The social-media scholar danah boyd started out her talk at the Web 2.0 conference in 2009 as she always did — a little nervous, but excited about sharing information and interacting with an audience. Shortly into her talk, however, attendees started laughing.
"The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying, and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience," boyd wrote in a blog post summing up the event. The random laughter and outbursts continued throughout the talk. "Yes, I cried," she wrote. "Yes, I left Web 2.0 Expo devastated."
People in the crowd were laughing not because of anything she’d said. The organizers had chosen to project a live stream of tweets about the conference on a screen behind her. The tweets, which criticized boyd for speaking too quickly, became increasingly disrespectful and cruel. Because of the decision to provide random attendees with space equal to a presenter’s, Twitter users got to bully boyd in real time.
In the past decade, social media has taken over the Web and the media, offering great opportunities for academics and scholarly conferences. Even small sessions on obscure topics now can speak to, and connect with, an audience all over the world. But as boyd’s experience shows, live-tweeting conference sessions also can be disruptive and damaging in ways that participants don’t always anticipate. In response, many conferences have tried to develop new policies or guidelines around social-media use during meetings.
"Any kind of scholar who does work in feminism, race studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies — and who has a social-media presence — has experienced harassment from trolls online," said Paula Gardner, president of the International Communication Association (ICA), in an interview. In an effort to protect presenters at her group’s conference last year, she introduced an opt-out policy, under which speakers could ask the audience not to share information on social media during their talks.
Such a policy is important, especially for presenters who deal with controversial topics, said Katherine Cross, a doctoral student in sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, who has done research on Gamergate. For example, panels focusing on online harassment can be flashpoints for abuse and vitriol. At academic conferences, she said, "some live tweeters naïvely use the #GamerGate hashtag, which is essentially a bat signal for assholes." Speakers, especially female speakers, may then get attacked on social media. "In extreme cases," she said, "it highlights the very existence of the conference to the harassers, who then make it their mission to pollute the conference’s hashtag with abuse, trolling, porn, and just generally making the hashtag unusable."
In addition to concerns about harassment, ICA is also sensitive to concerns that academic work might be taken out of context. "It is arguably difficult, in some cases, to accurately represent an author’s work as they intend it on a tweet, due to the limited word count allowed," Gardner said.
Andrew Schrock, a postdoctoral fellow in communications at Chapman University and a member of ICA, told me there can be a number of other reasons for conference presenters to be leery of having their sessions live-tweeted: "They may want to present early findings that they are legally prohibited from widely distributing, or are doing politically sensitive work. Community-engaged scholars might be working closely with a community group and have not brought their findings back to them. How and when researchers do this can be touchy."
Scholars might also have a paper out for publication and be concerned that one of their reviewers might see the tweets, undermining the blind peer-review process.
Researchers presenting at science conferences have been especially concerned about complicated data or findings being reproduced on social media without sufficient background. The Ecological Society of America, for example, has an opt-out policy on conference tweeting. The society also asks attendees not to take digital photographs of slides, and to avoid posting raw data from someone else’s presentation. Scientists fear that some data might be misused in order to advance political agendas around issues like climate change. And researchers working in commercial or industrial areas worry that rivals may get early data off the web, or that publishing via social media may affect patent applications.
If tweeting has so many possible downsides, why allow it at all?
The answer is that social media also has great benefits for scholars. At its best, live-tweeting doesn’t just provide a record of the panel but can also be participatory, generating collaboration, discussion, and sometimes even ideas or references that might be useful for the presenter. "I love when I see live-tweeting where you see, ‘Oh, so-and-so just mentioned this — here’s seven manuscripts I happen to have been looking at,’ " said David Perry, a journalist, medieval historian, and regular tweeter, with a sizeable social-media following.
The challenge, then, is how best to handle live-tweeting at a conference.
In the first place, it’s important to remember that universities do benefit from public comment, and that scholars should, in general, be accessible and accountable to the public.
"These are, in a sense, public events, and those of us who work in the humanities are, in a sense, public intellectuals," said Eileen Joy, director of punctum books and prolific conference tweeter. "We shouldn’t be afraid to air our ideas out loud and have people report on that. Humanists should want their work to have a broader public audience."
People shouldn’t need special permission to tweet about a conference session, or share academic findings, she added. Public interest in scholarly work is a good thing, and both scholars and the public benefit when academic work is more available and accessible.
However, live-tweeters have responsibilities as well. "I think you just have to be aware of what you’re doing, that you’re shifting from one register to another, and that has consequences," said David Perry. "For me, the conference is best when the work being presented is genuinely a work in progress — genuinely in a state where you are not just presenting information, but where you are asking the audience to engage in a conversation and think about interesting ideas as you talk to each other."
Conferences work best when there’s a sense of collegiality and shared inquiry. Twitter, on the other hand, often encourages people to get likes and retweets through snarkiness, cruelty, and mockery. There’s an incentive to shut people down quickly rather than to encourage speculation or exploration of differences. Live-tweeting should be approached as a way to disseminate information and bring others into the discussion — not as a chance to score points or deliver a knockout blow to a work in progress.
"Tweeter, do no harm," Perry said. "If you think the paper sucks, don’t tweet it. Don’t say it’s bad; you don’t need to lie and say it’s good. Just stop tweeting. And I have done that. There have been papers about which I had nothing nice to say. So I said nothing at all, as our mothers taught us."
Conference planners should also keep in mind the dangers and downsides of live-tweeting. They should alert attendees to potentially dangerous hashtags and encourage live-tweeters to use only official conference hashtags. Presenters should have the right to ask people not to live-tweet during their talk, and shouldn’t have to explain their reasons.
In short, default permission for live-tweeting should be expected at a scholarly meeting. But tweeters should be aware of the dangers, and presenters should be able to opt out easily if they wish.
Social media isn’t negative or positive in itself; it’s just a tool. As with any tool, you want to know how it works, when to use it, and where the sharp edges are. If organizers, tweeters, and presenters are careful and knowledgeable, Twitter can amplify and deepen the conference experience. If they’re not — as with dana boyd’s Web 2.0 presentation — Twitter can sometimes take the conference over.