Live-tweeting at academic conferences: a response to @GdnHigherEd & @ernestopriego

Last week, the Guardian reported on academics and their use of twitter at conferences. Posted by Ernesto Priego, the article presents 10 points to bear in mind when tweeting at conferences, and it starts with:

On Sunday, 30 September, a debate began on Twitter – later dubbed #Twittergate – about the etiquette and ethics of live-tweeting academic conferences. Summarising the crux of the matter, journalist Steve Kolowich later writes: “Scholars often present unpublished work at conferences. But while they may be willing to expose an unpolished set of ideas to a group of peers, academics may be less eager to have those peers turn around and broadcast those ideas to the world”.

Below are the top tips from the freelance researcher (affiliated with the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities) who tweets as @ernestopriego, along with some commentary from my own perspective.

1. If you are an event organiser, decide in advance if you will allow tweeting. I personally believe ‘live-tweeting encouraged’ should be the default mode for most large arts and humanities conferences.

Great, but it seems a bit totalitarian to talk about “allowing” delegates to tweet. I agree with the default suggestion and that conferences where sensitive research may be presented might wish to limit reporting in any format, and not just twitter, but I suspect this would be an atypical academic conference and the onus would rest firmly on the presenter to add the occasional prefix “please don’t report on this yet, as…” with a brief explanation as to the level of sensitivity. My caution here is to the presenter, not to the tweeter.

2. There is no way you will be able to completely stop it from happening, but it’s the organisers’ prerogative to set your own guidelines and standards. The hashtag should be advertised in advance, making sure it’s relevant, easy to type and does not have alternative meanings or uses on Twitter. To help ensure that the key points you want disseminated from the conference get out, appoint some experienced social media users to be your ‘official’ live-tweeterers.

In my experience, hashtags have a life of their own and often new ones spring up organically for parallel streams but a nice short easily identifiable hashtag in advance or at the start of a conference is a great way to pull things together. Good conference organisers have not only official tweeters but might also use Storify or blog posts as a means to collect and curate various tweets into a sensible story for that day, that session or even that keynote. Organisers might disseminate an official hashtag, but just watch out for unofficial ones creeping in.

3. If you are going to take photos, whether you intend to post them online or not, always ask if it’s OK first, even if it’s impractical to do so. If anyone doesn’t want other scholars promoting their papers online, maybe they should reconsider what conferences are for in the first instance. It’s better not to take photos of large groups (i.e. the audience) unless you have permission from all of them to do so. If they ask you to please not tweet, you should try to respect that.

I have a habit of photographing slides – usually for my own note-taking purposes – and occasionally tweet the image as an easy way to get more information across in under 140 characters, or if the visual adds more than the written word. This avoids snapping people, or if delegates are in view, the contrast is usually so high that the outline is unrecognisable or can be cropped accordingly. More often than not, the content could have been written down and reported, but I will ask permission and especially so for visual representations: the only downside is that twitter can be very real-time-oriented and the back channel discussions can take place instantaneously (especially if several tweeters are in the audience) often making permission seeking impossible rather than impractical if the back channel is to work effectively. If in doubt, then the back channel may just have to wait.

4. If you will be in charge of live-tweeting the whole event or individual sessions, take it seriously. It’s a cliche but with great power comes great responsibility.

True. Also, make sure you are disseminating widely. Not everyone will use twitter, but can you embed recent tweets on the conference website, or use them to advertise your event more widely?

5. Attribution is key: Be clear in your tweets about who is saying what. If you don’t attribute and/or use quotation marks when reporting what has been said, people can (and rightly will) assume it’s you saying it. If the speaker is on Twitter, find out what they are called on Twitter in advance, as their ‘handle’ will often be shorter than their name.

Difficult in 140 characters, but my rule of thumb is to question the relevance and weight of the tweet and decide what is worth putting out there. A shortened link (bitly etc) to the online conference abstract can capture the real name, affiliation and summary of speaker’s presentation quite nicely, which is useful whether they tweet or not.

6. If you are quoting directly, use quotation marks. Think direct and indirect reported speech. Never assume anything you read online is from the public demain. Attribute other people’s ideas or anything else you quote. It’s not just good manners, it’s professional ethics.

Attribution again Only applicable for the shortest of quotes – I find most tweets have an element of paraphrasing but then will quote the “odd” word as directly attributable. I think it’s safe to assume everything you read online is in the public domain, but be wary about how long it will stay in the public domain, or who put it there.

7. Even if you completely disagree with what is being said, always be polite and respectful. Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t say to a person or group face-to-face.

My acid test for tweets is to feed them directly into my LinkedIn profile. That way I’m always cautious to avoid saying anything that would reflect badly on me in the eyes of my carefully groomed list of personal and professional contacts. Polite and respectful dissent is an art-form!

8. If you are live-tweeting an event, assume that people outside the conference will be interested and/or will read your tweets. This includes people who don’t follow you directly. Explain frequently what that obscure hashtag means, so the hashtag achieves the purpose of promoting the event and ideas outside the four walls of the event venue.

Good thinking – perhaps introduce your followers and the world at large to new events and set up your market stall early in the day so that they know what you might be tweeting about. The hashtag itself can be followed so it can be useful to give a heads up warning for when your flow of information will recommence the next day, or following a lengthy break.

9. Link liberally. Search for references as speakers present. Share with your followers the resources the presenters are showing in the room – unless you are not meant to and one should expect speakers and/or organisers to indicate this in advance.

I agree wholeheartedly with this suggestion. On personal experience, these links are just as much for my own personal benefit as a set of notes for myself, even more so if I then draw them together with either Storify or in a blog post. Links to the conference website/abstract, university homepages, profiles or slideshare content can be useful as well as the resources that are presented in the room.

10. Enjoy it. Live-tweeting should be fun, empowering and inspiring. It should create positive opportunities. It’s all about engagement, community building and widening participation.

If you don’t enjoy it, then why do it? My only sense of labour is when I’m tweeting in an official capacity (perhaps as part of the conference team, or running an organisation’s own twitter feed) and I get the feeling of “I’ve started so I’ll finish”! Followers may be expecting full conference coverage, speakers may be disheartened if you don’t tweet something about their presentation, and fellow tweeters may also need that additional encouragement to keep going into the graveyard slot.

Finally, a thought to the afterlife of all these tweets. I mentioned earlier about curating them into Storify, a blog post or some other asset with a longer lifespan than a tweet. It is often disappointing to see a conference hashtag fizzle out like a low-level radioactive isotope half-life, ending out with pleasantries like “didn’t we have a lovely time” and “weren’t the organisers nice” eaking out the hashtag’s dying hours as we all take the train home.