Parallel Tracks: First reflections on the use of twitter at conferences

This week I attended the PMI Global Congress in Istanbul.  It was the first conference I have been to since I became an avid user of the social networking site Twitter and it struck me that with continuous wifi access to Twitter by smartphone, tablet or lap-top you are in effect attending two conferences simultaneously – the live face- to-face conference track and the virtual social media enabled one.  This richness of experience brings benefits and presents a number of challenges for both speakers and attendees:

  1. With Twitter conference networking occurs on two levels: Yes, conferences still provide ample opportunity to network ; catching up with old friends or forging new contacts by purposefully approaching people you would like to meet or through those serendipitous encounters during the morning coffee break.  On Twitter though, access to virtual networking opens up; enabling more encounters and conversations with people I didn’t even get round to meeting in the flesh.  It felt like the effectiveness of my networking increased exponentially for very little additional effort. (Indeed virtual networking is actually a whole lot easier than approaching total strangers in a crowded room)
  2.   More conference content becomes accessible and digestible.  The conference I attended consisted of multiple simultaneous “area of focus” sessions, as well as keynote and plenary speakers.  Five different presentations were available at the same time in each “area of focus” session making for difficult decisions about which presentation to attend.  However “following” other conference tweeters enabled me to eavesdrop on multiple area of focus sessions whilst still enjoying the session I had chosen to attend.  There is a caveat here, of course, in that simultaneously trying to listen to more than one presentation is hard work, and can mean that important messages from the face- to-face session are missed.  My tip here is to look at the other session tweets at only certain points in the day – say after lunch or in the evening. In this way additional nuggets can be gleaned from the conference in a time efficient and non-distracting manner.  “Favoriting” informative tweets can also become a useful archive of conference learnings.
  3. Presenters beware too: There were live tweeters in my conference presentation, although I only discovered this after the session, of course, so focused was I on delivering a good presentation!  These 140 character summations of my presentation were both reassuring and unsettling.  Reassuring, as I felt that much of what I was saying resonated with the audience and was felt worthy of wider dissemination via Twitter. And yet unsettling as some of the tweets did not quite capture the essence of what I was trying to say, or unintentionally misreported me.  This presents a new challenge for conference speakers: how to ensure that key messages are as simple and profound as possible, and are clearly communicated, even signposted during the presentation.  Rather like today’s media savvy politician, who writes his whole speech around a memorable sound bite, perhaps academics too must develop their presentations around a similarly simple message.   Several tweets from my presentation were also retweeted by the conference organisers, thereby reaching a much wider audience than only conference attendees, and increasing the impact of ambiguous or misquoting tweets.  Quite a scary thought and poles apart from the carefully crafted and peer reviewed papers that are the normal oeuvre of the academic communicator.
  4. The genie Twitter is out of the bottle.  Despite any misgivings we may have about Twitter and social media in general, it is here to stay and its role and influence in our academic lives is only going to increase.  My advice then (as a rapidly aging, digital immigrant, non-geek) is to get engaged, get on Twitter, use it to your advantage and embrace its features and foibles alike.

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