The problem with live tweeting medical conferences

Live tweeting from conferences has become very popular, but I’m not sure why. The biggest problem is this: Lucid communication of a point made by a speaker using more than 140 characters at a time is difficult to capture in a tweet.

The tweets tend to be filled with obscure abbreviations and references to previous tweets that may seem quite clear to the tweeter but not the tweetee. Some also post out-of-focus photos of the dreaded PowerPoint bullet slides taken from acute angles. Lacking context or explanation, they tend to be useless.

What about the one doing the live tweeting? How can you fire off 15 or 20 tweets in an hour and continue to pay attention to what the speaker is saying?

Please don’t tell me what Symplur or some other data disgorging company says a meeting’s impressions were. Here’s an example from the recently concluded meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. (#ASCO14) for May 30 through June 4:

The problem with live tweeting medical conferences

There were 38,896 tweets generated by 7,284 participants. Let’s very conservatively estimate that it took each tweeter 1 minute to compose a tweet, type it into a mobile device, and send it. That is 648 hours worth of tweets. The leading tweeter at ASCO produced 975 tweets or 16 hours worth of tweets.

You might say, “Hey, there were 134,569,479 impressions. That number represents over 40% of the population of the US.” But hold on. Impressions are the number of tweets delivered to a follower’s Twitter feed and potentially available to be viewed. There is no way to determine if anyone has actually read a specific tweet.

Other than counting retweets or replies, which apparently is not done by Symplur, there is no way to measure engagement. And even a retweet does not guarantee that a tweet was read. Favoriting (yes, that’s a Twitter verb) is not a countable Twitter metric and even if it was, it’s not a surrogate for reading.

Most of the time, I solve the problem by temporarily unfollowing someone who is live tweeting a conference.

What do you think about live tweeting of conferences?

“Skeptical Scalpel” is a surgeon blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.

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  • Shirie Leng, MD

    Please. Let’s Not.

  • southerndoc1

    Conferences are boring. Some people doodle. Some pick their noses. Some Tweet. So what?

  • Bruce Scott

    My favorite medical conference is the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine annual assembly. They really pack a great program in. However, this means that I often want to be at more than one session at once. The tweets from my colleagues in different sessions do have utility for me. They let me know whether getting the session notes would be helpful. They often allow me to ask further questions in twitter publicly, in twitter by direct message, or via email privately. I’ve contacted speakers after sessions that I didn’t actually attend myself based on tweeted details from colleagues at those sessions.

    It is entirely possible that this is an unrepresentative situation. The AAHPM conference and palliative medicine community may be sufficiently unique that the experience may not be generalizeable.

    I am a social media (twitter-only) convert. I don’t have any of the other MyLiveFaceSpaceBook accounts. It was only because some trusted colleagues were tweeting at a conference (a few years back) and showed me that it was utile that I made a Twitter account at all.

  • Skeptical Scalpel

    Thanks for the comments. A lot of people tell me they use tweets as notes. I wonder what percentage of them actually go back and look at their tweets. I also wonder how you can pay attention to the session you are in while looking at 50 tweets per hour coming in from other sessions.

    Obviously, I will not change your mind if you are a true believer, but at least you can think about it.

  • guest

    I think the chief value of tweeting at conferences is that it gives the participants something to do with their phones during the boring parts of the lectures.

    • Skeptical Scalpel

      That makes sense. The only downside is that they disseminate their boredom to the rest of us with boring tweets.

  • Skeptical Scalpel

    Good points, if you must follow live tweets.

  • Len Starnes

    You make some extremely valuable and pertinent points, but you may be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Live tweeting from medical conferences is a phenomenon that should be observed as an integral part of the emerging transformation of meetings to so-called ‘physical/virtual 365’ formats. Innovative medical societies now recognize the need to make this transition for many reasons, not least of which is the growing demand from their
    members for a continuous virtual exchange of opinion instead of one that is physically and temporally constrained.

    Naturally many tweets are obscure, many are uninformative or irrelevant, many are simply spam, but many are not and deliver valuable insights to those who are unable to or choose not to attend physically. You should also not forget that we are on a steep learning curve on which Twitter ‘reporters’ will become more skilled at tweeting true value; I am currently helping to train one leading European medical society to do just this in the lead-up to its annual event.

    As for Symplur’s impressions metric, forget it. Symplur itself describes it as an interesting theoretical number. Far more relevant and revealing are the participants and tweets metrics which have been increasing dramatically at most medical meetings. Participants and tweets at #ASCO14 more than doubled compared with #ASCO13.

    One last observation is that the medical profession and medical societies are deeply conservative institutions, often reluctant to change their ways. Other disciplines in science and technology have long since embraced social media to extend the conversation around their events. Medical science is simply catching up.

    More opinion on this issue can be found here:

    • Skeptical Scalpel

      Thanks for commenting. I looked at your presentation. Very nice.

      I agree that doctors and societies are slow to change their ways. But we should only change if change brings improvement.

      How is tweeting a conference better than simply streaming it live? What is the advantage of having someone filter important concepts down to a 140 character tweet over hearing the speaker and seeing his slides in real time?

      If I have the time to sort out hundreds of tweets (by med students no less), I’m certain that I have the time to watch the conference on streaming video, especially if it can be viewed at my convenience.

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