has extracted this rich and vibrant discipline from a narrow Eurocentric critical space. My own work examines England’s early modern encounters with and literary representations of the Islamic Worlds broadly and the Mughal Empire in particular.
Understanding the Renaissance as global and transcultural provided much of the impetus for my founding of Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs), a transnational digital platform that explores medieval and early modern interactions between England and the Islamic Worlds. Conceived of as wholly digital and launched during the pandemic, social media has been at the core of its existence. MEMOs has thus been immersed in an online ecosystem of Renaissance discourses, and this has offered an insight into how the understanding of Spenser and broader Renaissance literature is changed – and in my view, advanced - by social media.
Perhaps what stands out most is the sheer diversity of participants. Social media in many ways (albeit with limitations) broadens access. Whereas access to a university entails several guarded gates, social media requires access to the internet. Structural inequalities in the Academy often mean scholars of certain demographics are held back. Social media offers a more level playing field. What emerges is a far more diverse and rich exchange of ideas. MEMOs prides itself on its research team, majority of whom are Scholars of Colour, and its Women of Colour leadership. While this is deliberate – we believe a more representative Academy is possible and seek to model that – it has been aided substantially by our social media foundations.
Scholars of Colour and Early Career Researchers are abundant on social media and often enjoy a platform and voice there that the Academy may deny them. They bring their innovative ideas online and disrupt received knowledge. They share space with academic heavyweights and engage as relative equals. A recent example is when the renowned Stanley Wells tweeted, ‘There is nothing in The Tempest to identify Caliban as black’. Young Scholars of Colour directly and successfully contested this deeply problematic dictum. Academic hashtags, such as #ShakeRace, bring diverse and erudite young researchers to the fore, offering fresh interventions on what are often the most intransigent areas of Renaissance research. By this social media has been instrumental in advancing critical innovation that may not have been otherwise conceivable in some institutional spaces.
Social media is also a transnational space. From across continents scholars engage and collaborate, creating a crucial forum for knowledge exchange that enriches our understandings. As a British academic I am often forced to rethink my position by colleagues in North America and Australasia, and even more so by colleagues outside the Anglophone West. Important perspectives emerge on the Renaissance beyond the discipline’s Eurocentric foundations. This allows us to zoom out from our island space and, for example, learn about the early modern dramas of the Ottoman Empire.
At MEMOs, we seek to advance and platform these fresh perspectives. Our experience is that social media, despite its shortcomings, is an invaluable space to expand thinking and fashion new ways to be collegial. And, crucially, it is often early career Scholars of Colour at the fore of that advancement.
Al-Azami, Lubaaba., Founding Editor. Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs), 2020. https://memorients.com/.
@bkadams. “What do we gain by making such absolute statements and closing off interpretive models? There may be nothing to suggest that there’s a book-flask in this play, but I’ve made the argument and it has led to great conversations. Your Caliban isn’t Black, Sir, but for others he is.” Twitter, 16 Sept. 2021, 10:26 p.m., https://twitter.com/bkadams/status/1438615284286296075?s=20.
Higher Education Statistics Agency. “Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2018/19.” HESA. 23 Jan. 2020, https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/23-01-2020/sb256-higher-education-staff-statistics. Accessed 20 September 2021.
Öğütcü Murat. “Early Modern Dramatic Entertainments in the Ottoman Empire: Part One.” Medieval and Early Modern Orients. 14 June. 2021, https://memorients.com/articles/early-modern-dramatic-entertainments-in-the-ottoman-empire-part-one. Accessed 20 Sept. 2021.
@stanley_wells. “There is nothing in The Tempest to identify Caliban as black. @The_Globe @Paul_Edmonson.” Twitter, 16 Sept. 2021, 8:05 p.m., twitter.com/stanley_wells/status/1438579816719081477?s=20.
 ‘Early Modern Marginalia and #earlymoderntwitter’, in Early Modern English Marginalia, ed. Katherine Acheson (Cham: Palgrave, 2019), 234-56.
 See https://twitter.com/rhetorician/status/1369625454399942656; and https://twitter.com/PEMcCullough/status/1428381850335076354
 Isabel MacCaffey, Spenser’s Allegory: The Anatomy of Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 401.
 Promise Li, “Inclusive Pedagogy From Faeryland: A Report on ‘#Getting Started With Spenser’ (15 December 2020),” Spenser Review 51.1.12 (Winter 2021). http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/spenseronline/review/item/51.1.12 Accessed September 1st, 2021.
 Rima Saini, “Risks of Institutional Capture in University Decolonization, And How to Create Meaningful Change”, Social Science Space (August 20, 2020). https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2020/08/risks-of-institutional-capture-in-university-decolonization-and-how-to-create-meaningful-change/. Accessed September 14th, 2021.
 Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: The University of Minneasota Press, 2012), 226.
 Katie Kadue, “Suspended Hell,” n+1 (July 30, 2021). https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/suspended-hell/. Accessed September 14th, 2021.
 For example, as of 2018/19 only 17% of academic staff in the UK are of BME background.
Higher Education Statistics Agency. “Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2018/19.” HESA. 23 Jan. 2020, https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/23-01-2020/sb256-higher-education-staff-statistics. Accessed 20 September 2021.
 @stanley_wells. “There is nothing in The Tempest to identify Caliban as black. @The_Globe @Paul_Edmonson.” Twitter, 16 Sept. 2021, 8:05 p.m., twitter.com/stanley_wells/status/1438579816719081477?s=20.
 @bkadams. “What do we gain by making such absolute statements and closing off interpretive models? There may be nothing to suggest that there’s a book-flask in this play, but I’ve made the argument and it has led to great conversations. Your Caliban isn’t Black, Sir, but for others he is.” Twitter, 16 Sept. 2021, 10:26 p.m., https://twitter.com/bkadams/status/1438615284286296075?s=20.
 Murat Öğütcü. “Early Modern Dramatic Entertainments in the Ottoman Empire: Part One.” Medieval and Early Modern Orients. 14 June. 2021, https://memorients.com/articles/early-modern-dramatic-entertainments-in-the-ottoman-empire-part-one. Accessed 20 Sept. 2021.