The Perils of Live-Tweeting a Conference

by | Oct 2, 2012

Should academics be discouraged from live-tweeting conferences without explicit permission, or should speakers become more aware that their comments may be broadcast online? We reflect on the #Twittergate debate…

Thanks to @ernestopriego, earlier today I was alerted to a provocative article on Inside Higher Ed titled: The Academic Twitterazzi. The article draws attention to a debate between scholars about the etiquette of live-tweeting at academic conferences. The article raises a number of interesting points about the cultural use of Twitter within academia, including the use of Twitter by some academics to build up their own personal brand. Ernesto has posted his own reaction to the debate, including an excellent set of Super Basic Rules of Thumb for Live-Tweeting a Conference, which I thoroughly recommend, and notes that many other best practice guidelines have sprung up in the wake of the debate. However, I would like to focus on a few more general key points about live-tweeting at conferences, from my perspective as an event amplifier.

Organisers: Give Guidance

When I am involved in developing an event amplification plan for any event, I always recommend that the organisers publish formal guidance on the use of social media at the conference. This includes the equivalent of an “acceptable use policy”, like the one used at IDCC11. Whilst I always insist that organisers seek permission from speakers to live stream or video their presentations, I will admit that I have not been strict enough about the social media guidelines being circulated to the conferences speakers in advance for their comments.

If you are a conference organiser and you intend to encourage social media use, I would strongly recommend drawing up some guidelines to send out with your joining instructions for the event, and make sure your speakers have the opportunity to express any concerns they may have about these well in advance. You may need to ask your chairperson to reinforce any specific restrictions on reporting from particular presentations if a speaker is uncomfortable for any reason, or feels that the presence of people live-tweeting may restrict what they can say.


Speakers: Be Up Front

Be aware that if you stand up at a podium to make a presentation in front of an audience, you should expect that your words will be discussed. That discussion could take place anywhere: during the Q&A, in a formal panel session, over coffee, in the bar afterwards, or online using any of a wide variety of social media tools, including (but not limited to) Twitter. Many of the people discussing your comments will be your peers, but there may also be other people present from different academic disciplines with different social norms about how new ideas get discussed. Unless you know everyone in the room personally, or the event is operating under the Chatham House Rule, it is likely that there will be someone out there in the audience who will not share your views of what constitutes good etiquette when it comes to sharing and discussing conference content. That person may, or may not, be using Twitter.

If you choose to present in front of an audience, I would argue that you should take responsibility for protecting your own content by making it explicitly clear to both the organiser and the audience what you are happy to have shared beyond the conference room walls. Cameron Neylon has a fantastic slide that he uses at the beginning of each of his talks to communicate to the audience how he happy for his presentation to be used, including attribution. Different speakers may have different feelings about the reuse and discussion of their presentations, so if you are concerned about people live-tweeting throughout your presentation, taking your photograph, or recording your presentation, you really do need to be upfront about that at the start so everyone is clear.

Amplifiers: Recognise The Limits

When I am delivering a live commentary of an event via Twitter, I am acutely aware that some issues cannot be completely encapsulated in a single tweet, and must be taken in context. This is one of the reasons why it is important to curate selected tweets and provide additional context for anyone reading the coverage of an event at a later date. Where a speaker in any way indicates that a particular point is not for general public consumption, or when it could be easily mis-interpreted without the proper context, I make a conscious decision to leave it out of the commentary. This won’t necessarily stop others in the room from live-tweeting that comment, but I often find that the presence of an official live commentary on an event hash tag reduces the amount of informal live-tweeting/reporting and increases the number of more reflective or discursive comments anyway.

Recently, another amplification option has emerged that may also help to address this problem. Branch allows users to take a tweet as a starting point and take it into Branch, where participants can discuss the issue in more depth, without the 140-character limit. I’m hoping to experiment with this more at future events, but it looks like it could potentially allow more complex issues to be discussed in context, avoiding those rogue out-of-context tweets that can cause confusion, embarrassment or worse.

Participants: Give Your Interpretation

If you are tweeting from a conference, remember that your followers want to hear your voice and your take on the issues of the day. If they wanted to hear what others think, they would be following them, not you. Take the opportunity to reflect and share your own thoughts on the issues to help prompt more amplified discussion. There may be a few great quotes you really must share, which is fine, but ideally tweeting at conferences should be about participating in an active, amplified discussion and making new connections.
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