What’s the point of conference hashtags like #BES2015?

Honest question for our Twitter-using readers, from a non-tweeter: what’s the point of conference hashtags?

I ask because yesterday I noticed that #BES2015 was trending on Twitter and so checked out the hashtag. Which I quickly decided was pointless. There were a massive number of tweets about a massive range of stuff. Mostly single tweets summarizing talk X, sharing a smartphone pic of the speaker delivering talk X, or just saying talk X was awesome. Also some tweets from people promoting their own talks and posters. Crucially, hardly any of them were leading to Twitter conversations, or getting retweeted, or even favorited. So I have no idea how you’d filter all these tweets, or why you’d want to try. As best I can tell, the #BES2015 hashtag is a bunch of people talking to themselves, with no one listening, much less talking back.

Now, “as best I can tell” is a crucial phrase in that last sentence, because it’s quite possible–indeed, likely!–that “as best I can tell” is not very well. That is, I may very well be incapable of telling when Twitter is being used for something useful. With rare exceptions, I’m not on Twitter; it doesn’t work for me. But I’m still curious about how it works for others.

So you tell me, Twitter users: do you find conference hashtags like #BES2015 useful? If so, how? For instance, is the conference hashtag useful for someone who follows a carefully-curated set of Twitter accounts of conference attendees? So that it’s only useless for people who don’t?*

Note that I’m asking specifically about the value of the conference hashtag, not any and all talk- or conference-related uses of Twitter. For instance, I now appreciate why some people find live-tweeting talks (as opposed to merely sending out a single summary tweet) to be useful. And I can certainly see how you could use Twitter to socialize during a conference. But how does the conference hashtag help with those activities?

Note also that I’m not suggesting that conferences not have hashtags. I realize that these days, any scientific conference pretty much has to have one.

Finally, note that I did a bit of googling, and none of the posts I found really answered my question. So in asking y’all, I’m only being somewhat lazy, rather than totally lazy. 🙂

*That’s my best guess, based on Meg’s old post on why she uses Twitter.

 

 

40 thoughts on “What’s the point of conference hashtags like #BES2015?

  1. As a frequent user of Twitter, I find conference hashtags useful, even essential. When you have a whole stream of stuff, they are a quick and easy way to mark a tweet as related to this or that meeting. Without the hashtag, the tweet loses a piece of its context. Hashtags are also useful as a way to find new people in my field to follow (if they’re tweeting about a meeting I’m interested in, I probably want to follow their feed). The other thing that is handy is that you can mute hashtags in your stream–if I’m not interested in this or that meeting, and it’s flooding my feed, I can just make it disappear.

  2. I used a conference hashtag at a couple of conferences this year that were ‘liked’ by my twitter followers, Facebook friends (as I cross-posted directly from twitter), and other people attending the same conference.

    I tweeted, primarily, two things: (1) clever quips related to my talk to boost (a) my ego and (b) promote myself, and (2) quick summaries and authors of plenaries and interesting talks. These tweets were also reposted by the societies (which further boosted my ego and self-promotion).

    I have found, this year, that reading tweets of styles (1) and (2) of twitter friends who were attending a conference I wish I were at, I get a quick overview of the scope of the research being presented (that day).

    I think the conference hashtag is #trending.

    I think the conference hashtag generates immediate interest, and probably doesn’t probably get retweeted after that conference (or even that day).

  3. I’ve found conference hashtags to be really useful in a three ways.

    1. When I’m at a meeting, I can find out what is happening in concurrent sessions that I’m not able to attend. You can only be in one room at a time, and we all know that sometimes you want to find out what happens in talks when you’re not there. Getting an instant take from other people in the room is quick and easy by browsing the meeting hashtag.

    2. When I’m not at a meeting, I can browse the hashtag to see what people are up to. For example, I learned from the BES meeting that Nichola Plowman gave a talk about ants on myrmecophilic plants along elevational gradients, measuring the relative benefits to plants. I had no idea she was doing this work, and I heard about it from this meeting that I wasn’t attending. Also, I heard about an experiment from Kate Parr in which she successfully excluded 90% of the ants from a patch of rainforest. (really? wow.) I didn’t know that Kate was up to this either, and I don’t think this paper is out yet, and this is really relevant to things I’m doing now. Very useful for my research agenda and for staying in touch with what people are doing with one minute’s worth of effort instead of flying across to the UK.

    3. When I am tweeting from a meeting, I find that my tweets of talks have generated quite a bit of interest from people not at the meeting. It might be a stray odd science fact or a cool discovery – and it gets shared by people who aren’t at the conference. I’ve heard back from people who thanked the conference tweeters for sharing what they were finding out at the conference. Some tweets will be useful for close research colleagues, others for the general public, it depends on who is following you, I guess. Putting the hashtag on it lets people know that it’s from a conference that has a lot more than what you’re sharing. I’ve tweeted several conferences now, and remain quite surprised that I actually don’t seem to lose many (or any?) followers from doing so, because I imagined most people wouldn’t want to be barraged with details of a variety of talks. So I think people either like these tweets or are neutral to them.

  4. I find conference hashtags useful for two purposes

    1) keeping up with what is going on, and connecting with new colleagues when I am at a meeting. It was a great way to share my work at conferences this summer, to get feedback from those who attended and those who couldn’t, and to connect with others at both meetings that I didn’t realize were there. I was able to follow the two symposiums I was interested in that were (of course) happening at the same time and identify which speakers I should try to find at the social later. It was also a great way to find out about things that were not on the program, and raise awareness about important lunch brown bag sessions about diversity, or work-life balance that might have been otherwise overlooked.

    2) and joining the conversation when I am not there. That joining may not take place in tweets that include the conference hashtag, but I have found out about great new work that has helped my dissertation this way, and have helped connected people at the conference who are looking for help or new collaborators with people I know. Yes, it can be a bit of a fire hose, but I often try to find one or two people who are tweeting from sessions I find interesting and focus in on them.

    I am also a heavy twitter user, so filtering through the noise doesn’t faze me anymore, but I can totally see why it would appear jumbled to someone who chooses not to use twitter.

  5. What they just said–but from my point of view, Auriel’s point 1 about highlighting something in the program that might be lost in the noise or that isn’t even in the program is critical. I think a hashtag helps with organizing across what’s often a large and confusing enterprise–the bigger conventions. It makes it possible to make announcements in real time to everyone tuned in, not just followers. If there’s a change of room or something not in the program, it’s about the only way to get word out. Bulletin boards at registration in the bigger convention centers are just not central enough to get people’s attention. So, even if the other tweeting doesn’t seem relevant, keeping tuned in to the hashtag while actually at the meeting can be very useful.

  6. Cheers to everyone who’s replied so far. An omnibus reply:

    I can totally see why conference hashtags are useful as a way to distinguish conference-related tweets from others. You can’t follow a conference on Twitter (or avoid one!), or tweet real-time announcements about the conference, without an easy way to mark tweets related to the conference.

    But when it comes to other uses of conference hashtags, I still don’t know *how* Twitter users filter that stream, and have tentatively concluded that *they* don’t know how they do it either! Everybody who’s commenteed so far talks about *what* they got out of the conference hashtag. I learned that person X works on topic Y that I also work on. I met person Z whom I didn’t know before. I got a useful overview of the conference from afar. Etc. But nobody explains how they did it, or even seems to realize that it’s totally non-obvious to someone like me. I mean, are people literally just skimming the timeline of #BES2015 tweets (all however-many hundreds or thousands of them?!) looking for ones that happen to be of interest? Much as I might skim the contents of the latest issue of Ecology looking for paper titles of interest?

    This reminds me of an old post in which Meg said she felt stumped when people asked her how she manages to be both a successful scientist and a mom. Or how I would feel stumped if someone were to ask me “How do you come up with so many blog post ideas and find the time to write them?” I dunno, I just do. So I appreciate Auriel’s remark:

    “[F]iltering through the noise doesn’t faze me anymore, but I can totally see why it would appear jumbled to someone who chooses not to use twitter.”

    • I guess that the question is related to the more general one of to how you keep up with the Twitter feed.

      I’ve been using Twitter sparingly for a while and at the beginning I tried to keep up with the flow of tweets. At some point, I realized that it wasn’t really sustainable and too distracting and now I just check a certain amount of tweets a couple of times per day.

      Using Tweetdeck, I set up some columns that relate to my keywords of interest and I might add some new column temporarily with conference hashtags.
      If the tweets in one of the columns are too many (such as in the timeline or for some well-attended conferences), no problem, I’ll just miss them.
      I found out that having a combination of more specialized columns with keywords of interest and the general feed and checking Twitter only a couple of times per day is the best trade-off for me. Yes, I will not read every tweet of a certain conference but I can dedicate my time to perhaps more important stuff…

  7. Conference hashtags are great! The main benefit I’ve got from following conferences remotely on twitter is discovering people doing similar/relevant research that I hadn’t heard of before. But I think the key driver of whether a conference # is actually useful, is the hashtag itself – many conferences pick a very general acronym without checking if it’s already in use, e.g. #bes15 appears to be in use by at least 1 other conference happening at the same time, which just creates more noise for the Brit Ecol tweets to get lost in.

    • “But I think the key driver of whether a conference # is actually useful, is the hashtag itself – many conferences pick a very general acronym without checking if it’s already in use, e.g. #bes15 appears to be in use by at least 1 other conference happening at the same time, which just creates more noise for the Brit Ecol tweets to get lost in.”

      Clearly different people experience different things as the biggest obstacle to the utility of conference hashtags. 🙂

      My understanding is that it’s actually quite difficult for conference organizers to pick a hashtag that’s not in use by anyone else. I recall a few years ago a few people were worried that the ESA meeting hashtag was already being put to another use and wanted the organizers to change it. The response as I recall was basically “don’t sweat it, it happens every year, ESA meeting-related tweets always swamp other uses of the same hashtag during the ESA meeting.” But yes, I can see where it would be confusing if two conferences of similar size were both using the same hashtag. And I can see where it would be unfortunate for some small conference if they were to meet at the same time as a big conference like the ESA and use the ESA’s hashtag.

  8. Love conference hashtags because they bring all the talks at the meeting together. Then for permanence they need to be Storified. Is this blog becoming more and more curmudgeonly? Need to take a break, leave it to the newer people?

    • Hi Joan,

      By using blogging as a way to find out what my younger colleagues are thinking and doing, I hope that I’m staying intellectually fresh. That’s pretty much the opposite of using the blog to be curmudgeonly.

      • From my perspective as a younger scientist, I don’t see the upsurge in Twitter use among my generation that was predicted by its early scientific adopters. Most of my peers don’t use it and many are annoyed by its use in self-promotional activities and article “alt-metrics,” but I can see the benefit of aggregating tweets as a simple alternative to blog- or journal-format conference reviews.

      • “From my perspective as a younger scientist, I don’t see the upsurge in Twitter use among my generation that was predicted by its early scientific adopters. ”

        Could be. I think early adopters of anything tend to overestimate how popular it will be. Twitter’s overall user base has been flat for a year or two now. I don’t know of data on the size of its user base among scientists, or the demography of the scientists who use it.

        Re: self-promotion (whether by tweeting or other means), that’s a tricky topic on which there’s a lot of disagreement:

        https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/self-promotion-in-science-poll-results-and-commentary/

  9. Hi Jeremy, good question. Small Pond Science is posting a blog on this very topic on Wednesday (a guest post by me). You’ve identified a key problem about how we can filter on conference hashtags now there are so many tweets. I won’t steal SPS’s thunder, but the forthcoming post does address some of these issues. Cheers Ian

  10. I agree with Terry and all the others – really useful to catch up with what is happening when you are not in a session and also when you are not attending like me this year, gives a great overview. Also, now that I am a bit older than I was when I first started going to conferences, I find that tweeting talks helps keep me awake, especially in the afternoon sessions 🙂

  11. Having missed many conferences due to mammaling (pregnancy, live birth, lactation, etc.), I really appreciate Twitter to get a sense of what people are up to research-wise AND what people are talking about ecology-culture-wise. I can’t think of any other way to get such breadth and depth all at once. As to the ‘how’, yes I skim. It’s an acquired skill just like getting something out of reading journal TOCs (a skill I have yet to acquire).

    I also like conference hashtags to get a sense of what conferences even exist. This is not so obvious to early career folks. Groups of researchers tend to favor certain conferences, I’ve found, and you might not even know others exist until you talk to other groups. (Or see conference hashtags trending…)

  12. Interesting question Jeremy. I have to confess that I have paid attention to the twitter stream for some conferences I have attended. I have to confess I have found it hit or miss. To a first approximation I have found conference tweets fall into about 4 categories
    – tweets are on a session I am in (usually a plenary) and a joke or other wise crack or sweeping commentary (“awesome talk”) and not adding value for me
    – tweets are on a session I am in and adding value (e.g. papers, summaries that see things differently than I did but perceptive)
    – tweets are on a session I am not in – which almost always are not that interesting to me – while there are overlapping sessions of interest often enough, at a big conference like ESA I am uninterested in say 75% of the sessions going at any time so odds are …
    – random tweets on social events which again don’t do much for me.

    Bottom line – for me the tweet stream takes a lot of filtering to get a few nuggets.

    The major exception is when I go to a small conference with a single session so everybody is in the same room – most of the tweets are interesting different perspectives on what I am seeing too.

    If you’re a curmudgeon, I am one too! But I guess I won’t roll over and give up blogging just yet (even if it might seem like I have over the past couple of months).

    • “Bottom line – for me the tweet stream takes a lot of filtering to get a few nuggets.”

      Yes, that’s my experience as well. As you say, for a big conference like ESA, I don’t *want* an overview of the entire conference, or even the majority of it. And I’d find it very difficult to find useful, value-adding nuggets by skimming the Twitter timeline.

      But different strokes for different folks, obviously.

    • Many (most?) big conferences make the symposia schedule and a ‘book of abstracts’ available on-line; one can get a pretty good idea of what being done by scanning them. And they are pre-filtered at the same level that allows one to choose what sessions to show up at. What does twitter add to this? I don’t follow Twitter, but have long scanned abstracts, and emailed the authors for ‘real’ publications, a necessary part of learning.

      • “Many (most?) big conferences make the symposia schedule and a ‘book of abstracts’ available on-line; one can get a pretty good idea of what being done by scanning them.”

        And also searching them by topic, author, etc. Which reinforces your very good point. Different strokes for different folks, of course–I suspect some people find a Twitter timeline easier and quicker to skim than they find an online program to search. But let’s not pretend that, until Twitter came along, there was no way for anyone to figure out what talks to attend, or no way to get an overview of what was being said at the ESA.

        I always plan what talks to attend at the ESA by using searching the online program in advance of the conference. And yes, if I couldn’t go but wanted to know what was being said, I could just search the abstracts in the same way. The only caveat being that sometimes people don’t talk about what was in their abstract (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/im-changing-the-topic-of-my-esa-talk-now-itll-be-more-interesting/)

      • I think this is a great point. Personally I suspect the real difference between conference abstracts and twitter feeds is that one is strictly objective. The other has subjective opinions of people and social media dynamics. I suspect that is the real distinction. Some people value the process of reputation/assessment/consensus built through social media and some people prefer to form their own opinion from raw data. One’s not better than the other. Just a personal preference.

        I’m an antisocial curmudgeon so we know where I fall on this!

      • From Brian; ” Some people value the process of reputation/assessment/consensus built through social media and some people prefer to form their own opinion from raw data.” I can’t figure out what is built on social media, but it is not a scientific reputation. I too like a great meeting presentation [ so few are! ], but scientific reputation is much bigger and slower to build. Its done by reading a person’s published work. That’s what meeting abstracts, and even meeting presentations do: they say…’.hey, go read my work… This is what you will find developed there…… it will help you do your own work better’.
        I probably beat you as an” antisocial curmudgeon”.

      • “Many (most?) big conferences make the symposia schedule and a ‘book of abstracts’ available on-line; one can get a pretty good idea of what being done by scanning them.”

        Yes, but I find scanning the book of abstracts fairly hard to do in book form, never mind trying to do it on my phone.

        Tweets + hashtags provide a quite different, complementary service.

      • I’ve tried web based programs in the past. Didn’t work well. Never tried an app though.

        However, I think my dislike of conference abstract compilations reflects the generally lower quality of these as useful scientific summaries. As Jeremy pointed out above, people are more comfortable changing content (and/or preparing the abstract last minute), compared to a full article’s abstract.

      • @Mike Fowler:

        I only use conference programs to decide what talks to go see. I’d never use them as a summary of what was presented, and would certainly never cite them. That’s why I periodically go through my Google Scholar profile and delete any conference abstracts that show up. I don’t want anyone trying to cite those abstracts or anything like that.

        Note that there are fields–computer science is one–in which conference abstracts are taken very seriously. That’s because there’s competition to be selected to present in prestigious conferences. In many cases, I believe the conference abstract is actually the abstract of a proper paper or preprint, which one submits to the conference in hopes of presenting its contents. I presume (but don’t know) that in such fields, one could treat conference abstracts as a reliable record of what was actually said, and cite them accordingly.

  13. I don’t tend to attend conferences too often these days, having left academia for the 9-to-5 jobbing scientist life in an NGO. I do follow a number of conferences on twitter though (setting up a column for the #hashtag in Tweetdeck)

    I get more value from the feeds from smaller ‘one room’ conferences, where people tend to talk about the presentations/debates. These conferences also have a more narrow focus that may be of specific interest to my field. I also find it useful when scientists I follow attend conferences I’d never heard of as this allows me to get a feel for what people are doing outside my field and/or outside of the mainstream

    The wall of noise Tweetnado you get from ESA or BES 20xx is less useful to me. I’m less willing to trawl through hundreds of nonsensical/uninteresting tweets to find something that interests me (though at least I’ve now some idea of where to go for a drink in Baltimore/Edinburgh/Lille)

    • Cheers for this, that’s interesting.

      “The wall of noise Tweetnado you get from ESA or BES 20xx is less useful to me. ”

      I am once again reassured that I’m not a curmudgeon. 🙂

  14. What I wonder is: How do people manage to listen to the talk and tweet at the same time? I don’t think I would manage. While tweeting I would miss part of a sentence and maybe would not be able to follow the talk afterwards. So I don’t think I could ever tweet during talks, at least not with the usual 12-minute talks where everything is quite condensed. And I think it is kind of rude towards the presenter when everyone is staring at their phones (and I belong to the young scientists group!)

    • “What I wonder is: How do people manage to listen to the talk and tweet at the same time?”

      I used to wonder that too, but now I don’t. Think of people who live-tweet a talk as taking notes. You have to pay attention to do that.

      “And I think it is kind of rude towards the presenter when everyone is staring at their phones”

      Again, I used to think that too. But now I think it depends what they’re doing on their phones. If they’re checking Facebook or whatever, yeah, that’s a little rude. But if they’re live-tweeting the talk, it certainly looks disconcerting to the speaker, but I wouldn’t call it rude. And if it’s something in between–say, they’re trying to listen to the talk with half an ear while also using their phones to follow live tweets of another talk taking place at the same time–then I have mixed feelings.

  15. As someone who tweeted heavily throughout BES this year (sorry, #BES2015), I’m obviously an advocate, while simultaneously seeing many of the problems that others note above. But I wonder whether the issues that some people have come from an unrealistic expectation of tweet streams. It’s not a live news feed, more the stream of a conference’s subconscious. Mostly it helps you to form and tap into the mood of a meeting. Speaking as a member of BES Council it’s also an invaluable resource of opinions about the things we’re getting right or wrong.

    The benefits are distributed and often completely unexpected. For example, I recently found out that a new Mexican PhD student in my group followed the #BES2014 hashtag last year, from Mexico, when I was at the meeting in Lille. This was a major influence on her decision to end up here. I’m not going to say that Twitter is the right place to go looking for PhD supervisors, but by creating a community you generate all sorts of opportunities.

    “As best I can tell, the #BES2015 hashtag is a bunch of people talking to themselves, with no one listening, much less talking back.”

    Isn’t the same true of most blogs? I seem to remember a certain prominent ecology blogger who stridently countered such allegations…

  16. I bring up the #results and scroll down, stopping when something interesting in the stream catches my eye. That’s not really different than skimming anything else – search results, comments, news articles, introductions, lists of abstracts in a programme. Because they’re so short and tend to represent the highlights of whatever people are doing, they also tend to be more usefully focussed– and then I can retweet or favourite if there is something I want to recommend or have saved for me to look at again later (someone I might want to look up, something that I think will be interesting to the other people on my feed.)

  17. One thing I’ve noticed recently is that some session organizers at big conferences (e.g. ESA) are choosing a hashtag specific to their session. This is very helpful if aren’t attending the conference, or are in another session, but want to track whats happening in a specific set of presentations. This is most effective if the general conference hashtag is fairly short. Of course, you need someone tweeting from that other session. I actually asked via Twitter if anyone was going to be in X session would they mind live-tweeting (some) of the talks. So, that was an effective way to get the gist of things for something I was particularly interested in while not being able to attend the conference. I think that the curation point from Ian’s post at SPS is something “we” (the more active Twitter users/scientists) can work on to make this more effective for communicating to more people. Storify is the obvious tool for Tweets, and I like that you can include connections to other media sources. Maybe even write a blog post or two for those curmudgeons 😉 Still, I haven’t found a way to consistently motivate myself to do either of those things.

    • “Still, I haven’t found a way to consistently motivate myself to do either of those things.”

      Yes, that was my question about Ian’s suggestion for people to put some effort into live-tweeting an entire talk or session and then Storify the results. Are many people going to be motivated to do that?

      And I doubt you can get people motivated by pointing out that lots of people read the Storify Ian linked to. I can tell you from our experience trying to line up guest posts for DE that you can’t get people to do stuff like this by saying “hey, if you spend a few hours of effort to write something, 1000+ people will read it.” Most people just don’t see that as a big incentive.

      Plus, the Storify Ian linked to was on a hot-button issue (gender balance in ecology) that lots of people really care about. I doubt there’d be even that level of interest in Storifys of random talks or sessions on technical scientific topics. I say that because, until a year or two ago, I used to write daily wrap-up posts from the Ecological Society of America meeting. I stopped because basically nobody read or commented on them. There’s just not much demand for that sort of thing. So while I agree with Ian that the sort of Storifys he’s calling for would be more useful than most conference-related tweeting, I don’t know that they would be all that useful in an absolute sense.

      So I think if session or conference organizers want their session or conference to be throughly live-tweeted, with the tweets being compiled into Storifys afterwards, they’re going to need to do it themselves (or rope their friends into doing it for them). Doubt it will happen spontaneously, occasional exceptions aside.

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