Live tweeting at academic conferences: time to move on?

Conf Tweet Pic 2

In popular culture, peak beard has been defined as the point in time when the rate of beard destruction exceeds the rate of beard production. By extension, peak tweet can be defined as the time when the rate of tweet production far exceeds the rate of potential consumption.In 2015, a sizable ecology conference exceeded peak tweet. Attendees live-tweeted far more messages than readers could feasibly find or read. Which creates a quandary we haven’t before had to face:

Now that live-tweeting has mainstreamed, how can we increase the utility of conference tweeting to improve outreach?

The #ESA15 Tweet Storm

This year, two conferences used the hashtag #ESA15: the annual conferences of the Ecological Society of America (ESA-USA) and the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA-Aus).

The ESA-USA conference received global publicity for the Twitter controversy: “do we or do we not encourage live-tweeting?” Four months later, tweets from ESA-Aus were so abundant that #ESA15 topped the list of “trending” hashtags on Twitter in Australia and (surprise, surprise) shortly thereafter received press attention for attracting revolting spam. The bigger issue raised by the ESA-Aus tweet storm – that we exceeded peak tweet – escaped attention.

ESA-Aus is the premier ecological conference in Australasia. In global terms it is small: about 630 delegates attended the December 2015 conference (hereafter #ESA15), where they presented about 400 talks in 6 concurrent sessions over 4 days.

A devoted group of live-tweeters generated nearly 10,000 tweets with the #ESA15 hashtag during the week (9,856 to be precise, including retweets and replies).

For most of the conference, more than 250 #ESA15 tweets were sent out every hour. Not surprisingly, the hashtag trended on Twitter because, to use an analogy familiar to researchers, the bulk of the tweets that Twitter counted were self-citations not conversations.

The volume of tweets quickly made it impractical to search on the conference hashtag. Multiple tweets from six concurrent sessions were intertwined and, because some people tweet faster than others, tweets from the same session were often asynchronous. By late-afternoon on any day of the conference, if one searched Twitter for #ESA15, it was practically impossible to scroll back to tweets from the morning session, let alone to a previous day.

(Try this at home: Search for all tweets containing a trending hashtag and see how long it takes to load and read the first 2,000–3,000 tweets. Do it on a phone. Then do it all again the next day.)

Problem, what problem?

Twitter users may or may not see this as a problem. Responses will vary depending on why people tweet and on who they believe their conference tweets are addressed to. Potential (and equally valid) responses to the latter include:

  1. to myself, or to no one in particular: “I type my notes anyway, and it’s just as easy to tweet them”;
  2. to other tweeters at the conference. Live-tweeting undeniably contributes to the conference “buzz” and to a sense of community among attendees;
  3. to colleagues back in the office or lab; and
  4. to a wider audience of researchers and the public: the general audience for science “outreach” or “sci comm”.

Anyone who tweets for purposes 1–3 will (rightfully) see little of concern. I don’t recollect that anyone at #ESA15 publicly tweeted to say why they tweeted but most online advice for conference tweeting promotes outreach as a key objective (e.g. Williams).

One can also object to the alleged problem by pointing out that anyone on Twitter can download a conference program and search for individual talks using the speaker’s surname and conference hashtag (e.g. find: “Smith #ESA15”).

This is true but is mostly relevant to rationale (3) above. It is not an effective strategy for outreach. Outreach via social media relies on serendipitous rather than directed search. Relevant information is sent to readers and appears on their social media timeline (hence ‘serendipity’). Readers are not expected to hunt for content somewhere on the web (as in ‘directed search’).

The Aggregated Tweet

The closing plenary at ESA-Aus in 2015 was titled, Gender Equity in Ecology: Because It’s 2015. The issue was of wide interest and was expected to promote much discussion, within and beyond the conference.

ESA secretary Jodie Lia used Storify to curate more than 130 tweets from the plenary. Within a week, the collection had been viewed nearly 1,400 times.

Lia’s curated post presented far more information than any subset of tweets could hope to provide and gave a range of perspectives from multiple tweeters. It was disseminated widely on Twitter and Facebook and the audience extended far beyond the conference. Other Storify collections from the conference also received hundreds of views (e.g. landscape ecology plenary).

Not every talk can be curated in this way. A few key elements are required:

  • Tweets must cover the entire presentation, not just state the take-home message.
  • Photos of key slides add interest and valuable information.
  • Tweets from multiple attendees provide more depth and complexity than tweets from a single observer.

For all these reasons, curated talks rely on many, not fewer, live-tweets.

A curated talk is, however, as useful as any other tweet in a tweet storm if it can’t be found easily. Hence, curated talks need their own hashtag, such as #ESA16story or #ESA15curate.

Beyond live tweeting

So here’s the take home message:

From here on, there is limited utility in encouraging more people to live tweet at conferences unless we also encourage more people to curate tweets and to disseminate curated collections.

The following suggestions would lead to better outreach in the future. (Please add more suggestions in the comments below).

Conference organizers

  • Plan for tweets to be curated: advertise hashtags for individual tweets (e.g. #ESA16) and curated stories (e.g. #ESA16story) so collections can be discovered.
  • Assign someone to search for and share curated stories using a prominent Twitter or Facebook account so collections can be disseminated widely.
  • Treat curated stories as free PR and send links to journalists.

Speakers and lab groups

  • View conference tweets as free publicity for your work – your audience is enthusiastically writing your press release for you. Capitalise on this energy by curating talks from your lab.
  • Do not expect others to curate your talks. From now on, perceptions of privilege may arise if labs encourage members to tweet their talks but expect someone else to curate and disseminate them.
  • Put your name on any curated stories you do create. The process, and those involved, will be taken for granted if anonymous collections just pop up on the web.

Everyone

  • Broaden the “buzz” around live tweeting so those who curate tweets receive the same recognition as those who tweet.
  • Preferentially share curated tweets before uncurated tweets.
  • Distribute collections across social media platforms, including Facebook and email newsletters.
  • Don’t over-invest: do it quickly, on the same day if possible, while the conference is topical.

Ecology conferences may not yet have reached “peak beard” but we have reached the point where we can choose to move beyond “peak tweet” or stay stuck in a “tweet storm”.

The mantra for live-tweeting at future conferences must include the three activities: tweet, curate, disseminate.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to @D0CT0R_Dave, @BiodiversityGuy and @ManuSaunders for feedback on a draft of this post. This story was originally hosted at the great blog site, Small Pond Science. You can read the original post here.

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