How we got sucked into live-tweeting at conferences

What live-tweeting looks like from the stage

What live-tweeting looks like from the stage

Me: “My name is Carolyn, and I live-tweet at conferences . . .”

You (all together now):  “Hello, Carolyn!”

Yes, dear readers, I’m talking about the obsessive practice of live-tweeting to your Twitter followers those awkward little bits and pieces of a speaker’s presentation at conferences, meetings or major events.

I’m also talking from the perspective of a person who has both been onstage as a conference speaker in front of an audience of people who are live-tweeting what I’m saying, AND who has also furiously live-tweeted other conference speakers.  And here’s why I’ve finally become a recovering live-tweeter.  

Last month, after blogger and retired surgeon Skeptical Scalpel published not one but two essays bemoaning this insidiously pervasive trend among conference-goers, I realized he was talking about me and my ilk.

For too long, I’d been telling myself:

  • that live-tweeting isn’t a problem for me
  • that I could quit anytime
  • that the tweets I send to my Twitter followers while listening to a conference speaker onstage are actually interesting, high-quality messages
  • that it must be okay because everybody else in the audience is doing it, too

But now I know that it’s time to quit cold-turkey.

I do a lot of public speaking, and lately that means more invitations to speak at conferences. The more I view the world from behind the lectern onstage, the more disconcerting it is to look out at said audience.

While there used to be a sea of interested and friendly faces smiling up at me as the guest speaker when I walked on, I’m now seeing mostly the tops of their heads, nose-in-laptop, tablet or phone as I’m being introduced. Before I even open my mouth to speak, live-tweeters are posting their über-important updates on Twitter, thrillingly live just as they emerge, like:

“Now up at #123Conference: Carolyn Thomas @HeartSisters is about to speak next!”

(Other examples of mesmerizing live-tweets include things like “See you at lunch? #123Conference” or “Visit us at Booth 24 at #123Conference!” or “Heading to the airport after 2 days at #123Conference!” – or the ever-present Instagram photo of the Power Point slide, especially when it’s too unfocused to actually read. Now who wouldn’t want a Twitter feed crammed with gems like that day after day?

Where I used to count on basic body language feedback whenever I made a presentation point that resonated with my audience, I now see continual breaks in eye contact so audience members can tweet a 140-character snippet of what I just said.

Where I used to love that exquisite frisson of connection that all veteran public speakers recognize when your words strike a tangible chord with your audience, I now wonder if anybody out there is even  paying attention. And no amount of after-speech applause, handshakes or polite thank you’s can shake that profound feeling of distance. Why doesn’t my audience just stay home and watch me on video?

Ironically, fans of live-tweeting at conferences often cite that sense of “connection” they feel with their Twitter followers while live-tweeting speaker after speaker – the very speakers who encounter what feels like a profound disconnect in person. And so the traditional connection between speaker and audience member, face-to-face, is essentially being sacrificed for the nebulous connection that live-tweeters actually do value: that digital umbilical cord linked to strangers far away.

Veteran live-tweeters don’t even seem to mind this disconnect, as Chris Snider, (@iamspartacus on Twitter) tweeted to me (@HeartSisters) and Kim Vlasnik (@txtngmypancreas) this week.

Personally, I’m nostalgic for that old-fashioned experience of live interaction in which human beings used to actually look at each other eye-to-eye when one was attempting to communicate with the other. Whenever speakers said “something worth sharing”, for example, audiences would inevitably react with smiles or nods or applause – because they’d been paying attention.

Live-tweeters insist that their contributions to the Twitterverse help those unable to attend the conference in person to virtually experience the event as if they were actually present. This is, of course, a preposterous claim. Reading a choppy tweet or two or 10 is not at all like the experience of hearing a skilled presenter deliver a well-crafted talk, and to suggest it is represents the dumbing-down of conference audiences.

Communication etiquette is up against a generation for whom daily contact with others often takes place on a tiny screen, not in person with an actual human face.

It’s a generation that brings their phones to the dinner table, and thinks nothing of repeatedly interrupting a real conversation to take a call, check each incoming text, or read what a stranger is live-tweeting from a distant conference – all while ignoring friends, family and colleagues who must wait patiently for a third-party interruption that’s clearly more interesting than they are.  And in case nobody’s called you on this yet, it’s just plain rude.

No wonder some people don’t see a lack of eye contact with the conference speaker onstage as a  big deal.

It’s why MIT sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle (author of  “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other) calls this unnatural attachment to a technological device: I Share – Therefore I Am”She warns:

“We’re setting ourselves up for trouble – getting used to being alone together. We want to be together – but elsewhere. People can’t get enough of each other if and only if they can have each other in amounts they can control.

“Human relationships are rich and messy and demanding – and we can clean them up with technology. But when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We shortchange ourselves and over time, but we forget this and we stop caring.

“A flight from conversation can really matter.”

Thus more and more conference attendees sit there, eyes down, “nose-in-laptop” as Chris describes, disengaged through “a flight from conversation” from the real human being tasked with standing onstage to speak to them.

The perceived locus of control is then shifted from the person doing the talking to the live-tweeter who gets to write the script that will ultimately be shared, updating one’s Twitter followers on every detail heard or seen, brilliant or boring, in often-meaningless bursts of 140 characters a shot, and sometimes during exhausting tweet-binges that can last all day long.  More is always better according to the flying thumbs of live-tweeters, and if they tweet enough, they may be rewarded by being listed on Symplur as a proud online influencer at the event.

Skeptical Scalpel also confronted those who believe it’s even remotely possible to pay attention to a speaker at the front of the room while madly occupied with live-tweeting the pithy bits being said. He includes some nice academic evidence to back up his points.

But his anti-live tweeting smackdown must have seemed the equivalent of scandalous heresy-speak among those whose smartphones/tablets appear surgically implanted in at least one hand, and who believe that you must live-tweet, because you can.

What about those benefits of live-tweeting conferences like being able to boast about expanding your reach, influence and impressions based on twitter hashtag analytics? Skeptical has no use for that online number-crunching:

“Please don’t tell me what Symplur or some other data-disgorging company says a meeting’s impressions were.  There is no way to determine if anyone has actually read a specific tweet.”

Here’s how I responded to Skeptical Scalpel’s essay:

“For a long time, I’ve been griping about live-tweeting from conferences from the perspective of a person who has both done that (guilty as charged) AND been onstage as a conference speaker in front of an audience where it seems everybody’s live-tweeting me.

“As a recovering live-tweeter at conferences, I don’t need any published studies to tell me that it is simply impossible to both pay attention to a speaker while at the same time frantically composing, editing, and rewriting my tweet to fit – all at the same time.

When I was speaking at a recent Vancouver conference on social media in medicine hosted by the University of British Columbia, organizers actually asked me in advance to email them a list of tweets – with pertinent links – that matched my key slides. The conference team then live-tweeted my 140-character submissions in chronological order throughout my presentation.

The advantage of this was the ability to offer Twitter followers live links to appropriate resources.

“But most live tweets from conferences (the ones that don’t contain a useful link to actual information or credible references) are inevitably inane.

“As a speaker, let me also tell you how disconcerting and distracting it is to look out from the lectern onstage over a sea of faces – all of them head down working away at their tablets or phones during my presentation.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the good old days when audiences actually maintained some kind of eye contact with the person speaking to them over the microphone.”

Meanwhile, back at home (as Skeptical advises) the annoying problem of conference live-tweets clogging up your own Twitter feed can be solved by “temporarily unfollowing someone who is live-tweeting a conference.”

Personally, I’d vote to temporarily unfollow this conference goer, who felt it necessary to tweet this photo:

(Amazingly, one person actually retweeted this fuzzy, meaningless waste of time!)

And here’s a very useful tip to avoid driving your Twitter followers crazy if they don’t care about your conference tweets or your weekly tweetchats (believe me, there are lots of us!) especially for those of you who are convinced you really must live-tweet, courtesy of Joe McCarthy writing on Gumption.

“I use the @reply mechanism to reference the event’s Twitter handle at the START of each conference tweet – which hides the tweet from anyone who does not follow both me and the event – and then use the designated event hashtag at the end so that anyone who is explicitly following the event hashtag can also see it.”

If every conference tweeter followed Joe’s sound advice, my own Twitter feed would not be blanketed by an avalanche of irritating time-wasters during conference season (like Here’s a picture of our lunch at #123Conference!” and other deathless prose).

If you’re attending a conference, and actually believe that the entire Twitterverse is waiting with baited breath to read your live-tweet coverage of the event, here’s more useful advice from Live-Tweeting and the Academic Conference, Dr. Kelli Marshall’s post in the University of Wisconsin’s media and cultural studies blog, Antenna:

  • Strive for context. Sound-bites don’t help those following the conference from afar.
  • For the purpose of archiving, include the conference hashtag in your tweets. (#)
  • Respect those who do not wish to have their presentation tweeted.
  • Cite the source of your tweets; give the speaker credit.
  • Avoid negative comments; be critical not unconstructive.
  • Retweet links to relevant or useful posts.
  • Avoid flooding your followers with tweets; hit only the high points.
  • Make use of the Twitter feed for post-presentation Q&As.
  • Sit near the back of the room so others aren’t distracted by your typing/texting.
First image: Academic Training & Consulting team, eCollege Pearson

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15 thoughts on “How we got sucked into live-tweeting at conferences

  1. Oh, love this post! There’s a reason why people get into fatal car accidents when they try to text and drive, and why state after state is outlawing the practice. There’s also the recent research that found that hand-written notes improve comprehension of verbal lectures over laptop or keyboarded notes. It’s a question of focus and purpose.

    And don’t get me started on Tweetchats…too often they seem like self-congratulatory, aren’t-we-cool-and-tech-savvy occasions of much ado about not very much, long on ‘cool,’ short on substance.

    I decided several months ago to take a giant step back from Twitter altogether. And believe me, I have felt no gaps in my general comprehension of social, medical or political issues, nor in my understanding of conference content, nor have my most meaningful relationships suffered. And my house is a little cleaner. Win-win.

    I applaud your decision to go cold-turkey. One day at a time. 🙂

  2. Brilliant. Thank you Carolyn. I’ve noticed that tweeting is endemic among healthcare tech/digital health people. We overtweet for starters and 90% of conference tweets are inane and unnecessary.

    If I see another pic of a conference lunch or dinner, I will scream. Enough already!

    In addition to the rudeness to the speaker, why can’t we just engage with each other in human terms? What are we scared of? Human contact?

    Put away the phones and tablets until we absolutely must check in. You or your company just spent a whole lot of $ to send you to this conference. Just stop! Send a tweet or two at the end of the day if you must.

    BTW the pre-arranged tweets linked to conference content is a useful strategy. The problem is saving them for later….

    I use Twitter and LinkedIn updates for two things. One, to research topics for me to write about or what I need to know. Two, to promote Telehealth & Telecare Aware articles, which are written not only by me but by three other editors.

    As you know I occasionally retweet and reply–and I follow a select few who are not in the biz. It’s a strategy that doesn’t waste time with static.

    Most tweeting is exactly that — static in the ether.

    • Thank you so much for weighing in here, Donna. I was surprised to learn (from Pew Research) that the actual usage stats of all adults online using Twitter are surprisingly small overall (in 4th place at about 18% after Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest!) but tweeters tend to visit the site more frequently than the others (46% of Twitter users are daily visitors with 29% visiting multiple times per day). And I’m guessing that number shoots waaaaay up during conference season . . .

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  4. I don’t think I’d do well speaking at a conference because I’d ask everyone to turn off their devices and put them away or please leave now before I start. I can see at least 35% walking out.

  5. THANK YOU for this, Carolyn. Finally somebody brave enough to announce publicly and eloquently that the emperor has no clothes. I’ve become more and more distracted/annoyed at conferences/scientific meetings with this explosion of live-Tweeting. It’s no less obnoxious than movie-goers texting throughout a film. And even worse when I’m not attending an event while my tweetstream gets clogged with 2-3 days of its incomprehensible incoming “updates” and blurred Instagrams of slides. Partial solution: temporarily unfollow every one of them. Those who are thus addicted will not stop live-tweeting, however. They simply don’t get it.

  6. I’m torn. I understand making a presentation to the tops of heads is disconnected. On the other hand, I would still be taking furious notes either on a laptop or shorthand to capture new information and credit the speaker.

    I am lucky to be able to attend high level conferences and scientific presentations as a patient and tweet, not only as notes for myself, but for other patients who follow me for the latest research.

    Thank you! for the @reply hint. I will use that going forward so others aren’t flooded with tweets.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Debbe. If every live-Tweeter did only what you plan to do (using @reply at the beginning of every live-tweet at every event), it would free the rest of us from being swamped with many, many annoying junk-tweets. So annoying that I regularly take MRade’s advice (above) to unfollow them during “conference season”…

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