Twitter JAM

I just returned home last night after spending a few days in Edmonton at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of Alberta. It was a well-organized meeting with lots of great talks and posters. And, of course, lots of time to reconnect with colleagues from other universities.

A number of entomologists at the meeting, including myself, have Twitter accounts, so we “live tweeted” some of the sessions that we attended. The conference hashtag was #ESCJAM2012, in case you want to take a look at the Twitter record of the event.

From my perspective, live conference tweeting was generally a positive experience, although I say that with a few caveats. Here are my brief thoughts on the Twitter JAM:

1. I enjoyed being able to read about what was going on in other concurrent sessions. My fairly packed schedule this year did not give me much leeway to move from session to session. With so many concurrent sessions, I would have ended up missing interesting talks regardless. So it was good to have at least a taste of what was going on elsewhere. Some of the conference tweets encouraged me to talk to others about research presentations that I didn’t get to attend.

2. I can imagine how this practice is useful for professional and citizen scientists who are not able to attend a meeting. I know that if I were not at the #ESCJAM2012, I would have been following along from my office desk. I plan to virtually attend conferences like this in the future.

3. I noticed that live tweeting can be distracting in a number of ways. First, I often worried that I was causing distraction to neighbors when I would pull out my iPad to compose and send a tweet during a talk. Although I tried to sequester myself near the back edges of rooms (not great for face-to-face networking), I would sometimes get glances when my iPad lit up. Second, the act of composing and sending a tweet distracted me for a few moments from what was going on up front. There were a few times that I knew that I had missed an important point. And third, I know that a few of my followers found the stream of insect tweets to be a bit of a hassle. None of these are insurmountable, but all are issues that we need to be aware of.

4. Some tweets are better than others, including tweets at a scientific conference. Was every one of my tweets useful? I doubt it. Did every one of my tweets fairly represent the talk that I was listening to? Is that even possible in 140 characters? Obviously not. As Marshall McLuhan famously intoned, the medium is the message. Ultimately, is Twitter the best medium for science?

5. To expand on point #4, the best tweets were the ones that contained added value. A great example of this was a “toy” built by David Shorthouse that “caught” tweets with the #ESCJAM2012 hashtag and a species name and then pulled up a bunch of related references.

This is but one example of how Twitter can, in fact, punch above its 140 character weight.

In a much less technical fashion, in one or two instances I dug up new or classic papers related to a presentation and provided the URL(s) in a tweet.

Of course, that whole process took even longer than a regular tweet because I had my nose buried in Google Scholar; so we’re back at point #2. Some form of automation, perhaps similar to that also envisioned by David, could do what I did more effectively without me actually having to poke away at my iPad while only partly paying attention to someone who spent a lot of time putting together a good presentation.

6. Science is becoming more and more open, and that is a good thing. Journal articles and conferences were originally intended to increase the flow of information, ideas, and data. For many, many years both have done just that. But the web-connected world means that those vehicles don’t always do that as well as they used to in their fully traditional form; nor do they do it as well as they could considering the available technology. Just as paywalls at journal sites act to slow the flow of information compared to innovative open access options, conference travel and fees represent a paywall as well. We now have the technology to tear down those conference walls so that all of our colleagues and the general public can benefit and build on our ideas. Twitter might be part of the paywall wrecking crew, at least in the near term.

7. What if each session at a conference had a designated tweeter (DT)? Sessions already have a moderator and a projectionist, and I can imagine adding a DT to that mix. Each DT in each concurrent session would tweet into one unified conference account (e.g. @ESCJAM2012). Each session would have its own separate hashtag (e.g. #ESCforestry, #ESCbiodiversity, #ESCevolution, #ESCecology). The choice of DT for a session would be based on their interest and expertise in order to make the tweets as relevant as possible. In other words, thought would go into the choice of a session DT; the DT wouldn’t necessarily be the first available volunteer Others in the sessions would be encouraged to participate as well, but general participants would not feel like the tweeting burden was on them. General participants could maintain good focus – why even meet in person if your nose is in your device half of the time? – and could tweet from time-to-time if they felt a reason or had the expertise add value to the online conversation. But whatever the general participants decided to do, the session would be broadcast in an effective manner by an engaged and expert DT.

Do you have other thoughts on this practice? Where do you see this going in the future? Is live tweeting simply a road stop on the way to standardized full broadcasts of conferences? What, if anything, does tweeting bring to the table that is missing from face-to-face interaction or that couldn’t be realized through other non-electronic means? What hesitations to you have about this practice? How has live tweeting been a benefit to you or to others who you know?

Live tweeting, or something like it, seems to be the direction that we’re heading. It’s time for some frank discussion about the best ways to make scientific conferences more open to all. So tweet away!

10 Replies to “Twitter JAM”

  1. Part of the fascination for me is the rebellious underground Twitter represents at a conference. It’s that stream of “character” and flair; tweets come from individuals in the audience. And, taken as a whole, it gives a sense of what the conference was like. If there was a DT, I’d worry that the stream would get trimmed of this – it would be like having a coffee with the same guy/gal at each break.

  2. David: I like the coffee break analogy. That would be the case if the *only* tweeter were the DT. Instead I’m imagining the DT as the person who expertly grabs the main points, allowing the rest of the “rebels” (note: it will no longer be rebellious in three years when it’s mainstream, though) to have a deeper discussion. In other words, the DT does play by play, making room for color commentary from the audience.

    Pat Summerall and a bunch of John Maddens.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Good point! The session DT could also filter questions from the Tweetsphere. It’s often a disappointment to the speaker who times their talk to perfection, only to get no response from the audience. Open it up to outsiders and that embarrassing pause is all but eliminated.

  4. A designated tweeter is a great idea at conferences. I had great intentions to tweet whiie in sessions at the conference this week end, but had trouble doing both tweeting and absorbing the presentations. Glad you were at ensoc jam to tweet for me.

  5. David: great point. It needs to become a two-way street.

    Shelley: Glad you were there too. It was a great conference.

  6. My eyes keep being opened more & more to positive power of the Tweet. Institutions need to understand the power of the tool. As was said by @GeekInQuestion we need to push them by using social media for them to begin to build policies so we can use social media in our jobs and education. A very powerful tool.

  7. My eyes keep being opened more & more to positive power of the Tweet. Institutions need to understand the power of the tool. As was said by @GeekInQuestion we need to push them by using social media for them to begin to build policies so we can use social media in our jobs and education.

  8. Great post – I agree with most of what you say – Twitter has real value at scientific conferences – for me, the most amazing and useful was often the ‘side discussions’, from folks that were following from afar. These led to interesting questions (to the presenters), and gave me a different perspective on the talks that I was attending.

    Caveats – indeed, if you can’t multitask, it’s impossible to tweet and listen & watch a scientific talk. For me, I’m OK with this, but it comes out of a lot of practice and because of my personality type. So: tweeters need to be selfish – if you don’t get anything out of a conference b/c you are always tweeting – DON’T do it! If you can do both – awesome.

  9. Thanks Chris.

    And thanks to all of you for being a big part of some of the exciting new things going on with ESC. I’m excited about the ESC lately, and much of that is due to the more active engagement that I am sensing… and am able to be a part of.

    Multitasking: Your advice is apt… if you feel like you’re not focusing enough on a given talk, then focus, don’t tweet. For some people, that is every talk. For others, it is likely on a case-by-case basis.

    One thing is true for me, at least. I found that by trying to get out one relevant tweet per talk, I was forced to focus a bit more than I might otherwise. I was asking myself much of the time, “what is one thing that I find interesting about this presentation and that others might find interesting as well?” So, while I know that there were times that I missed something while tapping my screen, I would say that in the overall balance, tweeting probably increased my personal engagement.

    Another personal anecdote: On the final morning, during the BSC symposium, I decided not to tweet at all as my brain was a bit zonked from three previous days of conference activities. So, case-by-case, at least for me, is best. I suspect that would be the way things are for most people.

  10. As someone who followed the conference on Twitter and wasn’t there, it was great to see all the tweets. I also found new people to follow that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    Multitasking is definitely tough during talks, you’re right. When I livetweeted a natural history conference last year, I had a small notebook out to jot down main points and interesting facts and then filtered them to my Twitter feed. It was tough keeping everything organized, listening, and then distilling it out, but it was a lot of fun and helped me concentrate more than I might have otherwise. Distracting others around you is a challenge, especially if they think you’re just messing around on your phone and not paying attention.

    Overall, I think it’s a good thing. I Storified my tweets, which was then picked up by the conference sponsor’s Twitter account, and they were happy I did it.

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