Twitter is all about the short message. 140 characters doesn’t allow for nuance or technical nomenclature. This would seem to make it useless for learning about complex public health topics like the latest scientific or medical research. But it turns out that this short-format medium is the perfect complement to the classic long-format medium, the conference.
That’s right, the technical conference is on Twitter. Most of us have very limited time and budget to go to conferences (or none at all). So we agonize over which one to attend, knowing that we will miss out on so much breaking information by not being there. And then when we get to our one conference, we discover that there are two simultaneous tracks that we want to attend, and again we have to choose one, knowing we will miss so much information.
In the past few years it has become increasingly common for many people attending conferences to live-Tweet the experience. Now some conference organizers encourage this tweeting by creating an official conference hashtag, like #ASCO15 (for the American Society of Clinical Oncologists annual conference), so it is easy to follow all the tweets.
How do I find the hashtag for the conference I want to follow?
You can search Twitter for the name (or better, the abbreviation) of the conference you’re interested in. If you don’t know the abbreviation, try using a search engine with the name of the conference and the word “hashtag”. You can also go to the official website of the conference to see if they have posted a hashtag, like ASCO does for all its conferences (http://www.asco.org/about-asco/social-media) .
Not all conferences do this. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference doesn’t list a hashtag on their webpage, but if you search on Twitter you will find people using #AAIC in tweets about the conference and the studies presented there.
Other organizations will use their regular hashtag for a conference as well. The International Ebola Recovery Conference (https://ebolaresponse.un.org/recovery-conference) used the hashtag #ebolaresponse for both the conference and for continuing breaking news.
I missed a conference last year, can Twitter help me catch up?
Yes. Twitter might be a very immediate media but, like all things on the Internet, what’s tweeted (generally) stays up. If you know the hashtag you can search for just like you would for a conference that’s going on right now.
Some conferences will also take the extra step of collecting all of the tweets about an event and putting them into a Tumblr for easier reading. This will filter out all the tweets like “Hey, I’m at #event, who wants lunch?”. The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene does a great job of this for their 2014 conference (http://tropmed2014.tumblr.com/). These post-conference Tumblrs are an example of what Clay Shirky calls the “publish, then filter” approach of the Internet.
OK, I’m following the #hashtag, now what?
Read the tweets! Reading live tweets from a conference can be like getting your news through a firehose, but the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty good. Usually you’ll get discussions of presentations and if everyone is lucky a link to either the slides of the presentation (depending on the conference) or the electronic version of the publication.
Another great thing that can come from following a conference hashtag is that you can find new people in your field to follow. People who live tweet one conference are likely to live tweet other conferences, and you might discover new conferences you had never heard about.
Have you live-tweeted a health or scientific conference? Tell us about it in the comments!
Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody, Penguin Books 2008.