To tweet or not to tweet the professional conference? (Some thoughts in 140-character chunks.)

There's a lot of discussion kicking around the tubes at the moment about whether it is appropriate to live-tweet a session at a professional conference. The recent round of discussion looks to have originated among English faculty. At the blog Planned Obsolescence, The Modern Language Association's Director of Scholarly Communication, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, offers sensible advice on tweeting or not at meetings. Meanwhile Prof-like Substance is quizzical about the request to keep private what a scholar is presenting in the public space provided by a professional meeting (while recognizing, of course, that there are venues like Gordon Research Conference that have explicit rules about not publicizing what is presented beyond the bounds of the conference).

It's no secret that I've tweeted a meeting or two in my time. I've even mused at some length about the pros and cons of tweeting a meeting, although mostly from the point of view of the meeting attendee (me) absorbing and interacting with what is being presented, compared to taking notes in my notebook instead.

If pressed for a blanket statement on whether tweeting a conference presentation is OK or not OK, I would say: it depends. There are complexities here, many linked to the peculiar disciplinary norms of particular professional communities, and given that those norms are themselves moving targets (changing in response to the will of active members of those communities, among other things), any ruling that somehow got it right at this moment would be bound for obsolescence before very long.

In other words, I don't have a grand argument covering all the relevant contexts. Instead of trying to frame such an argument, I'm going to give you my thoughts on this, in tweet-sized bites:

  • Tweeting a meeting is a way to include members of the professional community who didn't have the funds or flexibility to be there IRL.
  • Tweeting a meeting is a way to include interested people beyond the professional community in the audience and the discussion.
  • Since Twitter is interactive, tweeting a meeting is a way to promote discussion of what's being presented RIGHT AWAY, for better or worse.
  • For worse: discussion may start before relevant facts, ideas are on the table, assuming things speaker isn't claiming as speaker's point.
  • For better: speaker can get rapid feedback on which points are persuasive, which seem iffy, as well as on fruitful tangents and connections.
  • Worry: conference tweeters distracted from engaging with speakers, people in room, & asking questions there. Some folks are not on Twitter!
  • Worry: conference tweeters may give inaccurate account of speaker's claims, fail to distinguish their commentary from reporting of talk.
  • But, if multiple attendees tweet session, more basis to tease out which thoughts are from speaker, which from tweeters responding to talk.
  • Worry: live-tweeting sessions opens speakers to having results/ideas/arguments swiped by someone not at the meeting. Might get scooped.
  • Of course, others in the room could swipe speaker's results/ideas/arguments. Why assume you couldn't already get scooped?
  • Is community pressure stronger on people in the room (not to scoop speaker) than on members of the community following tweets? If so, why?
  • Live-tweeting meeting w/proper attribution of speaker could serve as record of results/ideas/arguments and who presented them. Protection!
  • Challenge to proper tweetribution of talk contents: getting speakers' Twitter handles right. These could be listed in conference program.
  • Could be issues including speakers' Twitter handles in tweets of their talks if their use of Twitter is primarily personal, not profesisonal
  • Some speakers freaked out by people tweeting their talks (especially in workshop-y/preliminary results scenarios). Should that be respected?
  • Are they also freaked out by people taking notes at their talks? Is worry sharing-beyond-room or rapid amplification potential?
  • Big Q: Does community view its professional meetings as public venues or something more limited? If latter, what is rationale for limits?
  • When meeting tweets help scholars figure something out, will they cite tweets? Easier than citing chat at hotel bar & easier to recall later
  • Expectations different in different disciplines; tweeting interdisciplinary conferences likely to expose differences in norms.
  • Never a bad idea to ask if speakers are OK with having their talks tweeted. If not, talking about why afterwards could be informative.
  • Things not to tweet (identifiably) from a talk: how bored you are, commentary on speaker's looks. Save that for your notebook.
  • If tweeting conferences becomes a standard thing, might be tensions between "official" tweeters and independent attendee tweets.
  • Mass tweeting might also make serious bandwidth at conference venue a requirement. Expect that would increase registration fees!
  • Some fields likely to have harder time with 140 char limit than others. Push to be concise might be a positive influence on them.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments (and you can use more than 140 characters if you need to).

3 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    Thank you; you just gave me an excellent reminder why I quit using twitter. I completely blanked out after about half your points.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Janet, are a lot of these issues of using twitter at conferences or just people not knowing how to deal with social media? Most could be explained by the latter, it seems.

  • rob says:

    "There's a lot of discussion kicking around the tubes at the moment about whether it is appropriate to live-tweet a session at a professional conference. "

    No there isn't. This is the first thing I hear about this.

    Twitter is 99% noise and 0.999% opinions that are not more interesting than those you could hear by just talking with people, and 0.001% stuff that is actually useful. This means that you will have to spend hours on twitter to find even 1 single tweet that actually contributes anything.

    In short: a waste of time. The thought that "there is a lot of discussion..." is ridiculous.