The phone, the program, and the big dark room: Twitter at a conference

I wrote a post a little while ago about my first 100 days of Twitter. Sort of a report card from a late adopter. I took another step on the social media stairway last week, when I attended the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Sacramento, California. it was my first conference since joining Twitter and, in addition to checking out lots of great talks and posters, I decided to check out some of the pros and cons (for me, at least. Your mileage may vary!) of dragging my “devices” around with me for the week.

The changing nature of “us and them”

The way we communicate and share science is changing, so gatherings of scientists have to change to keep up. The lines between scientists and non-scientists are blurring, as are the lines between researchers and the people who communicate research. We are increasingly connected, so even the distinction between those who had enough money or time to attend the conference, and who did not, is becoming fuzzy.

The changing relationship between who’s at a conference and who isn’t creates challenges for the societies hosting the meeting. In the rapidly evolving world of science communication, clear policies on what kind of sharing is and is not permitted are important. At ESA, for example, there was a stated policy in the program book prohibiting audio/video recordings or photographs of presentations (nothing about tweeting though!) Some recent meetings have been more open; some have been more closed. I think the next couple of years will see a real shift in these policies.

One of the oft-stated concerns about sharing presentations broadly is “fear of being scooped”. But, well, seriously, this is ecology, not smartphone design or pharmaceutical development. I suspect my results on the nature of arctic insect food webs and fly diversity are reasonably safe from industrial or academic espionage. Plus, we’re already presenting our research at a conference with 3500 people and our abstracts are posted online for the world to see, if they’re so inclined, so it’s not like there’s shroud of secrecy over our work.

A blue bird on my shoulder: pros and cons of Twitter at the conference

The Pros:

I connect with new people. This was the first conference at which I already knew some of the presenters via Twitter. So although we’d never actually met, I knew I wanted to check out their talks and posters on a wider array of subjects than I’d normally take in. And that’s mostly because I enjoyed their previous tweets about their research. It was nice to put faces to the names and be able to talk with people in real time. Of course, there were Twittery benefits as well. I followed a few new people and picked up a few new followers as a result of connecting with them at the meeting.

I concentrate more in talks. If I’m going to send out tweets about a presentation it’s probably a good idea to get it right. And because I would likely only post a small number of tweets about each, I wanted to make sure I was capturing the big picture, without sending out specific details about the actual results. This one surprised me the most — I have trouble keeping my brain focused sometimes and one of my initial reservations about diving into social media was the opportunity for twitchiness and distraction. The fact that I found the opposite result while listening to talks was a bit of a revelation (I briefly toyed with the idea of live-tweeting my own attempts to write to see if it would help my focus, but quickly realized that would be insanely boring and nobody would follow me any more).

I see what’s happening in talks I missed. With 20–30 concurrent sessions at an ESA meeting it’s hopeless to try and see every talk you want to (posters are different, because ESA has a dedicated 2-hour block at the end of each day when authors are at their posters, nothing else is scheduled, and there is beer. I wish other societies I belong to would do this at their meetings). But even with concurrent sessions I could, for example, keep up with the session on Theory vs. Empiricism while listening to bee or tree or bird talks in another room. And if somebody tweets about a great climate change talk while I’m sitting in an ant talk somewhere else, I can at least flag the presenter and remind myself to check out their work another time.

I practice communicating science. Let’s be realistic — if we write our science so that only other scientists read it, what’s the point of doing it in the first place? We, as researchers, have a responsibility to communicate what we do, and what it means, to a broader audience. And social media is one of the best mechanisms for doing that. Some people I know are great at this. Some are not great. But we can all use the practice. Doing it in 140-character bursts is challenging, but not as hard as writing a manuscript.

We can promote each other. Our community is big, but not that big. There are some great people doing really great work, at all levels of The System, both inside and outside academia. Some of the best talks and posters I saw at the meeting were by grad students and post-docs, at early stages in their careers. They’re not “big names” (yet), but they’re asking great questions, doing great research, and presenting it with consummate enthusiasm and clarity. Other people deserve to know who they are (think of it as the non-Hollywood equivalent of “10 rising actors to watch”, but in a realm that actually means something).

We can extend the discussions. Talks are short, and question periods are even shorter. But there’s no need to for the discussion to end there. I saw some great examples of discussions about research or approaches or methods that went beyond the end of the talk, and beyond the people who were in the room.

We can check in on other events. For entomologists, this was the Summer of Meetings. There were major gatherings for specialists on many orders around the globe. Unfortunately for me as a fly person, the ESA meeting overlapped exactly with the International Congress of Dipterology in Germany. I chose ESA for a variety of reasons, but found it remarkably easy to keep up with what was going on at the fly meeting via  frequent tweets from some excellent and connected colleagues. As an added bonus, the time shift between California and Germany meant I could get my fly feed in the late evening and early morning when the rush of ESA was less intense.

The Cons:

. . .


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The phone, the program, and the big dark room: Twitter at a conference

  1. It is uncouth to write a comment to merely say, “I agree wholeheartedly!”? This was totally my experience at the same meeting. I found that twitter enriched the meeting more than I would have anticipated.

  2. Thanks, Terry! Was great to meet you and so many other Twitter connections at ESA.

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  4. Pingback: Fading walls: Communication, conferences, and sharing science | Lyman Entomological Museum

  5. Sara Bombaci says:

    I agree! So many pros to live-tweeting but the one that also surprised me most is how live-tweeting helped me to concentrate more (not less) on talks. My first experience was at NACCB 2014 and I took more from that conference than I ever did before because I had to really focus on the talk to synthesize the presenters’ findings and conclusions. This was a real eye-opener. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the value of live-tweeting Terry. I couldn’t agree with everything you said more. I would add to your list of pros that live-tweeting helps those that cannot afford to attend conferences (e.g., graduate students with limited funds like me) gain access to new research and to other researchers working on similar projects. This provides a huge networking advantage that I have not found in any other way except being there.

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