Wednesday, July 08, 2009

tweeting at meetings gets controversial

I've been listening for weeks to a wide-ranging discussion about meeting participants who use social media tools to share, in real time, what speakers are saying. What's new: tempers are rising as this trend has taken hold. More and more, attendees have taken to live-posts, but conference organizers, speakers, and observers are all over the map. Is live-tweeting a version of spilling the beans? Should meeting contents be available only to attendees? Is it rude/childish/self-promotional/harmless to disagree with the speaker in a post written before her talk is over? Must you register like a reporter? Agree to certain timing embargoes? Only post when sessions are over, not during them? It's a mashup of etiquette, ownership, competition and peer-pressure. Here are three examples of how the discussion's playing out, from three different perspectives:

  • From the annoyed attendee and observer: Here's a blog post from a PR consultant whose colleague was attending a conference where social media "courtesy" guidelines were published in the program, suggesting participants shouldn't post during talks, "oversimplify" speakers' remarks or make personal comments. After she'd blogged and tweeted about the issue, attendees at the meeting noted the conference had issued a hashtag, suggesting that people post on Twitter, in effect. Some speakers admitted to tweeting while on panels, and the attendee who first flagged the issue refrained, feeling constrained by the rules. The author's take: "if they’re going to decide for me how much attention I can or cannot pay while attending a presentation - well, I’m going to be thinking of spending my money elsewhere next time around."
  • From a speaker and presentation coach seeking middle ground: Olivia Mitchell's a thoughtful speaker who coaches and trains speakers, as I do, and she's been exploring this issue in aid of her clients and herself. In "How to Tweet During a Presentation," Mitchell offers a measured discussion, including some academic research into this new trend, her own experience as a speaker and a Twitterer-during-meetings, and thoughts on what guidelines might say: "I like the idea of the principle that you should only tweet what you would be prepared to say face to face. But in practice, it’s quite challenging." She takes an example from her own tweets, in which she wrote of a speaker: "Being stimulated by Jeanne’s acting workshop. But not convinced that bringing acting techniques into presenting is useful. #pcampLA." Was that wrong? "Not necessarily," she says. Ultimately, she advocates the "face to face" guideline.
  • From a scientific journal, a dose of practical realities: Scientific meetings are competitive sessions. Some researcher-presenters work hard to avoid coverage at such meetings to avoid incurring the wrath of journal editors with strict pre-publication release rules. (Traditionally, but not always, presenting findings at a meeting precedes publication in a journal.) The editors of one such journal have published this editorial after one laboratory issued the rule that meeting attendees must first have the presenter's permission before posting online during the talk. After considering some basic realities--researchers attend meetings to discuss others' work and have theirs discussed in turn, for one--the editorial says: "Critical discussion of worthy results should not in principle be restricted to walls of a conference hall or even the pages of a journal. Any meeting to which anyone can register is fair game for all available communications technologies — and any rules that cannot be policed will be ignored anyway." The editorial suggsts that those wanting complete control should close the meeting to all but participants who agree to avoid broadcasting the discussions, a model that already exists.
Meetings are just one more area where social networking and new technologies are rubbing up against well-established rules of the road--and the rub feels like sandpaper to some and silk to others. After listening to this discussion for some weeks, it sounds to me as if the objections to live-posts in meetings are symptoms of a larger discomfort with change, new technology and the unknown. It's that kind of discomfort that leads to the creation of rules that are unenforceable (who, exactly, would decide what a "polite" comment was?) and strident comments about etiquette and intent.

If you're struggling with this issue, take the time to brainstorm the potential benefits that will accrue from opening up live-tweeting of your meetings--and then experiment with them before you affix rules. You may find benefits you didn't anticipate if you give it a try. Or, as the Nature editorial suggests, you can make a tough decision to close your meeting and lose the benefits of a more open structure as the price of control. (Hat tip to Joe Bonner for pointing me to the Nature editorial.)

Related posts: Tips for using Twitter to report from meetings


Bruce Trachtenberg said...

Really good stuff here. I'm not sure where I come down on this. On one hand, it's not a lot different than taking notes -- ie -- you'rw listening and doing something else at the same time, and speakers have learned to live with that. And if there's fear you're "spilling the beans," then there are ground rules for that. If it makes people around you uncomfortable, then you have decide what's appropriate.

The bigger question is whether or how much anyone the receiving end benefits and if it's useful to know in 140 character bursts what's being said, or waiting a bit longer for a fuller and more analytical report.

What do I know...I couldn't say this in 140 characters!

Emily Culbertson said...

This is a nice round-up of the issues. I'd like to reinforce the point that live-tweeting can lead to unexpected benefits.

Steve Heye (@SteveHeye) live-tweeted tidbits from a course I taught and a panel I moderated at Making Media Connections 2009 (a conference by Chicago's Community Media Workshop). What I found interesting is that I learned from the Twitter conversations he had with people who were not at the conference when he posted items from my talk. One person replying to Steve's tweet had a better resource for a point I was making than the one I was using, and others raised valid points to consider as I present particular points. I found this extended conversation really helpful.

Bob Finn said...

Fascinating discussion on an issue I'm concerned about, since I've taken to live-tweeting medical meetings.

I believe you're mistaken about one thing, however. You wrote, "Some researcher-presenters work hard to avoid coverage at such meetings to avoid incurring the wrath of journal editors with strict pre-publication release rules. (Traditionally, but not always, presenting findings at a meeting precedes publication in a journal.)"

While many scientists believe that meeting coverage is prohibited by certain journals, it really is not. The New England Journal of Medicine is widely regarded to have the strictest policy in this regard, and that policy is:

"Policies designed to limit prepublication publicity should not apply to accounts in the media of presentations at scientific meetings or to the abstracts from these meetings (see the section 'Prior Duplicate Publication' in the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals). Researchers who present their work at a scientific meeting should feel free to discuss their presentations with reporters, but they should be discouraged from offering more detail about their study than was presented in their talk."
"(See NEJM 328 (17):1283, 1993, and NEJM 324:424-8, 1991)

I have considered having this tattooed to my forehead, given how often meeting presenters are afraid to speak to me. (Although, come to think of it, they might be even more afraid at being approached by someone with a paragraph tattooed to his forehead.)

--Bob Finn

eloquentwoman said...

I'm excited to have such close readers--who, in true Twitter fashion, all posted within mere moments of this post going up!

Bob: You're correct, and as my post was focused elsewhere, I didn't take the time to add "even though such rules are more imaginary than real." I will say, though, that I have worked with dozens of journal editors who either turned down articles with "too much" advance publicity or threatened to do so (usually with the line "you've left me nothing to publish"). This, no doubt, also is due to the widespread myth out there.

And that would be some tattoo...probably would qualify for Carl Zimmer's science tattoo emporium, don't you think? Anyway, thanks for the cite and perhaps you'll write me a guest post on that someday?

For Bruce, it may help to share that I got great--and immediate--feedback from others when I live-tweeted your Communications Network meeting, from absent participants and a wider audience. It also helped me meet people at the conference I'd never have met. And you're right, I, too, use meeting tweets as notes and often build longer, more thoughtful (I hope) posts on them.

Bruce Trachtenberg said...

This is good to know...and that's what I was asking. If someone's benefiting, then, like you and others are saying, you gain more than you give up. That theme about letting go and getting more in return than you are giving up is one of the central findings in the Communications Network's study last year about why foundations need to make more use of Web 2.0 and social media.

Anonymous said...

Well, I for one am super-comfortable with social media apps but not in this context. When it's live interaction, like a presentation, I like social conventions to prevail. I have no problem with tweeting in other contexts -- unless it's inane.

If I were making out with someone, I wouldn't want them to tweet it during (or after for that matter :).

If I were giving a presentation, I would want them to look at me, not their Blackberry.

I like to keep human interactions human.

I see the conferences and lunches I attend really suffering in this regard. Part of the reason why I go to conferences and is for networking opptys and everyone's nose-diving in their PDAs. Sad.

I think the live-tweeting thing is so over-rated.