Out of the ivory tower and into the crowds: how social media has transformed academic conferences

What a week it’s been here in Oxford for an evidence nerd like me! First, two days of brilliant presentations, stimulating debate and some tasty and reassuringly-managable food that could be eaten standing up, without fear of finding I’d been talking to Ben Goldacre with a piece of coleslaw draped over my conference badge (I suspect he’d have been merciless). That was our Cochrane UK and Ireland 21st Anniversary Symposium, in which both ‘Cochranites’ and those not involved in the Collaboration (gasp!) gathered to discuss the challenges of the changing healthcare landscape and particularly what Cochrane might do to meet them. Hard on its heels and before we’d had time to set about changing the world, came another fabulous two day evidence-fest, Evidence Live, aimed at ‘everyone with an interest in evidence-based healthcare’. Thanks to social media, large numbers of those people were able to join in as virtual participants at both events and they certainly did!

On its second day #evidencelive was trending on Twitter, reaching almost 30,000 accounts by 10.30 that morning, and one tweep noted that it had overtaken both the NHS and the Catholic Church in terms of Twitter popularity! Apart from a brief skirmish in the Twittersphere at a conference last autumn, this week has given me my first real taste of how social media can transform the ways in which those attending such events can participate in them and how we capture them. So, for those yet to try it, and flushed with the zeal of the newly-converted, here’s a taste of what it can do, starting with my favourite social media platform, Twitter.

social mediaThese two events already had plenty to excite those who were there, but through tweeting we could share all the action as it happened and our responses to it. It’s a democratic form of live broadcasting, where we all get to be Jeremy Paxman or Clare Balding. Of course, those tweeting weren’t just passing on information as delivered, though I made a mental note for future presentations that short phrases that get to the heart of the matter get picked up and tweeted. “In healthcare, geography is destiny” Jack Wennberg told us – perfect Twitter-fodder. As the presentations unfolded, tweeps did far more than just repeat what they heard, though that in itself was appreciated by those following. We provided links to papers mentioned or related material; photos of the presenter and the screen being shown. There can be confusion about the content of a tweet – is it the opinion of the tweep or the person behind the podium? I thought this was managed well at these particular events, with people generally making attributions clear.

Twitter allows not just information-sharing but comment and debate. Audiences are now able to respond instantly to what they’re hearing, throw out questions, argue, comment, and listen to what others are saying. I find it hugely exciting! It’s also challenging. I’m putting myself in the spotlight, as both myself and a representative of the UK Cochrane Centre; it’s sharpened up how I listen to others and how I respond and I gain so much by connecting with others taking part in the conversation.

Live tweeting can convey the atmosphere generated by a controversial or entertaining presentation in a way that will be lost by the time you get to look at the slides uploaded on the internet. When we were on the edge of our seats, so were those following. People’s personalities and interests, as well as the interests of the organizations that some represent, all add colour to the way we experience and capture these events through engaging on Twitter. Their different viewpoints and the expertise and experience they bring to the table (or perhaps I should say tablet) make for an entirely different experience than listening to a presentation and exchanging a few words about it over coffee afterwards.

When I first starting tweeting for the UKCC, I wondered if I’d need to maintain a serious tone at all times, but I’ve learned that with social media the social bit is important; it’s easier to engage if you’re talking to a real person. I loved the enthusiastic and slightly off-the-wall tweets coming from a medical student in the audience, @davidecarroll, who greeted criticism of Cochrane with a kind of horrified glee (“Eek! Feels like blasphemy! Conference gets interesting!!”) and then made me laugh by ending another tweet, reporting that one member of Evidence-Based Medicine’s royal family had roundly criticized another’s work, with *grabs popcorn*! These kind of tweets mixed with gems from the speaker, screen shots, links, and different viewpoints from multiple tweeps make for a heady brew.

So what do people pick up and retweet? Of course, we all send on tweets that have particular relevance to us, sometimes adding our own comments too. But are there things that make some tweets more popular than others? I think it comes back to being engaging, saying things in a memorable way and providing content that many will relate to. Peter Gotzsche in his sit-up-and-take-notice presentation about mammography has perfectly understood how to give punchy headlines to get his points across: “mammograms don’t save lives and they don’t save breasts”. He also made us laugh and reinforced a point by commenting that he never lets anyone near his prostate, prompting one tweep to send this on and add “why can’t women guard their breasts?” My own tweet “Cochrane’s getting a bloody nose today & more to come, but important that we listen to criticism, consider it & respond” was picked up and retweeted far more than any others I sent and I suspect worked better than a more impersonal statement would have done. It also touched on something at the heart of this new way of engaging – listening is vital.

Social media offers some great ways to capture these events after we’ve all gone home and my favourite has to be Storify. Following our Anniversary Symposium I was really keen to try my hand at ‘Storifying’ it, creating a living archive of material from various social media platforms and internet sites using Storify.com. Not only can tweets, photos, video links and so on be gathered together but comments can be added. My colleague Holly had led the way with her great stories on Tamiflu and the All Trials campaign and now it was my turn to give it a go. I loved this! It’s a great way for people to catch up with an event and I know we’ll be referring to it to remind ourselves of suggestions made and plans hatched. Of course, I was too busy tweeting to take notes! If you haven’t tried it, do! Our Storify on #ukcc21 is here and you can also find this and the other two Storifys on our news page.

If you’re new to Twitter, a great starting point is the helpful introductory guide Rob Aldridge used at his social media workshop at Evidence Live and you can catch up with that here. You can learn more about registering a hashtag for your conference here at Symplur.com

We learned at Evidence Live that 49% of papers are now tweeted, so if you’re not on Twitter you’re missing out. I’d say that’s true of conferences too and I can’t wait for the next one so I can get stuck in all over again!

28 thoughts on “Out of the ivory tower and into the crowds: how social media has transformed academic conferences

  1. Fantastic blog! In two weeks I have gone from struggling to see how I can use Twitter at work to absolutely loving it and it is all down to tweeting the Cochrane UK & Ireland Symposium and following #evidencelive. It’s great watching the conversations unfold and it is such an inclusive form of communication!

  2. I agree Sarah – social media rapidly transforming conferencing in urology and other specialties also. We have developed a strong social media strategy under the new Editorial Team at the British Journal of Urology International since January this year http://www.bjuinternational.com/bjui-blog/social-media-bjuijournal-what-a-start/ , part of which includes a lot of activity at major urology conferences. This includes twitter, FB and Youtube but has blogging at the heart of the social media funnel. Have a look at our recent blogs from the European Association of Urology Annual Congress to see some metrics of SoMe activity http://www.bjuinternational.com/tag/declan-murphy/ . Declan Murphy

    • Thanks for this Declan. I was really interested to read about how you’re using social media at the BJUI and what you’ve achieved already is impressive! Holly and I will be taking a close look at some of the links and thinking about other platforms we might explore and how to present our metrics – I like what you’ve done here. I quite agree that BMJ Blogs is worth a visit. I’ve really enjoyed the BJUI blogs I’ve read so far too and suspect that we will be hard pressed to match you for some intriguing titles!

  3. Excellent post, in the past week I have gone from never seeing a live tweet to being completely inspired by EvidenceLive by the way in which they used live tweets. I can see its relevence and love it.

    I too felt the need to write a blogpost about social media and health – mainly live tweeting, I quoted this fab blog post in it🙂 http://slt2b.blogspot.co.uk/ Thanks

    • Thanks Lauren and for sending us to your blog, which I would recommend to anyone wanting to know more about live tweeting from conferences. Glad the enthusiasm for it is spreading! It is something which (rightly?) causes some nervousness so for anyone thinking about doing it it’s good to read about what it can offer and some of the things to consider. We keep learning so much from other people.

      • I think the immediacy can generate nervousness – such a contrast from the long trudge through academic journal publishing protocols. Likewise, the inclusivity. Both are huge strengths, and very exciting.

    • Hi Lauren,

      I work at the UK Cochrane Centre with Sarah and I am currently working on a new evidence-based healthcare website for students wanting to know more and how to get involved. I am always on the look out for good student bloggers and in general for more students to help spread the word! The website is going live at the end of the month but we have a growing community on facebook:
      – the Students 4 Best Evidence group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/cochranestudents/
      – the Students 4 Best Evidence new page – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Students-4-Best-Evidence/287827508016761
      – you can also follow us on twitter – @Students4BE


      • Thanks both for your replies! Holly, funnily enough I saw that the Cochrane Centre had retweeted a message from Students For Best Evidence yesterday and I had a look at the facebook and twitter; the group is a great idea and I followed without ever actually seeing this message. I will watch it grow and happily spread the word. Please do let me know if I can be of any help/if there’s any particular blogging topics you have in mind for the future, you can find me tweeting away at @lauren_slt2b.


  4. So nice to see the interwebs at work spreading and discussing high quality evidence liberally … congratulations!
    PS Declaring interests: I love Cochrane, and I love Twitter. I especially loved watching Evidence Live, a combination.
    Also, congratulations to Lauren student blogger tweeter (above) and quick to realise what many are taking months and even years to realise. It is great that tweeters at Evidence Live provided such a great example at just the moment it was needed for #SLPeeps.
    Bronwyn (@bronwynhemsley)

    • I’m pretty keen on both Cochrane and Twitter too! Of course, social media ensures that none of us can be complacent – it makes it easy for anyone to express their views, make suggestions etc and I’m sure there is much to be gained through this, if we are prepared to listen! Glad Evidence Live was well-timed for you. I certainly found the experience of participating in two excellent events back-to-back hugely useful in terms of improving my understanding and use of social media at such events, as well as for the stimulating content of course!

  5. Great blog, I’ve been having flashbacks to Evidence Live all week, this blog has taken me back again and now I’m going to ramble about how great it was, as if my tweets didn’t describe it enough.

    Beth Hall (@Bet_Hall) and I were lucky enough to win a place at Evidence Live. I wrote an article on Breast Cancer Screening and not only was I lucky to win a place but both our articles are going to be published in next month’s studentBMJ.

    When we arrived on the Monday morning, we were unsure of where to go. I said to Beth, “lets look for someone important and find where we have to go”, halfway through the sentence Muir Gray walked out of the loo. Not only did the pitch of my voice increase excitedly by about 4 octaves but it set the scene for our first morning.

    We spent the morning walking past and talking to people that can only be described as our heroes. Sir Iain Chalmers, Deborah Cohen, Peter Gøtzsche, Ben Goldacre and Margaret McCartney, just to name a few. In fact, on the plane journey the night before, I was reading Margaret’s book, something that I was too embarrassed to admit while sitting beside her.

    The morning’s keynotes were excellent and mid-morning we trotted off to the ‘How to teach EBM’ session, hopeful to pick up some tips on how to stimulate change in the current teaching paradigm. Monday lunchtime, Beth and I were interviewed for doc2doc (subtle plug: http://bit.ly/107t9sk) in which I excitedly blurted out that I had learnt more that morning than I had in 3 years of medical school. What seemed like a flippant comment at the time definitely is true.

    In the afternoon, we heard the amazing and inspiring Clare Gerada and the final keynote of the day was from Sir Mike Rawlins on Pharma. Beth and I are very interested in pharma (www.pharmaware.co.uk) and how we can fix the bad behaviours that occur, ultimately to help patients (and Pharma), so he had our full attention. At the end of the keynote, I asked a question regarding the ESHLSG Guidance document that a we’ve been scrutinising with a few colleagues recently. Needless to say I was nervous asking but Sir Mike’s response was to tell me that ‘people make mistakes’ and to ‘forget about the great and the good and join him instead’. This was followed with a hug when I spoke to him after, what a surreal experience!

    After an amazing first day, we went for drinks and food with some new friends and prepared ourselves for the conference to get even better. Needless to say it did.

    Tuesday morning, I awoke at 6.30am (a time no student has ever seen before) and we made it for a breakfast roundtable at 8am. Later, Peter Wilmshurst’s keynote really impressed on me and it led Beth and I to develop a new mantra in life if ever in a tricky situation- WWPD- What would Peter do? (Wilmshurst or Gøtzsche, depending on the situation). Ben Goldacre spoke afterwards and my name was mentioned in his talk, yet another surreal experience from Evidence Live.

    The rest of the day went far too quickly and after Brian Deer inspired us with his tale of investigative journal, it was home-time.

    I haven’t wrote about all the amazing things that happened, that’s a good thing because I’ve veered incredibly off the topic of this blog but thank you Evidence Live, I had a wonderful time. Next time make it a bit longer please?

    (I probably should have blogged this myself)

    • It’s so good to see students getting involved! You would love the UK Cochrane Centre office, we are constantly bumping into Muir Gray & Iain Chalmers etc… (Muir is often found stealing our biscuits😉 ).
      Did you get a chance to follow the #ukcc21 the week before Evidence Live?

      • Very briefly, I watched most of (if not all) the plenaries on the Youtube channel.

  6. Lovely to see enthusiasm for liveblogging conferences which I have always felt is a marvellous thing both as a livetweeter and a ‘livewatcher’ or, more often these days, a ‘watchlater’ thanks to clever interventions like Storify (it’s lovely) and Chirpstory (less pretty but you can grab more tweets at one go so I tend to use it for massive conferences with several hundred tweets).

    I’ve added yours and Lauren’s posts to my collection of posts about liveblogging http://brodiesnotes.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/curated-posts-liveblogging-science.html – you are numbers 29 and 30🙂

    Interesting to read of another example (on Lauren’s blog) of people being miffed at someone livetweeting their conference – I wonder if it was the fact that it was a student doing it that annoyed them…

    My interest in that aspect of ethics (the feelings of the presenters) was piqued by the excitements that developed around Daniel Macarthur’s tweeting from a science conference. In his case it was a press organisation that was a bit cross, because they’d had to sign an agreement with the conference organisers that they’d clear their output with them before publishing, whereas delegates hadn’t been asked that and so were free to tweet. That was back in June 2009 so it seems we’ve not solved that one almost four years on.

    Many of the discussions that followed raised all sorts of interesting issues, including the perspectives of the speakers – obviously this varies hugely and many people are keen that their comments are reported on, though some were horrified at the thought of information ‘escaping’ either in terms of people being scooped (though of course most of the scoopers are probably in the audience!) or that unpolished, un-peer-reviewed information gets out and seems more certain that it is.

    At the time I was working for Diabetes UK and liveblogging from related medical conferences and always very careful not to report anyone whose comments seemed to be overstating the case a bit – more because I knew that people with diabetes could well be seeing my tweets and I didn’t want to risk saying anything that might raise expectations.

    • Thanks for joining in the conversation here Jo and for adding the blog to your collection. I’m really interested in your comments about the press versus delegates – this is a problem clearly! As for the attitudes of speakers, let’s hope that more and more embrace this as a means of enabling an enormous audience to hear about, and engage with, their work. This process will be helped, no doubt, if conferences set up guidelines and encourage people to tweet within a few rules. As individuals we all need to be careful about content, attributions and so on. Good point about being careful not to raise false expectations; I certainly find that the character limit of a tweet requires great care in order to accurately conveying the content of reviews.

    • In reference to the debate on Lauren’s blog re: live-tweeting. It wasn’t a student who was live-tweeting (this I know because I was the unfortunate recipient of the debate). Furthermore, it wasn’t the presenter who had an issue with the live-tweeting. It was, unfortunately, someone who didn’t know who to argue with regarding a specific point.

      Live tweeting is here. I agree completely that presenters need to be aware that live-tweeting is something that will happen more and more. It’s a fantastic way to generate interest in a topic that many people have no experience or are unable to attend the conference.

  7. This is a very interesting debate. I’ve reported on (healthcare) conferences (not by twitter) and been in the position of being pretty sure a speaker did not know their comments might be reported. I felt they should have done, given it was a conference with hundreds of people and no stated reporting restrictions: I asked them and after some thought, dropped the story. I now feel, given twitter and blogging, that conference organisers should make clear from the start that anything said may be reported, and not just by professional journalists, encourage everyone to play nicely, and be positive about the benefits this brings. The only alternative seems to be to make every delegate agree not to report in any way, apart from any specific press agreements – which seems unenforceable once you go outside accredited press: what if someone reports a memorable quote to a colleague and they then tweet it? Given links, and hashtags, it is much easier for readers to go back to the original source, or check what other people are saying about the same thing, but I completely agree about the need for accuracy, attribution and especially not overstating. Thanks for some very thought-provoking comments

  8. Just came back to this blog after my original read, what fantastic and interesting comments! Also interested to learn of Students for Best Evidence as a (rather mature) Health Science undergrad, will follow the Twitter account with interest although I don’t have FB🙂 if there,s any way I can assist blogging wise please let me know, you can contact me as @CherryMakes on Twitter🙂

  9. Does anyone know of any examples of information given by organisers to presenters or delegates at conferences, about live tweeting and blogging? I’d be really interested to see any.

      • Thanks Holly, yes I saw them, they look great. I was wondering about information given to speakers and delegates though – how to make it sound positive but also make them aware – do you know of anything like this? What would have happened if they had said no when you asked permission – would you have asked the audience not to tweet and would that have been enforceable? Thanks very much

      • We produced the guidelines based on a few “live tweeting from academic conferences” blogs we read – I will try and find the links for you. But I didn’t specifically give any information to the speakers or delegates about making them aware other than advertising our hashtag on all the conference material and asking the speakers to sign the permission agreement. I think its a really good idea though, to send some info out when advertising an event to help get people engaging with twitter.

        I did over hear a couple of people who were not using twitter at the Symposium saying that they thought it seemed like the Tweeps weren’t paying attention to the speakers, or they were worried about using Twitter as they didn’t want to look “distracted” but I if we had had some more info for delegates explaining the reasons for tweeting at conferences then this could have helped.

        If the speakers had said no to tweeting during their talk, I would have made sure that while the speakers introduced that this was stated – especially if their reasons were to do with new findings/unpublished data as I think the audience would understand. But also we made sure that it was clear to the speakers that Twitter & our hashtag was key to the Symposium before they signed up for the event.

        I think as long as it is very apparent that the organisers are using Twitter, filming the sessions & taking photos then there shouldn’t be to many problems, then it’s not a surprise to anyone (I hope🙂 ) I am definitely going to give more of an intro next time as to why we want people tweeting etc.. I think that’s a great idea.

  10. Thanks Holly, that’s really useful. I am sure in time all this will become standard, but transitions can be uneasy. People attending conferences have always been free to discuss them, to write about them, and when it comes to unpublished results and so on, expected to abide by the “rules” of the community. But as long as conversations or tweets are not illegal (libellous say), I can’t quite see a way of insisting – which is a pragmatic reason to be open and encouraging I guess.

  11. Pingback: We’ve got a handy checklist for live tweeting from events. Have you? | Evidently Cochrane

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