May 2016

Twitter tips for academic conferences

UPDATE: A version of this post is appearing as a series of posts on AstroBetter!

Earlier this week I attended the Netherlands Astronomy Conference 2016, organized this year by my institute. I was asked by the LOC to be on my Twitter game throughout the conference, and I’m really proud of the concerted effort made by everyone involved — our conference hashtag #NAC2016 was even trending in the Netherlands for a while!! After fielding Twitter questions from a variety of organizers and participants, it seemed like a good idea to centralize and condense my advice.

In astronomy, I’ve noticed that Twitter awareness and usage at an astronomy conference loosely correlates with the median age and median country of origin of the participants — for example, it seems that younger and/or U.S.-based attendees tend to tweet more. However, I don’t think it should be limited to those demographics. There are definite benefits for the larger astronomy community, like being able to follow what’s going on in real time at a conference you couldn’t attend (which I’ve done on multiple occasions), follow one parallel session while attending another (which I’ve also done), promote the work of up-and-coming researchers, and give exposure to exciting new results. Twitter isn’t just for science outreach and education — you’re communicating with your colleagues as well. So, I want to spark the minds of the Twitter-averse and provide an access point for the Twitter-aware-but-not-active with some tips and recommendations in regards to conference tweeting.

Twitter 101

So that we all start off on the same page (and for those new to the Twitterverse), here are my definitions of the Twitter-specific vocabulary I use throughout this post:

  • tweet – A 140-character message on Twitter. It can also be used as a verb, as in, to tweet something.
  • hashtag – The thing that starts with ‘#’. This is like a tag or keyword that is used to link related tweets.
  • account, handle – The thing that starts with ‘@’. This is a username that’s been registered on Twitter and sends out tweets.
  • feed, stream – A list of tweets, typically a list of tweets with the same hashtag or from the same account.
  • trend, trending – A hashtag or topic that has amassed a critical density of tweets. Trending topics are listed in the left sidebar of a user’s Twitter home page.

For conference organizers

  • A good conference hashtag is unique, short, and somehow relevant (bonus points if it’s funny/punny). Including this in the tweets is how all the tweets will be linked. You want it to be unique, so that only tweets for your conference will appear under it; short, so that it doesn’t take up too much of the 140 character tweet limit; and relevant, so that everyone easily remembers it. Ours, #NAC2016, wasn’t unique, but we dominated the tweets for the duration of the conference so we decided it was ok 😊
  • Good conference hashtag examples off the top of my head are #Bdiffuse16 for a diffuse magnetic fields and ISM conference in 2016, #extremeBH for an extreme black hole accretion conference, and #PyAstro15 for the Python in astronomy conference in 2015. You can look at the account @astromeetings for more inspiration. Note that hashtags are not case-sensitive.
  • Decide on a conference hashtag a few weeks before the conference. List the hashtag on the website and in logistics correspondence with the attendees, and ask your attendees to use it on Twitter. You don’t need to register the hashtag anywhere, just start using it.
  • If your organization doesn’t already have a Twitter account, make an “official” conference Twitter account that will retweet others and make its own tweets. Having this gives a somewhat more curated tweet stream to follow. If the conference hashtag is the name of the account, the account itself shows up at the top of the hashtag stream (as you can see here). The one we had for the NAC was @_NAC2016 (with an underscore); for the AAS High Energy Astrophysics Division meeting in April, their Twitter account @AAS_HEAD served this purpose during the conference.
  • Add the Twitter hashtag feed or conference account feed to your website and/or put it on the screen during the coffee breaks. This is where I recommend using the conference Twitter account’s curated feed — it turns out that if your conference hashtag starts trending (which #NAC2016 did), porn bots start tweeting using your hashtag (with NSFW photos), and that’s not something you want to appear on the screen or your website. FYI.
  • Beforehand, ask a Twitter maven in attendance to tweet a lot for the first one or two sessions to give the conference a strong Twitter presence. We found that this encouraged more attendees to contribute on Twitter for the rest of the meeting.
  • To reassure the Twitter-skeptics in attendance, you can remind everyone that people will be tweeting at the conference and if they do not want all or part of their talk to be tweeted (press embargo, competitors, etc.), they can say so and the tweeters will respect it.

For tweeting attendees

  • For those new to the game: the hashtag (including the ‘#’) must be included in the text of all tweets that you want to be discoverable by it. Also, if you have a private Twitter account, only people who you approve to follow you can see your tweets.
  • Give your non-astronomy Twitter followers a heads-up that you’ll be tweeting at a conference, and tell them when the conference is ending, so they can mute you if they want to.
  • Consider writing your Twitter handle on your conference nametag, particularly if there are lots of tweeters at the conference, so people can put a face to your tweets.
  • Don’t forget to credit the speaker in your tweets (typically with either their first initial and last name or just their last name). Tweets have new guidelines so that mentioning a Twitter handle (including the ‘@’) doesn’t count against the character limit, so if the speaker is on Twitter, credit them that way!
  • If you catch it, it can be nice to tweet the project website or online code repository if the speaker mentions it. URLs get truncated so it won’t take up all of your 140-character tweet limit.
  • If you’re sitting towards the front of the room, you can tweet a photo of the conclusion slide or a good summary graphic. Bonus points if you get a good shot of the speaker too!
  • If you happen to know or have heard that the presenter has close competitors and is possibly at risk of getting scooped, keep your tweets vague and don’t tweet photos of their slides.
  • Tweet photos of colleagues with their posters (or even “action shots” of them explaining their poster to someone else).
  • Make sure your smartphone is on vibrate or silent and the volume is off on your laptop — you’re going to get a lot of notifications from other tweeters favouriting and retweeting you. I actually turn off push-notifications for Twitter on my smartphone.
  • Some people thread their tweets on the same talk by “replying” to their first tweet about it (and then deleting their account name from the text of the next tweet). It’s a great idea, but I often forget to do it.
  • Find a good compromise between using abbreviations to fit more in a tweet, and using so many abbreviations that online followers can’t understand it.
  • If a speaker asks the audience to not tweet or otherwise publicize some or all of their presentation, respect that.
  • Consider not tweeting while inebriated using the conference hashtag.

For all attendees

  • If you do not want anything (or a specific thing) from your talk to be tweeted, say so at the beginning of your talk or on the slide before it’s relevant. I personally don’t know any astronomer who would not respect the request. This is a good idea if your results are under press embargo, or if they’re preliminary results and you have competitors.
  • Include bite-sized summaries of your motivation, technique, and/or result to make it easy for the tweeters. Otherwise they’ll need to distill something short and sweet from your ramblings, and if they’re not in your sub-field they may get it wrong.
  • Include your email address and a paper link/reference on your conclusion slide and leave it up for the questions, so that someone can tweet a photo of it. (h/t Beatriz Mingo)
  • You can still read the tweets if you don’t have a Twitter account — just click on the hashtag, go to the ‘Live’ tab, and there you go!

If you have more suggestions, let me know via my contact page or on twitter! 😉