“Occupy MLA” by Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig

Occupy MLA is back!

Screen capture of “Occupy MLA” by Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig. Twitter cover is a picture of an empty journal with a big, red "O" on it. Twitter profile picture writes "occupy MLA," followed by a lengthy description of the twitter account.
Open “Occupy MLA” by Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig

But don’t be alarmed just yet, since this resurgence of the controversial netprov, takes the shape of a published archive (linked to in this entry’s title). This documentation is exemplary, including a 3-minute introductory video, a link to an artists’ statement at The Chronicle of Higher Education (with a fascinating comment thread), an indexed and color-coded archive of the tweets, and an Excel file with the raw data from the four Twitter accounts that form the heart of this work. With this resource, you can read most of this timely performance that blurs the lines between fiction and reality, satire and activism, and virtual and embodied spaces.

But not all. What is missing from this documentation is one its most important aspects: its social dimension. How often was a given entry retweeted or marked as a favorite? Who engaged @occupyMLA or its characters in conversation? The documentation only captures its side of the conversation, but the voices it is responding to are muted— not out of any desire to suppress polyvocality (from what I know of the authors, they would love to include others)— but that would be a different kind of occupation: of other people’s tweets, which are their intellectual property (But are they, really? Would they have written what they did if it wasn’t for “Occupy MLA?”).

The conversation between @celloandbow and @occupymla is an example of the kinds of reactions this netprov received, often with a little pushback and in many cases reaching some sort of reconciliation (read “The Battle of Alt-Ac” in the archive for an extended example). Regarding the Twitter conversation above, note that the metaphor is interpreted as misogynistic when read out of context— understandably so, since tweets are contextualized both spatially and in the moment. @occupymla wisely hints at a larger context, a personal one, which seems to disarm @celloandbow, who returns to the larger issue being addressed.

What’s clever about occupymla’s response is that it isn’t a merely a personal reference: it is consistent with a larger storyline. The tweets from the @occupymla account were written by a character named Hazel Smith, but not from her @CompHaze account. Those who had read her tweets over the past few months would understand that she had gone through a situation that conflated two frames of reference: dating and job search. That adjunct tweet is the proverbial tip of the iceberg: written in character by a character tweeting via an anonymous account. Wittig and Marino (and I like the uncertainty of who actually typed in those tweets) have performed a deeper critique than the catchy slogans and provocative lines that occupied the #MLA12 and #MLA13 hashtags by imagining the lives of three flawed characters who were moved to activism out of frustration with their situation.

So what did this netprov occupy? A hashtag, which is not to be underestimated because it is an important portion of the MLA conversation. For two consecutive MLA conventions, “Occupy MLA” drew attention to the plight of adjuncts and moved people to discuss the issue, even if it caused irritation and backlash.To occupy the MLA hashtag is to gain access to one of the most prized plots of psychic real estate in the humanities (with thanks to Neil Gaiman for the metaphor).

Academics attending MLA or following its hashtag from afar tend to be busy (or shall I say, occupied?), and don’t have the time to track down previous tweets by someone they don’t know in the search for context. They have time to read and respond in the spur of the moment. Whatever your experience of Occupy MLA, if any, it is worth your time to visit its archive, read all or a sampling of its more than 3,000 documented tweets, and consider its goals, methods, and artistry before passing judgement on the work.

As for me, Marino and Wittig won my admiration with this line of inspired geekery: “In our list of demands, only the Oxford comma divides us!”