It’s time to stop denying the digital conference

2019-04-10

For every physical conference that occurs, there is a simultaneous digital version. I think of the digital conference as an amalgamation of all the social media posts, website and articles that are caused by an event. While the act of using the internet at conferences is relatively new, it’s importance can not be overstated.

My fascination with the digital conference started a few years ago. There was a conference in my field that I wasn’t able to attend, but I saw that there was a hashtag, which meant that the attendees would be posting about the talks on Twitter, in real time. I followed the hashtag and was completely amazed by the details I could get about the event, sitting in front of my computer screen. I knew who was talking and when. I knew what they were talking about and could follow up with links to their papers.

There were lots of small details such as the weather, that the door handle was a DNA double helix and the fact that too many of the presentations used Comic Sans. These details, coupled with the science gave me a really well rounded impression of what went on. But, how could I know that? I didn’t attend so I had nothing to compare my digital experience to, so I wrote a summary of the conference from my perspective and posted it to Twitter using the hashtag. The response was incredible, people couldn’t believe that I hadn’t physically been there.

I knew that I wanted to try this myself at the next conference I attended and a few months later, I was given the opportunity. I was at a small conference with around 200 attendees and I started Tweeting from the moment I walked through the door. I couldn’t wait for the responses and the engagement that I had seen before. I waited for a response. I waited, and I waited but nothing happened. After a couple of hours, it was clear that the conference was going to be a bust, at least from the social media perspective. However, I didn’t give up. We were only three people from our lab who flew half-way around the world and I wanted to share the info that we were getting to our colleagues back home.

I committed to Tweeting once per talk with my own opinion and if possible a link to a publication. I carried on Tweeting into the void, getting only a few likes and re-tweets here and there, but I was convinced that it was worthwhile. By the end of the conference I felt like I’d conducted a valuable experiment. I knew what it took to tweet non-stop for 3 days and it wasn’t that hard. I also had some great, interactive notes in the form of my Twitter timeline, complete with links to papers and in some cases, direct contact with the speakers.

I was happy, however, the real validation came when I returned home. I was looking at the statistics from my Twitter account and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had a following of 100 people and yet, my tweets had been seen over 40 thousand times. Not only that, but my tweets had been viewed for the entire week after the conference. Seeing this convinced me that the digital conference was not only real, but incredibly powerful.