Nearly There – Experiencing a Conference Online

Collage of twitter streams forming the letters "AHA" on a background of a photo of conference participants.

Just some of the thousands of tweets sent by participants of the recent American Historical Association conference. Credits at the end of this post.

Nearly a year ago I knew that this year’s conference organised by the American Historical Association would be exciting, but I also knew I would not be able to attend it.  In order to find out what had occurred at a conference like this in the past I would have had to rely on talking to people who had attended and for publication of papers and accounts arising from the conference.  Someone like me would have missed out on hearing about nearly everything that occurred or learned about it months after the event.  Not any more:  blogs and twitter allowed me to hear about what was happening as it occurred or pretty soon after.  During the course of last weekend I was glued to my computer screen when other responsibilities and sleep allowed it, reading the tweets and blog posts that were pouring out of Chicago.  Over the last few days I have been reflecting on my  online conference experience.

Is social media a good substitute for attending a conference?  My experience this weekend has not led me to change my mind on this question. If there are a lot of sessions that interest you and people who you would like to meet, it is still much better to attend the conference in question if you can.  Keeping abreast of proceedings through social media is better than being off-line during an interesting conference but it is still very much a second-best option.

It is important to recognise that tweets and blog posts give a mediated view of what is happening. We are reliant on the snippets reported by others, on their judgement as to what is important.  Jennifer Howard’s overview of the conference for the Chronicle of Higher Education was retweeted approvingly many times.  It reflects the impression of conference I had received through twitter and blogs – that the conference was largely concerned about:

Yet with 257 sessions there was obviously a lot more discussed than these three topics. Generally bloggers and those on twitter  are more likely to be positive about the opportunities offered by technology to produce good historical analysis so it is understandable that they attended and reported on sessions relating to digital humanities.  I don’t dispute that the awful employment prospects for those seeking jobs as historians must have been the talk of the conference.  But a glance at the topical index of the 252 page program indicates that topics such as religion, race, cultural, comparative, colonialism had about the same number or more sessions than those relating to ‘digital’, yet I have read remarkably few tweets or blogs about discussions of religion at the conference.  Maybe I slept through the mentions?

Sleep is a real issue for Australians wanting to follow any big event overseas.  We are adept at staying up to the wee hours of the morning and working the next day energised by memories of the sporting feats we saw while we should have been slumbering.  But as I mature/age the cost of sleep deprivation increasingly exceed the benefits so I didn’t do an all-nighter during the conference, although I did consider doing it!

While sleep and other distractions also affect conference attendees, this is more likely to be a problem for those sitting at home and tuning in online.  There are ways around this problem.  The Broadside has archived tweets using #AHA2012 in the tweet as well as other useful hashtags for historians.  According to digital historian Sharon Howard, there were 679 people sending tweets using the #AHA2012 conference.  With the aid of The Broadside archive we can read over 4,500 tweets at whatever time we choose.  However, it is much easier to immerse yourself in a conference if you are at the venue.  There you are remote from interruptions from family members and your body clock is hopefully in sync with the other conference participants when you are at the venue.

I attended my first digital humanities ‘unconference’ called THATCamp a couple of months ago.  It was wonderful finally meeting the people who I had been following online.  I attended the boot camp, learned and practised new skills and then attended both days of the main event.  As important as the sessions were, equally important were the conversations with others outside the sessions,  discussing the issues we were grappling with on our projects.  Fellow participants helped me to see a way through problems I could not resolve.  It would have been much more difficult for me to have such free-flowing and fruitful discussions online.

Yet for many of us there are significant obstacles preventing us from attending a conference whether it be money, family responsibilities, a job that prevents us from taking time off when the conference is being held.  At least we can console ourselves that we can get a sense of the debates and news through twitter and blogs.  What?  People attending the sessions you are interested in are not tweeting and don’t write blogs?

There are still many conferences and many sessions where there might not be a single person to report the discussion online either during the conference or in the week after.  Conference organisers can take proactive steps to address this issue.  They can try to organise at least one twitter rapporteur to be present and tweeting at every conference session.  There is plenty of advice online to help conference organisers and participants create an informative and vibrant twitter backchannel such as this article and this one.

Why should conference organisers put in the work to encourage more online sharing when there is generally too much to do at any rate?  Conferences, like any event, need to attract people to attend but also to entice more people to attend next year.  Conferences are about promoting the theme of the conference and the discipline/profession that the conference is directed at.  Publicity is important but promotion through traditional media is expensive, so publicity of these conferences in the past has largely been restricted to mailouts to members and notices in academic journals.

Online publicity is free and as this year’s American Historical Association conference has shown, it is a powerful force.  The articles on the American Historical Association website which I received through my RSS reader, the blogs and the tweets about the conference in the lead up to the event helped to build my anticipation that this was something worth following when the time came.  In the absence of this online publicity I would have had little interest in finding out more about the conference and even less interest in attending. While it is unlikely that I will attend a future AHA conference in person, I am sure that there will be people out there like Lee Bessette who have been so enthused by the online accounts of the conference that they are following online that one year they will attend.

There is another compelling reason why those who are organising conferences for the humanities should be keen to increase online reporting and discussion of the event.  The humanities seek to make sense of our human world.  It asks deep questions about the human condition, the extraordinary complexity and variation in the way we live our lives.  These questions are not the preserve of academics alone.  People from all walks of life at times ponder these questions and seek answers.  The humanities should be about sharing its findings with anyone who is interested irrespective of their education, their place of residence, their age, their income level, their cultural background.  Sharing the discussion at conferences through the internet is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the public.  The internet is not the only way to do this and is still not freely available to all, but it is increasingly accessible to many people who have been previously excluded from academic discourse.

I’m so grateful to all the tweeters and bloggers that attended the conference and generously shared their observations.  There are too many to name and list them all, but I hope they can feel my thoughts of thanks!  I’m looking forward to following the American Historical Association conference online again next year.  It is exciting to see the discipline emerging into the public sphere in this way – revealing itself as a dynamic, collaborative, creative and forward-thinking discipline.

More About the 2012 AHA Conference

There have been many blog posts and articles written about the conference. Here are a few links to get you started:

If you are new to twitter and want to learn more about it, have a look at The twitter Guide Book from Mashable.

About the Image

The image at the top of this page was born from my decision to lead every post with an image, combined with my difficulties in finding a suitable image to add to this post.  After sharing this problem with my daughter she said, “make your own”, so I did.  The tweets have been taken from the twitter stream for #AHA2012 after the conference and The Broadside #AHA2012 archive.  The photo behind the tweets was taken by Dan Cohen and shared by him on twitter.  It is a photo of participants at the THATCamp (digital humanities ‘unconference’) which was held just before the conference started.  The logos of WordPress, twitter and Blogger indicate some of the most popular tools used by conference participants to communicate news of the conference online.


13 thoughts on “Nearly There – Experiencing a Conference Online

  1. I suspect that the experience is also filtered by the sessions in which people feel free to post. Since I was a bit of a fish-out-of-water as a software engineer at a history conference, I tried to ask around about etiquette beforehand. To my astonishment, I was warned that typing on a laptop during most sessions would be considered rude, and that only sessions in which the presenters invited attendees to take notes or tweet really allowed the kind of notecasting I’ve considered standard.

    As a result, I didn’t write about any of the amazing stuff I heard about in smaller, more traditional sessions, so you had no way of knowing that they were happening.


    • That’s an interesting insight Ben and rather sad. I thought conference sessions were public events where presenters and participants would expect that anything that they said could be shared. Why restrict discourse in this way?

      Having said that I find the noise of people typing on computer keyboards distracting and if I’m surrounded by enough, I have difficulty in hearing the presenter, but touchscreens on mobile phones and tablets eliminate that problem.

      Is the attitude that Ben encountered a common one at history conferences? Can anyone else comment on Ben’s observation?


  2. Do presenters/individuals who don’t like tweeting during conferences, prefer that the audience just sits there passively? Quiet sitting does not necessarily mean that people are listening or paying attention – they could be daydreaming, or wondering about lunch, or whatever. If they’re tweeting they’re listening! (I accept that sometimes people use their laptops/tablets to work, or do other things during a talk, and are therefore not paying attention, but I put that sort of behaviour in the same category as the daydreamers)

    Why is typing rude, but writing acceptable?


    • Passive listening is a very ineffective form of learning. A speaker should be pleased to see a person taking notes (through whatever medium they chose, be it pen or computer or mobile phone). As you point out, they may be doing something unrelated but many will be absorbed in the talk and making sense of it.

      It could be a case of prejudice against a particular technology of communication rather than focussing on the ouput which is more important. However, I wonder if the issue that Ben raises is caused by anxiety on the part of the speaker that they cannot control what is reported? If this is the case, why?


      • I wonder if it’s worth pointing out to any who express such anxieties that people also *talk* about what they’ve heard, and there certainly isn’t any way of controlling that! Surely, comments and discussion via Twitter or blogs or any other online forums mean that it is possible to respond to these, even engage in an ongoing discussion…

        Whenever I have discussed these sorts of anxieties with those who express them, the folks concerned tend to not engage using online media, and their knowledge of such tends to be very superficial and based on beat-ups in the traditional media, along the lines of “Twitter is all about what you ate for lunch”…

        I’ve also come across resentment by those who don’t use social media. with arguments that Twitter (or whatever forum is being discussed) is elitist. When I suggest they could give it a go too, it’s as if I might as well have suggested they chop off a hand! I think it’s fair enough if you’re not interested in participating yourself, but to then criticise based on no (or very limited knowledge) is not very smart.


  3. I would love to see more tweeting/blogging come out of panels devoted to very specific topics or areas. That’s one area in which tweeting/blogging attendees can provide a real service to those who can’t attend a conference–or those who just have too many sessions to choose from, which describes pretty much anybody attending any conference. Nobody can be in two places at once. As a reporter trying to get an overview of a gathering, I often focus on sessions that emphasizes broad strands of discussion–in the case of AHA 2012, that meant the state of the profession and the digital humanities. That approach has its usefulness but it does mean not paying attention to a lot of good stuff taking place at a more detailed level. FWIW, I hang on to conference programs and trawl them for potential stories. But scholars could really help cover their own disciplines with reports from the session trenches. I have worried, BTW, about typing notes/tweeting while in a session but it’s becoming pretty common now, and it’s necessary for the kind of reporting (not just by journalists) that we’re talking about here.


    • I agree with you that it would be good to see more reporting by conference particpants about the discussion of specific topics covered by panels. In her blog post on the recent conferences Phoebe Acheson also raises the issue of discussion in sessions either not being tweeted or being overwhelmed by the flood of tweets about the job situation and digital humanities. Reporting on twitter and blogs is an organic, grass-roots activity, but at this stage the result of the tweeting/blogging by the crowd at conferences results in an outcome that does not necessarily reflect the breadth of issues debated at conferences. Could conference organisers help by finding ‘twitter rapporteurs’ and/or bloggers to attend and report on sessions that are at risk of going unreported online?


  4. Because I tweet using my phone, I have felt the need to say to audiences first that I am tweeting the event, not texting my friends. But I have also been surprised by the odd colleague who has reacted angrily towards Twitter claiming that it is yet another thing outside of an academic’s proper role that we are expected to do. But @CityLCS we sought permission to tweet departmentally because enough of us saw the enormous benefits for learning and dissemination.


  5. Certainly, organizations like AHA could help clarify the situation by making visible statements as part of their annual calls for papers, printed conference programs, blogs, etc., stating that tweeting or blogging during sessions is considered a valuable contribution to scholarly discourse, and encouraged–or whatever their policy is, though I hope I’ve guessed it correctly. In fact, if a call for proposals noted that what you say in a conference session might be discussed via social media “backchannels,” you’d learn to expect it and have fewer grounds to complain.

    At AHA this year, there was only wireless available in some of the session rooms (varying by hotel, and location within the hotel), and those tended to be the digital humanities sessions. That seems to have reinforced the divide between sessions that produced live tweets and those that didn’t.


    • That is a good idea. If the conference organiser states their policy on live tweeting/blogging during sessions at the call for papers stage, presenters understand that by applying to present they are accepting these terms.


  6. Really enjoyed reading this. I think you make some really important points. I’ve been thinking about Twitter and academic conferences, and have just finished writing a blog entry in which I’ve mentioned your experience of being ‘nearly there’ at a conference.


    • For those who are interested Jeremy’s post can be found on his . I love the fact that a post about an historical conference can have an impact on someone working in the health sciences. I don’t know how you found my post originally Jeremy, but it is a good demonstration of how the web enables us to help us emerge from our professional silos!


  7. Pingback: Pause, Reflect and Share: June 2013 | Stumbling Through the Past

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