The flight attendant just rather ominously announced that the third and final beverage service is underway, snapping me back to the reality of seat 27F. With an empty middle seat and strong wifi, I’d lost track of time, catching up on emails and keeping tabs on the conference I’d just left – the American Geophysical Union (AGU)’s annual fall meeting – still in full swing.
This year, AGU had more than 22,000 attendees – a new record for them, and a tremendous opportunity for networking and catching up on some of the latest and greatest earth, ocean, and climate science out there. For me, each day was an inspiring but intense sprint between sessions, meetings, social events, and more, chaos only held at bay by rigorous scheduling underpinned by great technology. My secret weapon? Twitter.
A conference tweet-stream uses a hashtag to aggregate tweets from all those talking about the meeting. It burbles along with quotes, information, self-promotion, requests for help, side-conversations, and more. At big meetings like #AGU12, the stream can feel more like a raging river, with hundreds of tweets each hour. So how can you effectively surf this flood of information? Here are my top three favorite ways of contributing to, and gleaning value from, a conference tweet-stream, using examples from #AGU12.
1) Scheduling and planning:
This one is obvious – with countless competing social events, posters and sessions you’d like to see, Twitter can help by acting as a personalized reminder and invitation service.
2) Session live-tweeting
Though there has been some heated debate about conference live-tweeting, I find it to be tremendously helpful for keeping tabs on quotable quotes, key concepts, and conversations I want to pursue from sessions I could not attend.
People who are live-tweeting sessions aren’t simply transcribing either; they add richness and depth by sharing links to related materials and commenting on the processes by which we’re sharing our science.
I particularly love it when friends and colleagues help answer questions and give me more to read and think about.
3) News and analysis
The function of big scientific conferences is no longer simply to connect experts and share information within closed academic communities. Researchers, press officers, and journalists are working hard to share the most important and interesting stories with the wider world. I like to keep a close eye on these tweets so I know who is covering which stories, what ideas are gaining traction, and how science stories are playing out beyond the scientific community.
But perhaps the most interesting and useful role of Twitter is that it’s allowing conversations about science to happen in the open. The conference tweet stream is vastly more interesting and complex than just broadcasting and disseminating results. Twitter allows us to grapple with new information and ideas in real time, collectively verifying, supplementing, and testing ideas with those who can’t be in the room, or even in the same country. Science progresses by challenging, testing and refining existing ideas, and social media allows this to happen more rapidly than traditional discourse restricted to peer-reviewed journals. Twitter’s greatest value is not in the speed, but in opening up so many more opportunities to have these conversations.