Ethnographers often attend conferences as part of their research, to gain an overview of the field or to identify and meet key actors. But what is unusual about conferences compared to other sites of ‘work’ (such as the clinic, laboratory or HE institution) is familiarity: even if we haven’t been to one particular conference before, we generally know what would be expected of us. It is perhaps because of this lack of ‘strangeness’ that there has only been limited attempts to understand what conferences do, and what are the rules of behaviour. This is where social media proves interesting. The increasing use of Twitter, for example, provides a new lens for examining these occasions. Twitter simultaneously emphasises and challenges expectations of behaviour.
If the aim of a conference is to disseminate information, then tweeting can only enhance this process, reaching an audience beyond those attending the event. Tweeting also encourages dialogue between tweeters, thereby attending to the ‘networking’ goal of conferences. Tweeting can therefore be seen as a ‘good thing’ to do and often encouraged by conference organisers. It was with this in mind that I decided I needed to be part of this new conversation. However, I soon realised that trying to follow simultaneous and multiple discussions was not as easy as I had thought.
My first attempt at using Twitter at a conference was interesting, even if not completely successful. This was a 3 day event in London at a ‘medicine and technology’ event, and as you might expect from any conference about technology, twitter was embraced. The conference hashtag was printed in the booklet and advertised on most presentation slides. Rather than being told to turn off our mobiles (one of the previously established rules of conference behaviour) we were encouraged to turn on our phones, tablets and laptops, and start engaging.
The first session was manageable, a plenary session in the main hall. This was a fairly large conference (more than 500 people) and from glances around, it seemed almost everyone had a lit screen in their hand. I was of course tempted to check my emails, thrilled with the novelty of being able to look at my phone without shame. But once the tweeting started I forgot about emails and began to follow the discussion. With a few detours, the tweets mainly reflected what the speaker was saying, enhancing the discussion with educated and illuminating comments. I was listening to the speaker and following the debate on Twitter and it was going well so far.
However, this was all to change in the next session which involved diverting into one of four rooms. Twitter went crazy. Suddenly I was trying to follow what the speaker was saying in my own room while reading four different discussions on Twitter, each of which could branch off in to smaller conversations or private jokes.
This led to two different problems. My attempts at trying to work out the strands of conversations meant I was giving my full attention to my mobile phone. I eventually gave up any pretence of listening to the actual presenter in my room. Secondly, some of the more interesting tweets created a nagging doubt – had I made the wrong choice in selecting this room, was there something better going on that I needed to be part of?
On reflection, my clumsy first attempts to follow Twitter led me to break a fundamental rule about acceptable conference behaviour. Taking the stage would normally allocate presenters with status, whereas I showed them a lack of respect. Although I was physically present in the room, I was mentally elsewhere - a twist on what is normally an advantage of Twitter, where someone who is unable to be present can ‘virtually’ follow each presentation. I was also aware that I was following simultaneous conversations without having the skills to actually contribute to any of them.
So maybe the rules of behaviour are changing and social media is opening up new possibilities of doing conferences - being in different places (mentally and physically) and contributing at different levels. For a conference ethnographer, this requires a greater awareness of the flexible boundaries around the conference space – what is the conference and where (and when) is it taking place? This new world of conferencing might also require different skills. The ability to watch, listen, read and write simultaneously would certainly be useful.