Twitterpated: Using Social Media at Academic Conferences

Cross posted at History Compass Exchanges

After mulling around the coffee and muffins in the reception area and feeling awkward because I didn’t know anyone at the conference, I headed into the lecture hall where I eyeballed the walls for electrical outlets. I would need a power source if I was going to type through several hours of conference proceedings. I saw another attendee settling in and plugging in her laptop, so I sat down nearby and asked if she would mind sharing the outlet (she didn’t).tweet

So began my day of twittering the “Nowcasting: Design Theory & Digital Humanities” conference held at UCLA last month. My first volley of the day:

@janaremy audience is assembling & positioning themselves around available power outlets (my kind of conference!) #nowcasting

After a few initial tweets I realized, through hashtag searching, that there were several other twitterers in the room. By following the other tagged tweets I discovered a website that was liveblogging the conference happenings, too. Within an hour, I found about a dozen people in the audience actively writing about the conference events as they unfolded. We were not only twittering our impressions, but we were in a dynamic conversation about issues raised by the talks. One person with a digital camera was taking occasional pictures of the presentations & posting the links. Another was sending links to the various speakers’ publications. As the conversations evolved they added more depth to the conference presentations than I gleaned from the talks themselves. In turn, I was getting to know the various personalities chattering about the conference, and by the end of the day after learning the “in-real-life” identities of my fellow twitters, we chatted at the closing reception and have since then become better acquainted via continued interactions on Twitter and Facebook.

Not every conference that I’ve attempted to liveblog or twitter has gone so smoothly. For example, my intention to post updates on the 2009 American Historical Association conference was thwarted by the high cost of wireless access at the venue (what history grad student can afford a $129 hotel room plus a $15 daily internet access fee?). A few months after that, when I tweeted the happenings at another history conference, I couldn’t find anyone else who was also doing so (hashtag searches weren’t helpful this time), which made it feel like I was simply having a conversation with myself rather than creating community with fellow attendees. For example, in one panel about digital humanities my sense of alienation was evident as I sat in a nearly-empty room in what, in my opinion, should have been the session generating the biggest buzz:

@janaremy Only 4 women in audience of Digital Humanities panel. Why? #WHA

@janaremy Wondering why they didn’t find a commenter who knows more about Digital Humanities than just Powerpoint & online syllabi (sigh) #WHA

The positive outcome from tweeting that conference came later, when my twitter feed funneled into my Facebook page status updates. Colleagues who weren’t at the conference responded to my tweets, creating an opportunity for follow-up discussion about the digital tools that are useful for scholars. Later, I also reflected on my experience with a blog posting about the panel.

My latest experiment with using twitter is in my role as the “Online Media Chairperson” for an upcoming Digital Humanities conference at Yale. Recently I created a twitter account dedicated solely to discussion of the conference, and started tying that presence to other digital humanists on twitter through “following” them, especially those users included in Dan Cohen‘s comprehensive Digital Humanities twitter list. Within 30 minutes of my launching the account Dan tweeted an announcement about our event and numerous users began following @PDP2010 or “re-tweeting” Dan’s message. I don’t exactly know yet how the twitter account will augment attendance or ongoing discussion for this conference, but I’m excited to be experimenting with this technology and to see how it might create possibilities for scholarly collaboration that begin before the two-day event and carry on for long afterward.

I’m curious, do any of you have experiences with liveblogging at conferences or advertising academic events via twitter? Or do you have any advice to offer on how to use social media for academic networking and collaboration?

This entry was posted in digital humanities and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Twitterpated: Using Social Media at Academic Conferences

  1. seankheraj says:

    Jana:

    Thanks for putting up a great post. This is my first visit to your blog and I’ll have to start listening to your podcast.

    I’ve been to two conferences that made excellent use of live blogging and Twitter. Over the summer, I attended the Public Knowledge Project conference in Vancouver. The conference had its own blog (http://blogs.ubc.ca/pkp2009/) as well as a Twitter hashtag. Conference organizers had designated participants blogging throughout the conference and the Twitter hashtag, as you mentioned above, was used to expand the conversation among participants. Just as you found, conference participants posted photos, links, and their own thoughts to Twitter throughout the conference.

    The second conference I went to that made excellent use of live blogging and Twitter was the NiCHE Digital Infrastructure API Workshop (http://niche-canada.org/digital-infrastructure/apiworkshop). Again, many of the participants live blogged the workshop activities and the workshop had a Twitter hashtag. The conference organizers posted a widget to the website so visitors could track all the Twitter posts with the conference hashtag. Again, this allowed participants to post comments, links, and additional media. Some of the presenters even used Twitter during their presentations to send links to the audience as they spoke. At one point, a presenter had Tweetdeck displayed on his desktop and you could see the live conversation on Twitter. Twitter also allowed people to participate from outside the conference. There were several people who couldn’t make it to the API Workshop, but their comments and arguments were added to the workshop remotely. Finally, there was a Google Wave set up as well.

    I think the use of digital technologies like Twitter and blogs can add a lot to a conference experience. As it stands though, it seems to be more commonly employed at conferences with a tech focus. I would, however, like to see these activities used more widely at the American Historical Association and Canadian Historical Association meetings.

    As a final thought, I would recommend reading an excellent post by Adam Crymble on how to digitally archive a conference (http://adamcrymble.blogspot.com/2009/11/how-to-archive-conference.html).

  2. Larry Cebula says:

    The interface of academic conferences and social media is an area that we are just exploring and I think it is too early to speak of best practices or anything like that. But it is time for thoughtful experimentation.

    I don’t think that blogging a conference works all that well (but am open ot seeing examples that prove me wrong). The National Council on Public History has a vibrant conference and has done this the last two years. Last year I was one of the official conference bloggers and I don’t believe I posted a single thing! I was going from one great session to another, exchanging business cards in the hallways, making plans for dinner or drinks with new friends–who had time to blog? Only a few of the 6-8 anointed bloggers posted anything.

    After the conference I suggested that the NCPH create a Public Historians blog to which any member could post (with some rules and moderators), creating a huge virtual community of practice (thank you very much). They said they’d get back to me on the idea. *goes to check email*

    Tweeting is much more appropriate to conferences-but don’t overdo it. At THATCamp PNW official conference tweeters sat in every session and tweeted every thought, opinion, and throat-clearing of the attendees. Too much chaff, too little wheat, as we say here in the Palouse region.