In Defense of Live Tweeting at Talks and Conferences

Anyone who follows me on twitter knows that I often but not always live tweet talks.  There's a small debate on this brewing.  I'm behind on many things so this is a short note mostly in response to The Ethical Nag, but I'm taking time to post it because I think this is critical.
  1. It is sometimes possible to tweet & listen to a talk at the same time.  In the old days we used to call writing during a talk "taking notes".  It was in fact recommended as a way to make sure you remembered the content.  I was forced to take notes against my will by some teachers at school – it's hard, it's a skill. But I learned that although I seldom go back and read them (though occasionally, and some of those occasions were very important), writing notes serves two very important purposes:
    1. Taking notes keeps me paying attention even in a bad 1-hour lecture, because the task itself is hard and interesting.
    2. What I write down I am much, much, much more likely to remember than what I don't, even if I never go back to read it.
    Twitter allows me to go back and check my "notes" for a day or so, and serves the same functions for attention & mnemonics as note taking.  On the other hand, if I want the notes around long term, I don't use twitter, I write in a file, often a bibtex entry for the talk.  I've also learned that if I make todo lists at conferences I never get around to doing them when I come back, so I am sure to download papers and update my bibtex file for papers related to the talk, or great-sounding papers mentioned in the talk.  This takes priority over tweeting for me.  So the irony is, I tend neither to tweet talks I don't want to remember, nor talks where I am really learning a lot.  Rather, I tweet talks in the middle, where it is going slowly enough I can keep up, or where I have heard it before so I'm just acting like a tweep and sharing my favourite parts.
  2. Tweets are more for the people at the meeting / talk than those not. What I like most about twitter at conferences is finding out what is happening in other sessions, or finding out what other smart people are thinking and feeling about the talk. Sometimes we crowd-construct questions during the talk. It's a positive externality that sometimes other tweeps also benefit. I get very frustrated if the fact I tweet well discourages others. I want to read multiple threads, multiple perspectives. I want to know if I missed an important point while downloading a paper, or if something I thought might be trivial was nonintuitive or even wrong to someone else. I want to engage with the speaker later even if I have completely forgotten the talk because the organisers scheduled 6 talks before the 10am coffee break. And I do. I get email from speakers days later. It's great.
There certainly are a lot of hazards to tweeting at live talks, so here's just a few pointers.
  1. Never tweet about results presented as preliminary or secret! (duh)
  2. Every tweet must always  identify the speaker & the conference so the idea is properly attributed if it gets retweeted.  I have had clever things I said retweeted 30 times attributed to the tweeter, not me, even though he had mentioned my name five tweets earlier.  Who would know?  Fortunately, this is usually doable with a hashtag or conference account & a last name.
  3. Don't bore the pants off uninterested followers.  If you also tweet about breakfast, this isn't an issue.  But if you have an account that is usually high content per tweet, then this can be an issue.  There are two solutions. 
    1. I have a secondary account where I tweet about breakfasts, politics & conferences, while I vaguely try to restrict my tweeting on my main account to high content.  I don't expect people to follow the secondary account; I expect them to find the tweets through hashtags.  If scientists do follow that account & not my primary one, I tweet at them to check they've noticed they do this.  (Some people actually prefer my blathering account because it's more snarky.)  If I find a particularly interesting paper, I tweet that on my main account just like I would if I'd run into it from another type of research activity.
    2. Another option is to start each tweet with the conference account.  If you start a tweet with any @reference, only people that follow both you & that reference (or anyone else @mentioned in the tweet) will see the tweet.  This should be people who follow both you & the conference, that is, other attendees or wannabe attendees.  I got this innovation from Jaime Teevan.  This also covers half of point 2 above, so you only need to add the speaker's name after that.
So are there costs & concerns associated with tweeting at conferences?  Yes, just like every other possible human activity.  Your job as a scientist is to balance those costs with the benefits of communication, just like you do every single day with every other decision you make, including whether to do some experiments or read this blog post.  But I'm glad a lot of you choose to tweet at conferences and engage me when I do.  Thanks!  Because I learn a lot.


Anonymous said…
Hi Joanna - thanks for letting me know about your post today.

As a recovering conference live-tweeter, I of course would have said precisely what you've said here until now. Before I quit cold-turkey, that is.

But to address your first point, as one of the comments to my original Ethical Nag post wisely pointed out, live-tweeting via keyboard as a form of note-taking is inferior to the old-fashioned way we used to take notes with pen and paper. (P. A. Mueller et al. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581)

Unless live tweets contain a link to a relevant site the speaker has just referenced, most tweets are inane and not helpful at best. Fuzzy Instagrams of a speaker's Power Point slide onstage are annoying (and possibly unethical unless you obtain the speaker's permission in advance to republish them). And don't even get me started on endless Instagrams of the conference lunches... What are they thinking?

For far too many of us, we live-tweet because we can. Because everybody in the audience with us seems to be frantically live-tweeting too. Because we think we, better than most, can somehow magically encapsulate the speaker's message (taken entirely out of context and within 140-character limitations). But we need only to read the binge-tweets of other live-tweeters during conference season to know this is SO not true.

But the last straw that drove my decision to stop this practice was moving from the audience to the lectern onstage, and the realization that the audience, eyes down at keyboards live-tweeting like mad, wasn't even looking at me anymore.

As I mentioned in my original post,

"Ironically, fans of live-tweeting at conferences often cite that sense of 'connection' they feel with their Twitter followers while live-tweeting speaker after speaker – the very speakers who encounter what feels like a profound disconnect in person. And so the traditional connection between speaker and audience member, face-to-face, is essentially being sacrificed for the nebulous connection that live-tweeters actually do value: that digital umbilical cord linked to strangers far away."

Carolyn Thomas
Joanna Bryson said…
Hi Carolyn,

I think my post already addressed all but one of the points from yours you reiterated here, but let me make the addressing more explicit. Tweeting *does* do some of the work of note-taking, *as well* as providing information for other people, and through their feedback, information for you. I think I am pretty clear in not recommending indiscriminate tweeting, but rather a careful assessment of whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and I describe how this assessment varies per talk for me. (It actually also varies *within* talk, e.g. when a speaker moves on from their familiar talk to new results.)

The one point I did not make is completely opposed to the opening salvo of your post & the close of your reply here. But since you've implied I'm "pre-recovered", I'll go there. Personally in a talk, I am not happy to see a bunch of vague or even smiley faces gazing at me, because I know perfectly well that most of them will forget my talk in a few minutes. Personally, I like nothing better than seeing people taking notes in my talks, by any medium.