A plea to make conferences more Twitter-friendly

photodune-3611828-social-media-newspaper-concept-l-1024x695I know, I hear you: I was also deeply skeptical about Twitter when I joined the QAECO group (@qaecology) a year ago. It seemed to be just another distraction which is full of annoying acronyms (some of which are explained here) and terms like “tweeps” that you have to Google to understand, and frankly, I don’t need an update on every little thought that goes through some people’s heads every moment of the day. But then I got bullied into it and found that Twitter really comes into its own at conferences.

I’ve just come back from a couple of international conferences and found that the degree to which they are Twitter-friendly can make or break them for me. This post was inspired by suggestions made by Simon Leather @EntoProf, Natalie Cooper @nhcooper123 and David Gibson @DavidJohnGibson on Twitter, as well as this post by Simon: “Sometimes big can be good – Reflections on INTECOL 2013”.

Firstly, why bother?
Personally, I have found Twitter to be the most effective way to take notes during a conference. I was never particularly good at looking back over hand-written scrawl post-conference when trying to reflect on what I had actually learnt: looking back over tweets is much easier. And then it’s easy to package them into a summary (e.g. the last post I wrote about a conference).

Also, not everyone can make a conference. People have families. People have teaching/fieldwork commitments. People are wracked with guilt about flying thousands of kilometres and burning all that carbon only to talk about conservation. Twitter is one way they can hear about all of the research relevant to their field without having to leave their homes (or countries, for that matter!)

Finally, conferences are about networking, and this is made all the easier if you have informally met someone and exchanged ideas first via Twitter (see point 6).

So,  conference organisers:
1. Let everyone know what the hashtag will be early on – i.e. as soon as people register. There’s nothing worse than scrambling round in the first hour of the conference trying to figure out what tag others are using, or worse, when there’s multiple tags being used. Make it short so it doesn’t chew into tweet characters.

2. Make sure there will be adequate, accessible Wifi throughout the conference, given how many people will be attending. I gave up tweeting at one recently because I got sick of the Wifi dropping in and out and getting “failed tweet” messages.

3. Have people’s Twitter handles (names) on name tags! And, as Simon implores, design the tags so they always face the right direction – it makes a huge difference.

4. In the same vein – Twitter handles and suggested tweets (see 8) in the conference program. Many people use the electronic version of programs these days, so make sure it’s actually user-friendly i.e. NOT just a pdf version of the paper program. At big conferences with over 1000 attendees and many concurrent sessions no-one wants to have to scroll relentlessly to find the right spot: index days/sessions appropriately.

5. Actively encourage those not at the conference to ask questions via Twitter. Only fielding questions from Twitter sounds like it would exclude people equally as much as not taking any, but like most things in life a bit of balance is probably a good thing.

6. Consider organising a networking event where tweeters can meet each other face-to-face: those they are following and the people that follow them (a “tweetup”, to use the appropriate jargon). Having broken the ice online, it’ll be much easier for junior researchers to meet not only each other, but also the senior academics who are usually too intimidating to approach.

And conference speakers:
7. Put your Twitter handle on the first slide of your talk – that way when I tweet about what you’re saying people will have a direct link if they want to follow up with you. Using full names chews up characters, plus I have to flick thorough the conference program while you’re talking to check I’ve spelt your name correctly. And, perhaps most importantly, if I stuff up and incorrectly summarise what you’ve said you can correct me!  Another way of avoiding the latter problem is:

8. (this idea is @nhcooper123’s) Have a clear, prepared, suggested tweet with the take-home message from your talk on your last slide. That way, people won’t have to think too hard about how to squish all of that research you’ve just presented eloquently into 140 characters. Wish I had thought to do this earlier!

9. An additional suggestion by @sjknight is to schedule tweets to appear as you talk – that way people can easily retweet them and attribute the ideas to the person they came from (see below), and you don’t have to worry about misinterpretation of you’re saying. You’ll need additional (free) software to do this, here’s a post by @ylancet which tells you how: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/6-free-ways-to-schedule-tweets/

A final consideration:
There has been discussion recently about the ethics of tweeting other peoples ideas: after all, in academia our ideas are our capital. Make sure you attribute everything accurately and appropriately. I work in ecology, where there’s usually little scope for making money through patenting and commercialisation, but in other fields careful discretion may need to be used when tweeting from conferences. An article from The Australian covering some of the issues can be found here.