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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!