Since 2012 and my first British Sociological Association conference, I have seen the increasing value of twitter as a mechanism of making social connections, engaging in wider discussion of plenaries and getting advice of sessions that may be of interest. Unfortunately, not all conference organisers seem to have discovered this benefit.
On travelling to the 12th European Sociological Association Conference in Prague, I expected to see what most national conferences seem to do; a promoted hash tag to tweet about the conference. It was evident early on that this wasn’t happening (although some photocopied signs appeared later in the conference). This conference had 3500 delegates so it would be safe to assume that at least a proportion of these would have a twitter presence.
It can be seen from analysis of posts involving the hashtag that the lack of a promoted hash tag had an impact on who was tweeting and the volume of these tweets. Wasim Ahmed (@was3120) ran an a analysis by nodeXL which found that in the whole conference there were 1637 tweets using the hash tag from 579 users. If we compare this to the analysis run by the BSA digital sociology group on the 2013 BSA conference, there were 1497 tweets from 328 users during a conference with far fewer delegates (790).
This is potentially problematic as twitter is in many ways expected as a back channel at a conference. Even the controversy surrounding the Ecological Society of America’s request for tweeters to ask permission before tweeting still acknowledged the presence of twitter as a core element of the conference.
It might therefore be helpful for future organising committees to understand how having an official hashtag might have helped this specific conference
- the sheer volume of papers
I am positive that I am not the only delegate who found the sheer number of papers a challenge to choose from. With 37 research networks and 7 research streams in addition to a number of other plenaries and ‘mid-day specials’, it was easy to miss interesting papers or sessions, in fact I noted that many people stuck to one network for the duration. By having an active hashtag, it can allow delegates to find that hidden gem they missed, for instance it was a tweet from Drew Dalton (@DrewDalton1980) that alerted me to a fascinating session on methods that I would have missed otherwise.
- Ways of negotiating clashes in interesting papers
With this sheer volume of papers, clashes are inevitable. What a twitter back channel also allows is a ‘feel’ for missed papers or sessions to be garnered through others comments. This enables engagement with the content or enough detail to decide if you wish to contact the researcher directly for a copy of the paper.
- Interacting with speakers
This is one aspect that is almost essential in a programme this size. For example my own paper was in a 90 minute session with 4 other papers. This allowed for 12 minutes delivery and 2 or at most 3 questions. By creating an alternative form of engagement with the speaker, it allows much more productivity in terms of gathering feedback on a paper.
- The social aspect of a conference
In a conference of this scale (3500 delegates) twitter has so much potential for forming networks and finding people with similar interests it is a lifesaver for those people who, like me, did not know many people before the conference.
The use of twitter as a back channel that was monitored locally may have picked up the issues with audio during Bauman’s plenary which may have been addressed quickly, thus reducing the frustration reported on twitter from not being able to hear the talk. In the defence of the organising committee, gaining feedback was attempted on a Facebook post, however it would have been more effective to monitor a hash tag and to directly respond on there as it could have offered more instant feedback, especially on Wi-Fi, water and queuing issues.
Hopefully lessons will be learned for ESA 2017 and by others reading this blog who are organising their own conferences.