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  • Alexandra Sills

Encomium of Hellsite

"What is becoming to a city is manpower, to a body beauty, to a soul wisdom, to an action virtue, to a speech truth, and the opposites of these are unbecoming. Man and woman and speech and deed and city and object should be honored with praise if praiseworthy and incur blame if unworthy, for it is an equal error and mistake to blame the praisable and to praise the blamable." Gorgias

I won't pretend to know how Classics Twitter works. The Discourse is always lurking, never truly dormant and reignited with a retweet at any given moment. As a community we seem rather dysfunctional. There is a squabble almost daily, and I can't be the only one with a growing list of blocked and blockers, some deserved and others inevitably less so.

I have no idea how Classics Twitter numbers work. It is a mystery to me, 18 months in, which tweets will gain traction and which are doomed to sink without trace, politely scrolled past in awkward, digital silence. I am often flummoxed by what will lose me followers and what will gain them, and why people follow who they do. I am completely in the dark about why some Classics accounts have thousands of followers and why others only have a hundred or so, because to me these numbers are not indicative of their quality.



My own method is, as far as humanly possible, to ignore numbers entirely. I'll put out what I put out and try not to pay too much attention to hearts and followers, in order to achieve some kind of authenticity. Because of this, perhaps it won't matter if I sink or swim with each thread or meme, because if I am authentically myself I surely can't be tweeting incorrectly. I will be 'doing Twitter' correctly. This is of course bullshit, but is a pleasant fiction that I can tell myself when a joke doesn't land or a point is ignored. Eighteen months, and it seems like longer. I'm on the fringes of the community, which suits me fine as it accurately reflects my position in the 'real world.' As such, I've never found myself in the eye of a tweetstorm, I've not given reason to be properly cancelled, I've never inspired the dreaded op-ed. It's fitting that I'm more of a spectator, so let me tell you what I've seen.


I've seen gatekeeping on a Propylaea scale, and too often it comes from those who state that Classics is For All very loudly. I've seen snark aimed at anyone who wants to try things a little differently. I've seen punching down that crossed so many 'ranks' that the aggressor needed a stick to reach. I've seen that people love to repeatedly state that the field needs fixing but will not brook being told how this might be achieved. I've seen discussions about trying to redress systemic imbalances next to job adverts for primary school teachers who MUST have a 1:1 from Oxbridge. I've seen journals purporting to be 'for all' that publish eugenicists. I've seen careers stall for little more reason than dumb luck. I've seen disdain poured on those who engage with the public by people who don't realise that it's a skill they'll never master. I've seen casual intolerance and rabid bigotry. I've seen points missed, deliberately or no, and I've seen statements twisted beyond recognition. I've seen pile-ons accidentally unleashed by innocent misunderstandings and pitch-fork wielding mobs weaponised with cool, calculated intention. I've seen people staunchly refuse to believe that the field has a single flaw, who must surely recognise that this is because the field was built by and for People Like Them.

Twitter can exacerbate my feelings of inadequacy like nothing else, it can sharpen imposter syndrome with the force of knapping flint. It is a daily reminder of how behind I am, a working class undergrad in her mid thirties, regularly making me feel like an interloper int a world not designed for me. For every in-joke I don't get, for every career discussion that I know will never apply to me, I feel more like a gate-crasher who is minutes from being evicted from the party. So why am I still here?


Even without a global pandemic, it's all too easy to feel isolated sometimes. For those of us on the introverted end of the social scale, life can be lonely. I have never, until university, ever been in a group of people with the same rather niche interests. Obsessive reading isn't exactly a communal activity. In the real world I have few opportunities to discuss the ancient world, beyond a dash of diluted reception.


When I joined twitter there was an immediate rush of welcome from the classics corner that surprised me. If I was keen to join in, then a heartwarmingly large list of people were willing to follow and take a chance on me. Since then, the pandemic took hold and twitter was often my only social contact with the outside world as we all hunkered down. It's no exaggeration to say that twitter friends helped keep me on an even mental keel throughout a terrifying period, and I can only hope that I have done the same for others.


I should remind myself more often that for every tweet that reminds me how far I have yet to go, there are five that remind me how far I have come. It's one thing to score well on a topic in an exam, it's quite another to understand a joke made about it on Twitter. It's a rush, at least to a late bloomer like myself, to see a thread about a complicated topic and not feel intimidated by it, particularly if it's a topic I knew nothing about until recently. It's rather lovely to be able to discuss subjects in such an informal setting and realise that I have something to contribute; maybe I'm not so unqualified after all, maybe I *do* belong in this funny little field.


The unbridled generosity of Classics tweeters never fails to make me smile. Lack of institutional access? Within minutes of asking, I usually have what I need. People will share their own work with enthusiasm, pay walls be damned. Ditto for advice; I have received so much advice and support from people I have never met in person, all kindly offered with sincerity. I'll still feel disadvantaged in the field now and then again, and for what it's worth I think I'm justified in that. That said, I now feel like I have a network outside of my university that is willing to help me when I need it. I used to think that I was alone, but now I have a group of mutuals who I can identify with, who I can admire and who have made it clear that they will look after one of their own, for indeed I am one of their own. It's a heady feeling. Again, I can only hope that I can provide the same for others.


When I do feel frustrated with the field, Twitter is a cathartic sounding board. It is gratifying to know that I am not alone in my anxieties and frustrations, that others are irritated or angered by the same issues. I think there is a lot to be said for the catharsis of having a little rant, or making a little subtweet, and getting a few hearts or gifs in return. In an odd way, realising that my exasperation is as shared as my enthusiasm does as much for knocking back imposter syndrome as celebrating shared passions. Twitter does constantly remind me that carving a career for myself will be more of an uphill struggle for me than it was for others, but it also has given me dozens of examples of other people who succeeded the climb. Moreover, they have a route map they're willing to share.


Twitter provides a glimpse of the person behind the academic career, and I've nearly always been so pleased to discover how friendly and funny scholars are beyond their work. I had little to no exposure to academics before university and whilst it shouldn't be shocking that professors have personalities, it has felt like a privilege to share jokes and small talk with people who I so recently found to be intimidating to a crippling degree. Whilst I am still unsure what it is I offer to *them,* my mutuals list features people I cite in essays and exams, people whose books sit on my shelves, people who I admire greatly. For a field so obsessed with keeping people divided according to privilege or lack thereof, it is wonderful to see so many academics follow, engage with and champion students and ECRs. Of course there are some that doggedly stick to online cliques comprised of people of similar backgrounds and circumstances, but seeing so many other scholars casually and happily interact with people regardless of status is so important to those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder.


For some, I'm sure it is preferable to stick to the little group to which you have been assigned. People of similar levels of privilege, similar qualifications, similar religious beliefs or political leanings. People of the same generations, from the same cultures, people like ourselves. Personally? I love that I have such a diverse group of aquaintances a click away, of all career stages, all backgrounds, all identities and opinions. Both Classics and Twitter can make many of us feel marginalised, disadvantaged, unwanted. In a way they were designed to do so, purposely or not. Individuals in Classics and on Twitter can make many of us feel the same. But the glory of the field and the hellsite is that there is an alternative path; if one can cling on by their fingernails for long enough, and dodge enough projectiles, one can create a community and cement their place within it. So I shall attempt to grit my teeth the next time my carefully crafted meme fails to get a like. I've got a community, and that's doing Twitter, and Classics, properly.

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