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How to live-tweet a conference: A guide for conference organizers and twitter users

Attending scientific conferences is one of my favorite parts of my job. I get to travel to interesting places (and Mobile, Alabama), catch up with colleagues, learn about what smart people all over the world are up to, and get feedback on my own research from those smart people. Conferences help me to learn about the world, network with people in my field, and become a better scientist. To date, I’ve attended 13 conferences (including 3 international ones), and I learn something new at each one.

There are a lot of non-scientists in the world who care about many of the issues discussed at scientific conferences, issues like climate change, endangered species, overfishing, and cool new discoveries about sharks. The overwhelming majority of these non-scientists lack the resources or the time to attend conferences, and many might not even know that they’re happening. In many cases, increased public awareness of a conservation issue is exactly what’s needed to help fix the problem. If the interested public can’t attend conferences and the mainstream media doesn’t typically cover them, how can we get the word out?

Image courtesy twitter.com, used with permission

Part of the answer is social media, the so-called Web 2.0 technologies that simultaneously make it easier than ever before in human history for people to share information with the world (without traditional gatekeepers like the mainstream media), and make it easier than ever before in human history for people to find information about topics they care about. One social media tool that lends itself particularly well to sharing information from a conference is twitter, and live-tweeting conferences is a growing trend. For the purpose of this post, I define live-tweeting (henceforth simply “tweeting”) as simply tweeting about conference presentations and events. This tweeting can take place during the actual conference presentation (in several cases, I’ve been able to relay a question to a presenter from one of my twitter followers during the official question and answer period associated with a presentation), but doesn’t necessarily have to be. At one conference, I simply took notes on talks and tweeted about them later- the only disadvantages of this strategy are that you can’t relay questions from your followers to the presenters and you may be discussing the same topic at a different time as other twitter users.

Presented below is a guide for conference organizers to promote conference tweeting, and a guide for interested twitter users to use the tool to maximum effect. The guide is with specific reference to getting important information from a conference to the interested non-scientist not-present-at-the-conference public. There are many other goals for conference tweeting (taking notes on a conference primarily for personal use, sharing important technical information with colleagues in your field, etc), and the strategies and suggestions below may not be appropriate for these goals.

While I’m not the first to tweet conferences (not even close), to my knowledge I’m the only person whose travel to an international conference was covered specifically for the purpose of tweeting. I just returned from the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Auckland, New Zealand, where I served as the Marine Conservation Education and Outreach Fellow. My main duty was to tweet about the conference, and for this, my travel and conference registration was paid for. I have tweeted several other conferences as well. There are many other people who are very good at using twitter for this purpose and I hope that they’ll join the discussion to make this guide as thorough and useful as possible.

What conference organizers can do to promote tweeting (presented in approximate increasing order of difficulty and cost, which may vary depending on conference venue)

Create a twitter “hashtag” for the conference, and announce it early and often. Hashtags are a way to categorize tweets so that people can search for anyone talking about a particular subject. Because of strict character limits in tweets, a shorter hashtag is better. They are often abbreviations of the conference’s organizing society’s name, and some include the year. Examples include #AES11 (American Elasmobranch Society’s 2011 meeting), #IMCC2 (The second International Marine Conservation Congress), #SCIO12 (Science Online 2012) and #ICCB (International Congress for Conservation Biology) If the conference doesn’t decide on one and announce it, confused tweeters may create several conflicting ones, which makes it harder for interested members of the public to follow along. It’s also important that the hashtag be unique so that when people search for tweets from the conference, that’s all they find.

Pick a hashtag early and announce it often, on the conference registration website, in the conference program, and as part of the announcements in each conference session. I’ve seen a few conferences list their hashtag somewhere in the massive (sometimes hundreds of pages) conference program, but I have yet to see it promoted as heavily as it should be. Including it in the daily announcements that all conference participants hear each day would be a big step, and would only take 15-30 seconds, (i.e. say “Please tweet interesting things that you hear today, our twitter hastag is #EXAMPLE, and follow along with what’s happening in sessions you aren’t attending ).

Provide free Wireless for people who are tweeting the conference. You can’t tweet without wireless (smartphones are an obvious exception, but I prefer to tweet on a full keyboard laptop whenever possible). Conference center wireless is often extremely expensive, and the people most likely to tweet are students. Providing free wireless to people who are tweeting would help increase the number of people who are tweeting by reducing the cost. Many conferences already purchase a limited amount of wireless for official conference business- just give tweeters access to this. To reduce abuse if you’re paying by the megabyte, it is possible to make it so people accessing a particular wireless network can only access one website (for example, twitter), but I would discourage this because it prevents tweeters from including links to photos, scientific papers, or websites in their tweets.

Organize a conference tweet-up. Tweet-ups are social gatherings where twitter users meet in the “real world”.  These are often held at fun restaurants or bars. Typically twitter users organize these themselves, but an official conference-organized tweet-up would help elevate the profile of these events.

Provide free wireless for everyone at the conference. This move, in addition to encouraging people to “Check out twitter hashtag #EXAMPLE to see what people are saying about the talks you may have missed” in the announcements, would go a long way to increasing the use of  conference tweeting. Many people simply don’t know that the conference is being discussed on twitter.

Provide a “twitterfall” or another tweet aggregator. Twitterfalls are computer monitors or tv screens that display all the tweets with a particular hashtag in a slow rotation. They allow people who do not have computers to see what is being discussed on twitter. A few of these in central locations at the conference center would allow almost everyone to see the twitter conversation. A twitter aggregator on the conference website would allow those unfamiliar with twitter to see a list of tweets about the conference (you don’t actually need a twitter account to read what other people are saying on twitter, just to say something yourself, but many people are unfamiliar with the technology and avoid it because they aren’t familiar with it).

Provide free conference registration to people who tweet (or a select few). Many conferences provide free registration to students who volunteer to help set up rooms, run projectors, etc. Tweeting is a similar service to the conference, and similar rewards would help to encourage its use. It would be nice to provide this service to anyone who tweets, but not everyone does it at the same rate- many people only tweet a few times during a conference, a few tweet quite often and are pretty good at it. More and better tweets benefit the conference more, so this reward could be focused on those who provide more and better tweets. It could also be provided preferentially to people who have more followers- the average twitter user has approximately 100 followers, which would not be as useful to a conference whose goal is reaching the interested public as a twitter user with thousands of followers.

Provide free conference registration, travel, and lodging to those who tweet (or a select few). This is the ultimate statement that  tweeting is valued and encouraged, though to my knowledge it has only happened once. It is also the most expensive option for a conference- travel, lodging and conference registration for a domestic conference can cost up to a thousand dollars, and even more for international conferences because of higher airfare costs. As with conference registration, conferences may want to focus on tweeters who can provide the greatest impact: people with lots of followers, a willingness to tweet throughout, a demonstrated ability to communicate science to the public.

Smaller conferences may not have the financial resources to enact all of these suggestions, but all are capable of announcing the conference hashtag and encouraging tweeting in the conference program and announcements and most are capable of at least providing free wireless to those who tweet. There are other strategies that conference organizers can utilize to promote tweeting, and I welcome suggestions in the comments section below, but using these basic ones would make a big difference.

How to tweet at conferences (in no particular order).

Tweeting a conference is relatively self-explanatory to experienced twitter users- basically, you tweet about what is being said in conference presentations, workshops, and plenaries as they are happening. You can also include links to scientific publications, photos or videos, the lab of the presenter, etc. However, some people do it much better than others, and there are many inexperienced twitter users interested in conference tweeting. Presented below is a general guide and my personal strategies. They are certainly not the only way to tweet conferences, but I’ve used them pretty effectively.

Who can tweet? Anyone! All you need is a twitter account (which is free) and either a laptop or smartphone. If you sign up for a twitter account for the first time right before a conference starts, however, you probably won’t have a whole lot of followers reading your tweets. Skillful conference tweeting will help you gain followers, but as stated above, tweeting for the purpose of educating the public about what’s going on at a conference is most effective when someone who has a lot of followers does it. I strongly recommend getting your account set up and starting to build a following long before the conference starts.

What talks should you tweet? This decision depends on your twitter personality, as well as the conference you are attending. As a general rule, though, I typically avoid tweeting talks that are overly technical, which members of the general public wouldn’t be interested in or would be confused by. That doesn’t mean I don’t go to those talks, of course, it just means I put my computer away for a little while. It should be pretty clear which talks the general public would find interesting- cool new discoveries, charismatic animals, climate change, etc, so you can use your best judgment. Other tweeters disagree with this strategy and enjoy translating complex technical talks into a format that the general public will understand and find interesting.

At larger conferences, there can be many talks taking place simultaneously (the most I’ve ever seen is around 35). It can be difficult to choose, and you’re almost certain to miss a few that you and your followers would find interesting and relevant. I make sure to look through all of the talks (not just the theme of the overall session, the actual list of talk titles) the day before so I can make a thorough schedule. This will often involve jumping between rooms in the middle of sessions. Despite my thorough planning, I still always seem to end up missing important talks every now and then. I’ve occasionally strategized with other tweeters to make sure that at least one of us was at each session, but this isn’t always possible.

What do I say in the tweets? Each tweet is strictly limited to 140 characters, and all conference tweets should include the conference hashtag (which further limits your available characters). I try to focus on the parts of the talk that the general public will find the most interesting, avoiding technical “methods”, jargon, and things like p-values and confidence intervals. I’ve found that the best things to tweet are often in the introduction- the first few minutes that presenters use to explain relevant background information about their field. Important results and conclusions also lend themselves well to tweets. Methods rarely make it into my tweets.

Should I ask permission to tweet about someone’s talk? From a legal perspective, you typically do not have to, particularly for conferences that are open to the public. However, asking permission builds goodwill and is a nice thing to do. Some scientists would prefer to know if they’re “on the record” before choosing what to say, and others may be leery of their exciting discovery being distributed widely before it’s been officially published in their name (which does not apply to statements from the introduction section of the talk). I’ve  actually only had one person ever ask me to not tweet about their talk, and that person was using their talk to heavily criticize the government agency they worked for. Most people I’ve asked have been thrilled that their work is reaching a broader audience. If it’s not possible to ask them before the talk starts (i.e. if you are jumping around between sessions), I recommend that you take notes on the talk and ask later before tweeting it.

How do I compress a scientific talk into 140 characters? This is an art, and you’ll get better with practice. You obviously can’t transcribe word-for-word everything that the presenters are saying. I also think it is very important that every tweet represents a stand-alone thought; people shouldn’t have to track down your previous tweets to understand what you’re talking about (which means that proper nouns, like the name of the animal species being discussed, should be in each tweet, not just the first one in a series). A series of tweets from the same talk will be related, but if you have to read them all to understand any of them, you’re not compressing the information as effectively as you could be. It’s also worth noting that if you want to give your followers the opportunity to “re-tweet” your tweets, or quote them and add questions or commentary, you should avoid using your all 140 characters.

What if I tweet something that is incorrect? All science communicators and educators should strive to accurately relay information. However, mistakes happen. Sometimes the tweeter may mishear something that the presenter said. Sometimes the presenter may misspeak, or may not have all of the available information. The accuracy of a few of my conference tweets have been criticized by scientists who follow me, and I’ve always tried to quickly determine the truth (and, if necessary, issue a correction tweet). I’ve only ever had a presenter correct my tweets once.

Why should I tweet about conferences? There are a lot of benefits to conference tweeting. It benefits your field and your colleagues by informing the outside world about important scientific discoveries and conservation challenges. It improves your ability to translate complex scientific ideas into a form that the general public (and policy makers) can understand, a skill that is vitally important and too few scientists have. It will increase your online presence, which can be a great professional advantage depending on your field (my online presence is directly responsible for several media interviews and professional leadership opportunities, and I have a social media heading on my CV). It’s a great way to meet important people at conferences (tweeting has resulted in me being introduced to many society leaders, all of whom were very pleased by the outreach efforts). Last but certainly not least, if scientific societies adopt the recommendations I’ve suggested above, tweeting can be a way to save money when attending conferences (few students are so well-off financially that saving $200 on conference registration wouldn’t be a cause for celebration).

Is there any downside to tweeting? The biggest downside is that it takes a significant amount of time and energy. In addition to the time spent actually tweeting, it can be a major pain to find an electrical outlet at a conference center where you can charge your laptop or smartphone (doubly so at international conferences where you need to find an outlet that can fit your electricity converter). I’ve only had one person ever tell me to put my computer away during a talk because it appeared that I was being rude, but he quickly apologized when I explained what I was doing.

I’ve invited some conference organizers I know, as well as some of the best conference tweeters I know, to join in the discussion (and obviously feedback from anyone is welcome). Any feedback is appreciated, but in particular I’m curious about:

What are the obstacles to conferences adopting the recommendations listed above?

What can we do to remove those obstacles and further encourage conference tweeting?

Are there any other suggestions that people have for conference organizers to encourage tweeting?

Does anyone have alternative or additional strategies for how to effectively tweet, or criticisms of the strategies I’ve suggested?

If you don’t tweet conferences, why don’t you?