Is live-tweeting meetings losing steam? #scicomm

As I write this in early 2016, sitting in the armpit of Silicon Valley (San Jose is, undeniably based on geography, the armpit of the south San Francisco Bay), we are beginning to witness the first signs of a contraction of the exuberant venture capital markets that have fueled utterly silly tech startup company valuations for the past few years. Twitter is one of the earlier startup darlings that has managed to decline in terms of share price as user base growth slows.

Now I’m beginning to wonder if we’re seeing a similar stagnation in adoption of Twitter as a means of doing science communication on the fly at science conferences. Some folks in the science community advocate for live-tweeting conference presentations as a means of science outreach, broadening audiences for niche topics by sending out brief summaries of a speaker’s science. Anyone who knows me knows that this particular live-tweet movement is one of my great laments, since I’m a strong proponent of Twitter as a comedy medium and little else. In my opinion, 140 character post-hoc summaries of a person’s 15-minute (or more) talk have dubious utility as science outreach. You’re either preaching to your science choir, or hitting a few “I F**king Love Science” followers that would probably rather see pretty pictures of dolphins. I appreciate people that use Twitter to toss out little advertisements for their upcoming presentations in the meeting I’m at, and I’ll do the same, but otherwise my personal mission is to make white noise posts that a few people might find entertaining just to break up the monotony of posts that mostly look like “Smith: corals are in danger due to climate change.”

With all that being said, let’s look at some Twitter trends from annual meetings of a few scientific societies I belong to. Below are the historical trends in total number of tweets during the annual meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists, a marine biology meeting primarily attended by scientists from the west coast of the US. This meeting averages between 500 and 700 participants most years.
WSN annual meeting total tweets

After a few very quiet years, meeting attendees started ramping up the live-tweeting around 2013, reaching a peak in 2014, and then dropping off slightly this last year. The attendance in 2015 was definitely larger than 2014, and we can safely assume that the smart phone penetration among meeting attendees was higher, so the decline last year might signal the start a general exhaustion with the idea of producing tweet content for an outside audience that really doesn’t care much.

The data can also be broken down as a per capita tweeting output (among active tweeters, not all attendees), as seen below. For a relatively short 2.5 day meeting, even a prolific tweeter isn’t putting out a ton of tweets in a given year. The Twitter handles of the busiest tweeters are shown on the figure. I show up in that illustrious group in 2014, so I must have been bored that year while I wasn’t presenting any research.
per capita number of tweets at WSN

Another meeting I regularly attend is the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, the premier non-medical physiology and biomechanics national meeting in the US. This meeting attracts around 1500-2000 attendees each year.
SICB total tweets

Same sort of pattern, quiet in 2010-2012 with a peak in 2015, and a minor decline at the most recent meeting in January 2016, despite 2016 being the biggest meeting on record with 1,989 registrants. I will note that although the WiFi coverage at the most recent meeting was fairly mediocre (as usual), wireless data coverage was available in most of the meeting rooms, so it shouldn’t have been an impediment to live-tweeting during talks. This also marks the year that my PhD advisor showed up with an iPhone, so the continuing expansion of smartphone availability is undeniable, and the lack of growth in tweet numbers may portend a waning interest in distracting oneself from presentations by tweeting.

The SICB meeting is a longer meeting (Sunday evening through Thursday), so there is more time to rack up high tweet counts. As a result, the most prolific tweeters have produced over 100 tweets for the past few years.
Prolific SICB tweeters

Finally, let’s turn to the even larger Ecological Society of America annual meeting. This meeting has had active tweeters for longer than the others, perhaps as a result of having a larger total membership that includes a few of those very early adopters.* This is also a 4+ day meeting, and the usual attendance is at least 3300 to 5000.
ESA total tweets

A particular point to note is that the 2015 meeting was the 100th anniversary of the society, and meeting attendance was presumably larger than normal. So while the total tweets had leveled off from 2012-2014, the 2015 meeting may be a peculiar outlier. It will be interesting to see if live-tweet malaise sets in again in 2016.

As for the per-capita number of tweets, there are a few really busy tweeters at the ESA meeting.
ESA prolific tweeters

That’s all of the data for now. I now have a couple of large csv files containing every tweet from those three meetings, so if you’re interested in picking through those for some reason, contact me.

Some comments on methods:
I scraped all of the tweets that used the relevant meeting hashtag from the first day of the meeting through the day after the end of the meeting, so that the tweets would roughly represent the activity of the participants attending the meeting. There will always be a few attention seekers in these datasets that repeatedly use the meeting hashtag while they’re not actually at the meeting (“Friends, please make sure to take a look at my recent thing that may or may not fit the theme of this meeting”), but there’s little to be done about these people short of manually removing their unhelpful contributions one by one. These datasets should generally exclude retweets that aren’t different from the original tweet, so it should represent all of the “original” tweets made during a particular meeting. In each case, I only searched for tweets that included the meeting hashtag, since finding tweets without a relevant hashtag would be a nightmare. For each meeting the hashtag pattern has varied over the years, so I typically tried the variations of #ESA2013, #ESA13, and #ESA during each meeting period. The #ESA hashtag became useless in recent years as the European Space Agency rose in prominence and Ecological Society members learned to stop using it. The hashtag for 2015 was special, #ESA100, and only a few folks used #ESA15 or #ESA2015.

*For reference, Twitter launched in March 2006