Live tweeting at academic conferences: time to move on?


Conf Tweet Pic 2Guest post by Ian Lunt.

In popular culture, peak beard has been defined as the point in time when the rate of beard destruction exceeds the rate of beard production. By extension, peak tweet can be defined as the time when the rate of tweet production far exceeds the rate of potential consumption.

In 2015, a sizable ecology conference exceeded peak tweet. Attendees live-tweeted far more messages than readers could feasibly find or read. Which creates a quandary we haven’t before had to face:

Now that live-tweeting has mainstreamed, how can we increase the utility of conference tweeting to improve outreach?

The #ESA15 Tweet Storm

This year, two conferences used the hashtag #ESA15: the annual conferences of the Ecological Society of America (ESA-USA) and the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA-Aus).

The ESA-USA conference received global publicity for the Twitter controversy: “do we or do we not encourage live-tweeting?” Four months later, tweets from ESA-Aus were so abundant that #ESA15 topped the list of “trending” hashtags on Twitter in Australia and (surprise, surprise) shortly thereafter received press attention for attracting revolting spam. The bigger issue raised by the ESA-Aus tweet storm – that we exceeded peak tweet – escaped attention.

ESA-Aus is the premier ecological conference in Australasia. In global terms it is small: about 630 delegates attended the December 2015 conference (hereafter #ESA15), where they presented about 400 talks in 6 concurrent sessions over 4 days.

A devoted group of live-tweeters generated nearly 10,000 tweets with the #ESA15 hashtag during the week (9,856 to be precise, including retweets and replies).

For most of the conference, more than 250 #ESA15 tweets were sent out every hour. Not surprisingly, the hashtag trended on Twitter because, to use an analogy familiar to researchers, the bulk of the tweets that Twitter counted were self-citations not conversations.

The volume of tweets quickly made it impractical to search on the conference hashtag. Multiple tweets from six concurrent sessions were intertwined and, because some people tweet faster than others, tweets from the same session were often asynchronous. By late-afternoon on any day of the conference, if one searched Twitter for #ESA15, it was practically impossible to scroll back to tweets from the morning session, let alone to a previous day.

(Try this at home: Search for all tweets containing a trending hashtag and see how long it takes to load and read the first 2,000–3,000 tweets. Do it on a phone. Then do it all again the next day.)

Problem, what problem?

Twitter users may or may not see this as a problem. Responses will vary depending on why people tweet and on who they believe their conference tweets are addressed to. Potential (and equally valid) responses to the latter include:

  1. to myself, or to no one in particular: “I type my notes anyway, and it’s just as easy to tweet them”;
  2. to other tweeters at the conference. Live-tweeting undeniably contributes to the conference “buzz” and to a sense of community among attendees;
  3. to colleagues back in the office or lab; and
  4. to a wider audience of researchers and the public: the general audience for science “outreach” or “sci comm”.

Anyone who tweets for purposes 1–3 will (rightfully) see little of concern. I don’t recollect that anyone at #ESA15 publicly tweeted to say why they tweeted but most online advice for conference tweeting promotes outreach as a key objective (e.g. Williams).

One can also object to the alleged problem by pointing out that anyone on Twitter can download a conference program and search for individual talks using the speaker’s surname and conference hashtag (e.g. find: “Smith #ESA15”).

This is true but is mostly relevant to rationale (3) above. It is not an effective strategy for outreach. Outreach via social media relies on serendipitous rather than directed search. Relevant information is sent to readers and appears on their social media timeline (hence ‘serendipity’). Readers are not expected to hunt for content somewhere on the web (as in ‘directed search’).

The Aggregated Tweet

The closing plenary at ESA-Aus in 2015 was titled, Gender Equity in Ecology: Because It’s 2015. The issue was of wide interest and was expected to promote much discussion, within and beyond the conference.

ESA secretary Jodie Lia used Storify to curate more than 130 tweets from the plenary. Within a week, the collection had been viewed nearly 1,400 times.

Lia’s curated post presented far more information than any subset of tweets could hope to provide and gave a range of perspectives from multiple tweeters. It was disseminated widely on Twitter and Facebook and the audience extended far beyond the conference. Other Storify collections from the conference also received hundreds of views (e.g. landscape ecology plenary).

Not every talk can be curated in this way. A few key elements are required:

  • Tweets must cover the entire presentation, not just state the take-home message.
  • Photos of key slides add interest and valuable information.
  • Tweets from multiple attendees provide more depth and complexity than tweets from a single observer.

For all these reasons, curated talks rely on many, not fewer, live-tweets.

A curated talk is, however, as useful as any other tweet in a tweet storm if it can’t be found easily. Hence, curated talks need their own hashtag, such as #ESA16story or #ESA15curate.

Beyond live tweeting

So here’s the take home message:

From here on, there is limited utility in encouraging more people to live tweet at conferences unless we also encourage more people to curate tweets and to disseminate curated collections.

The following suggestions would lead to better outreach in the future. (Please add more suggestions in the comments below).

Conference organizers

  • Plan for tweets to be curated: advertise hashtags for individual tweets (e.g. #ESA16) and curated stories (e.g. #ESA16story) so collections can be discovered.
  • Assign someone to search for and share curated stories using a prominent Twitter or Facebook account so collections can be disseminated widely.
  • Treat curated stories as free PR and send links to journalists.

Speakers and lab groups

  • View conference tweets as free publicity for your work – your audience is enthusiastically writing your press release for you. Capitalise on this energy by curating talks from your lab.
  • Do not expect others to curate your talks. From now on, perceptions of privilege may arise if labs encourage members to tweet their talks but expect someone else to curate and disseminate them.
  • Put your name on any curated stories you do create. The process, and those involved, will be taken for granted if anonymous collections just pop up on the web.


  • Broaden the “buzz” around live tweeting so those who curate tweets receive the same recognition as those who tweet.
  • Preferentially share curated tweets before uncurated tweets.
  • Distribute collections across social media platforms, including Facebook and email newsletters.
  • Don’t over-invest: do it quickly, on the same day if possible, while the conference is topical.

Ecology conferences may not yet have reached “peak beard” but we have reached the point where we can choose to move beyond “peak tweet” or stay stuck in a “tweet storm”.

The mantra for live-tweeting at future conferences must include the three activities: tweet, curate, disseminate.


Many thanks to @D0CT0R_Dave, @BiodiversityGuy and @ManuSaunders for feedback on a draft of this post.

16 thoughts on “Live tweeting at academic conferences: time to move on?

  1. Ian – for outreach purposes it is also more useful to target key stakeholders in tweets. IMHO for outreach purposes it’s better use of limited characters to target non-traditional audiences e.g. Use #auspol instead of #wildoz or handles of key influencers and groups not attending the conference (with the conf hashtag)

  2. Thanks Jason, great point. However conference tweets can only be curated if they contain the conference hashtag, and curated Storify collections may be more likely to be shared early on if they have a distinctive conference hashtag, so can be shared by organisers and live tweeters. Using hashtags to direct to particular audiences is extremely valuable as a complementary strategy. It certainly happens a lot when tweets are retweeted, as sharers re-frame messages and re-direct to particular audiences. Thanks for the comment. Best wishes Ian

  3. Great post Ian. I think the idea of curation is great for stories/talks, but also for the conference generally. Using a bit of hashtag creativity is a really easy way to try & reduce the storm from the outset. For example having a social hashtag that is separate from main conference hashtag, as most of the ‘Hey #conf drinks at the Hotel X’ tweets are only for conference attendees and just create unnecessary noise for those at home trying to find the talks. It’s probably more of an issue for the larger conferences with lots of tweeters…I found this frustrating with the US ESA because of the time diff, I often checked in during their social time & gave up wading through tweets to find what had happened in the talks that day.
    Session or day hashtags could work too (e.g. #ESAMon #ESATue), as long as there weren’t too many!

  4. Thanks for your comment Manu. Yes, any way to reduce the reliance on a single conference hashtag (+/- speakers’ names) would be very helpful.

    Perhaps #ESA16fun or some other short tag could be used to split all the social tweets (as you say, there are a lot of them) from the science tweets. 🙂

    I guess, more broadly, we’ve got to the stage where Twitter users need to develop a new hashtag etiquette for well-attended conferences. It shall be interesting to see how things evolve. Thanks again, Ian

  5. I live tweeted a blogging conference recently (Problogger Event.) I’ve been an amateur birdwatcher for two years and am hopefully returning to study Environmental Science next year. So, what I am saying is more from a social perspective in general.

    Live tweeting by itself doesn’t have the reach it once did. There are so many channels, so many messages. I noticed that significantly less people live tweeted the blogging conference this year. I also noticed that we had less reach.

    Thoughts on hashtags:

    Previously, we would adapt the hashtag according to what room people were in, so people could follow their sessions. We found that this wasn’t used.

    Hashtags were best for networking between attendees and for those that wanted to eavesdrop on the conversations. People can’t eavesdrop on something they aren’t aware of. For this, I would focus on other types of outreach then just twitter. The team had created a Facebook group prior to the event and a lot of the social discussion took place in here.


    Curation is key if you want to get the message spread from beyond the blog. This can be time consuming and often goes beyond just search the hashtag.

    This is tricky and may not be able to be done in real time – not unless you have people who volunteer to help out. It goes beyond curating the best tweets. It’s about providing an overall narrative about the presentation so people can join up the various pieces from social media. Storify is great for this. Blog posts can also be used. It’s worth noting that anyone who helps with this will miss out on a lot of the socializing parts of a conference.

    You can prepare for this before a conference. You can ask speakers to provide links to some of the resources/case studies they may mention in their presentation and have these ready to put in the appropriate spot.

    In our case, I live tweeted the key points from sessions that we wanted people to be aware of. I also wrote a post for the official blog summarizing the key action steps for attendees to take. This went over well, primarily because the conference was full of actions steps.

    For me, the best curated tweets included comments and discussion generated from the conversation in addition to the quotes from the talk. Additionally, using to create quotes can extend reach moreso beyond photographing a slide.

    Your comments about recognition are important. We had people who live blogged in the past, but stopped before they felt they weren’t appreciated. There are little ways people can be appreciated, like a shout out from the organizers.

    I’m sorry that this is all over the place. I’ve just gotten into ecology and know that there is a difference in audiences, so I’m trying not to overwhelm you. Feel free to contact me if you want me to expand on anything – I’ve set it up so I get notified of any responses, too

  6. Hi Jade, thanks for so many great suggestions. From comments above and many more on Twitter it is clear that the degree of use and finesse of use of Twitter, and other forms of outreach, vary enormously among conferences – from almost nothing to the detailed work you describe above. I imagine that each conference group will have to work out protocols (if they choose to) that are relevant to their circumstances and resources. A lot of the discussion that was triggered by this post (mostly on Twitter) predominantly highlights a new recognition of the need to make some structural improvements to the way we live tweet, beyond just using the hashtag. Your comments above give us lots more ideas to try, while being aware of the very big limitations on how well they might work. In the end, social media was never designed to be “efficient” but we can try ways to make it much more effective. Thanks again, Ian

  7. Having worked as comms person for an environmental research NGO, and live tweeted its major events once or twice, I am not sure of the value of live tweeting much. I think people are making a fetish of the “new tech” PR buzz for a purpose that it doesn’t suit. And, if you have 400 talks at a conference of only a bit more than 600 people, then the ratio of audience to presenters is probably the biggest problem you have (speaking as a veteran conference attendee, albeit non-academic conferences).

    I have really tried to read the storify summaries of some of the ESA talks that have appeared on the web, but I can’t get through them. Some of the individual tweets, and the photos of slides, look like it was very interesting. But I just don’t feel like I’m really getting it on storify. I’m a Gen X. At first I thought, maybe my attention span is too short.. But I read academic papers and longer textbooks just fine. I think my attention span is too long for storify!

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