Live-tweeting, whether a department seminar or a conference talk, is one of the most powerful aspects of academic Twitter I’ve witnessed. It’s not an easy skill, but it’s worth cultivating, because it has tremendous value in bringing exciting research to a broad audience. Instead of the twenty to two hundred people in the room, you have the potential to reach thousands, and generate exciting conversations — what I often refer to as the “meeting within the meeting” that only takes place in the ether.
Live-tweeting also helps me focus more — I personally get more out of talks I tweet than ones I don’t. I sometimes refer to it as my superpower, because I have a special knack for distilling a talk into 140-character sound bites, and a high WPM to match. Live-tweeting usually gets me a handful of new followers, too, which is a good indication that folks are finding the content interesting. I’m always thanked by multiple followers after I finish a live-tweet — from scientists interested in the work, to members of the general public. That’s another thing; live-tweets can, when done right, be a great way to reach a broad audience. While most conferences are open to anyone who pays a registration fee, they’re not exactly public-friendly, and live-tweeting can bridge that gap, especially for folks who live outside the US or Europe.
For all of these reasons (outreach, open science, the ability to converse in real time about a talk, and public service), as well as the fact that social media training is now being offered at many conferences, live-tweeting is becoming increasingly common at meetings. I remember when I was the only person tweeting at the American Quaternary Association meetings, or one of a handful of folks at the Ecological Society of America. Nowadays, there are dedicated hashtags for most conferences, which may be so active that they become globally trending!
I think this is a good thing, but, like all innovations, it’s going to require some changes in our culture and our habits if it’s going to remain positive. This week, there’s been an ongoing discussion about live-tweeting at conferences, which was born out of a recent incident at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings. After paleontologist Suzie Maidment explicitly asked that her results not be tweeted or otherwise shared, someone who came in late (and missed the announcement) tweeted a photo of one of her slides. As she later tweeted (@Tweetisaurus): “I do think we need to have a discussion about live tweeting unpublished results & conclusions though. It’s just not cool.”
John Tennant has a post about this over at Green Tea and Velociraptors, and I while I don’t agree with some of his points, I urge you to read it to get a different perspective on the conversation. To be clear, I do agree that we 1) need clear policies about live-tweeting (and blogging, and photographs, and other forms of social media) at conferences, 2) societies need to communicate those policies clearly to attendees ], and 3) those policies should be followed by ] and violations enforced if necessary. I think what happened to Suzie was inappropriate, if understandable.
I do not, however, think that live-tweeting without permission is unethical (as Jon states) or “uncool” (as Suzie states). First, it’s important to remember that a tweet (or a blog post) is not primary literature; it’s filtered through the ears and brain of the tweeter. It should be taken as a given that a tweet is not necessarily an accurate representation of what was said; I may make mistakes or misunderstand someone. I think readers know this, but it’s worth bringing up. This is true even for science journalism! A journalist is translating research, bringing their own spin and focus to a story.
My personal feeling is that tweeting is no different than a discussion about research that extends to folks that are outside of my immediate surroundings. Most conferences are open to anyone who registers (and most seminar talks are open to the public). At every conference I attend, journalists don’t even need my permission to write about my work. My results are published in an abstract, which is generally publicly available. Nothing is stopping me from talking to my colleagues at a conference, or talking with my friends or family or co-workers when I get back home; Twitter, to me, is an extension of this. People are going to talk about your work, period.
There are different cultures in different fields, which is reflected in the various meetings we go to (and I see this even across the paleontology, ecology, geography, and earth science meetings I’ve been to), so take my thoughts with the caveat that I’m speaking mostly from the perspective of my own fields (and not, say, microbiology or astronomy or physics). A common concern is that live-tweeting will scoop someone, which I think is (mostly) overblown. The scientists in the room are much more likely to scoop you than someone who lacks most of the context of your talk (including methods, which are rarely exciting enough to live-tweet). Even attendees of your talk, should they want to scoop you, are well behind in terms of preparation, logistics, fieldwork, lab work, and data analyses. If you’re that concerned, then I’d suggest holding off on presenting until you feel that you’re in a safer position.
Having said that, I respect the right of someone to not have their talk live-tweeted, blogged, or otherwise disseminated. Asking for permission from individual speakers is really impractical, especially at large meetings with many concurrent sessions (as folks may move in and out of the room). I don’t necessarily know what someone looks like, or what talk I want to go to weeks in advance, and neither one of us may even be in the room before the talk starts.
I think that the emerging “live-tweeting is good/bad!” discussion is an unhelpful framework. There are clear benefits to live-tweeting, in my experience, and its growing popularity suggests that there’s a lot of general public support. Fortunately, I think there’s a clear way forward that both protects a robust culture of live tweeting, as well as the individual rights of people who prefer work not be shared. So, here’s what I suggest:
Live-tweeting and other social media coverage should be allowed at conferences and seminars, as a general rule. If someone has a good reason to restrict live-tweeting (e.g., including embargoed work-in-press or work where scooping is a genuine concern), then they should make this explicitly known in their talk. This should include announcements at the beginning of the talk, and a clear symbol on each slide (or relevant slides) indicating that live-tweeting is not allowed (see figure 1). Violating these terms should be grounds for disciplinary action on the part of conference organizers. Similar policies could be developed for the use of photos (which most people hate, but remember that many people use them because English is not their first language!).
I think an opt-out policy is fair, realistic, practical, and reflects a growing culture of support for live-tweeting. Do you agree? Did I leave anything out? Feel free to start a discussion in the comments, and do make sure you 1) check out Jon Tennant’s post linked above, and 2) check out David Shiffman’s excellent peer-reviewed article on live-tweeting at conferences.