Reflecting on the second Biotweeps Twitter Conference, #BTCon18

Biotweeps_Logo_cropOn the 21st and 22nd of June, 2018, Biotweeps ran its second Twitter Conference, #BTCon18. The first conference, #BTCon17, was a surprise success for us and the feedback was so positive that #BTCon18 was always going to be on the cards.

Unlike a regular conference, we didn’t have to worry about hiring a venue, caterers, or putting together a goodie bag (though we did consider making stickers, mugs, etc. available). Organising a Twitter conference means identifying a structure and finding presenters. The call for abstracts was pushed repeatedly over a couple of months and, like regular conferences, many abstracts were submitted just before the deadline – I assume to keep us on our toes!

#BTCon17 took a constant approach to timings with presenters being back-to-back. This turned out to be far from the best way to do things. This year, informed by activity data from the Biotweeps account, we decided to split the conference according to 3 land masses, using a local time zone for each, reasoning that this might draw in more presenters from those areas (we were keen to increase diversity among presenters). Unfortunately, converting to and from three different time zones led to some errors and confusion. The conference worked, and most people were in their allocated slots, but there were many emails from presenters requiring clarification before and during the conference. The presenters were all unbelievably accepting and we were so appreciative for their patience and understanding, but we know we have to do better. Next year – UTC!

Themes

In addition to using timezones, we decided to adopt a thematic approach and identified nine broad themes. We offered presenters the option of specifying up to three session themes that would be appropriate for their presentations, reasoning that if a few themes were over-subscribed (as conservation and ecology turned out to be) and some themes under-subscribed, we could still put together a varied conference. This was largely effective, though it turned out that a small number of presentations weren’t suited to their allocated themes. It would be easy to point to the submitters and say that they offered that theme as an option, but we must also acknowledge that we probably should have been more stringent in our screening.

There have been plenty of caveats and lessons learned so far about what went wrong, but what can we learn about what went right? Well, quite a lot. We organised what would in regular, non-virtual terms be described as a major international conference featuring 77 presenters from 22 countries. This represents a considerable improvement on 2017 (60 presenters from 12 countries) and we were delighted to be able to showcase science and scientists from all around the world. We’re aiming to make similar progress, next year.

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Our presenters produced a total of 627 original tweets. These were re-tweeted 4,500 times! The conference had a total audience (i.e. the total number of followers across all contributors to the hashtag, without duplication) of 2,500,000. Try fitting that lot into a lecture theatre! activity

These metrics were delivered by a different company than we used last year, so we’re not able to compare engagements or ‘potential reach’ (a metric used to describe a more extended network, e.g. followers of followers, which was 12,000,000 in 2017) between years.

We produced a feedback form (https://goo.gl/forms/UX0wUFMmhLghYkfu1) so that presenters and followers of the conference could give us their opinions of the conference and help us learn what went well and what went wrong. This information will be invaluable to helping us make #BTCon19 an even better event.

In the next section, we’ve gone through some of the feedback collected thus far to reflect and, in places, offer comment.

What was the best aspect of the conference, from your perspective?

–       “The diversity of presentations.

–       “Its global reach.”

–       “Accessibility of presenters and ease of having follow-up questions (much better than at a physical conference).

–       “The diversity of participants, and the clarity with which they presented their work over a handful of tweets.”

–       “It’s free, it doesn’t require me to fly to another country, and I could communicate with other speakers and “audience” at the comfort of my home!

What was the worst aspect of the conference, from your perspective?

–       “The tweet limit.”

–       “Limited number of slides made some presenters put up extremely busy slides to try to fit it all.”

Presenters who submitted abstracts were allowed 4 tweets over 15 minutes while invited plenary presenters were allowed 30 minutes with no tweet limit. Last year, presenters were allowed 6 tweets. However, tweet limits have since expanded from 140 characters to 280. We thought that reducing the number of tweets to 4 (still 280 extra characters compared to last year) was appropriate. We will be reconsidering this for next year, however.

–       “Lack of questions but that’s not really an issue with the conference per se.”

–       “The use of multiple time zones was confusing.”

This was the most common criticism and it’s certainly valid. We have good intentions with the three-time-zone approach, but it was flawed. Next time we’ll use UTC across-the-board.

–      “My slot was at a time that meant it was totally unseen by people in Europe and they were the main audience, and meant I couldn’t present live and interact at the time of the presentation (see unhappy presenter, above).”

This was from a presenter who was extremely unhappy and gave us scores of ‘1’ (poor) across the board. We were saddened to learn that one of the presenters had such a negative experience. We do have to balance this, however, by acknowledging that we did warn presenters that their presentation may not occur in their local time zone. As it turned out, we were able to schedule almost all presenters to a local time zone.

Suggested improvements

–      “There must have been some logic behind 4/5 slides per presenter, but I found it pretty low number. Something along 10 slides would be better.

–      “Tweets should be unlimited within our time block.

We consider 10 slides is probably excessive. The point is to reduce presentations to easy-to-digest chunks. 4 ‘content’ slides are certainly too few, though. 1 cover slide and 6 content slides might be more appropriate.

–       “Perhaps ensure that presenters can present in their own time zone?

This would be ideal, but is dependant on a) having sufficient local presenters for a given theme, and b) preferential abstract selection based on location. The first is certainly feasible, the second might not be the best way to select scientific abstracts. The alternative is to forego themes and just group people by location, which may be an option.

–     “Could all presenters be given a 30-minute slot to do with as they please? I am not sure why there needs to be a difference between invited and contributing presenters. I recognise that condensing to just 4 slides is part of the challenge, and that I may not have used my allocated slots as well as I could/should have, but I felt frustrated that I had 20 minutes in which I was expecting to give further elaborations, examples, comments, etc., but had nobody interact with me and so was unable to do so. It seemed a waste of that time.

Just as in a regular conference, sometimes there are no questions. There’s little we can do about that, I’m afraid. 30 minutes to do with as you please is not an attractive option to us, though, as it would be a considerable deviation from the idea of reducing work to bite-sized chunks (similarly, you do not get 30 minutes free-rein at a regular conference). Regular conferences have plenary sessions from invited speakers and shorter presentations from submitted abstracts. We attempted to follow the same system.

–     “I would like to see plenary speakers limit their tweets. Regular presentations were 5 tweets, 15 minutes. Why not double that for plenary speakers? 10 tweets, 30 minutes, instead of, “Whatever you want.”

We completely agree. That, or something similar, will be implemented for next year.

–     “Fewer emails with information, try and put everything relevant into one email at confirmation/scheduling, and one follow-up reminder in the days before the conference, anything else should be emergencies only.”

Absolutely right. The number of emails sent close to the conference were a manifestation of unforeseen issues which were coming to light. Almost all of these were to do with timing issues. This will be rectified for next year and communication will be streamlined.

–     “Have a moderator per session (perhaps someone presenting in that session) to make sure people present at the right time, perhaps introduce talks, and ask questions.

Moderators were sought, but none were found. Volunteers will be welcomed, next year.

–     “Some topics are obviously more popular than the others. So why not have more of them and less of the others (e.g., if there were fewer abstracts of that sort) than to force a balance? I was put in a science communication symposium when my abstract only has a distance link to it. The ecology sessions were obviously very popular in this case.”

The conference schedule did in fact have more of some topics than others. We assume, based on the scheduling of their talk, that the presenter chose ‘science communication’ as a potential option. We distributed presentations according to the options given.

–     “Be much better organised and professional. Have a really clear conference timetable available, widely publicised in advance. Consider scale, timings allocated, dilution effect. Better to do it well, have fewer people, and make it much easier for people to find presenters they wanted to see.

Ouch! It was not possible to publicise a timetable before the abstract deadline as we did not know how many abstracts we would get, for each theme, nor where presenters would be based (re: time zones). The schedule and abstracts were linked in all emails and media as soon as they were ready. But! This person does make some good points and we will look to improve our timings and publicity and will look into an interactive website for the schedule and abstracts.

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We’ll end, if you’ll indulge us, with some of the testimonials which were left on the surveys. Thanks once again to everyone for participating. We hope to see you next year for #BTCon19.

Overall a great conference! I was surprised at how much work it was to prepare my “slides” and really made me think about my content. The online format made the conference accessible to so many.

Although I did not have many interactions during/after my presentation, I found it really fun and interesting to go through the process of preparing the slides. Thinking in Twitter format requires you to really streamline and condense and hone, which is excellent practice. At other conferences, I have been put into sections with people whose research is not interesting/relevant to me, but here the organisation was much better and I learned a lot from the other presenters in my ‘session’ — plus it was much easier to catch up on content that I had missed when it was first presented!”

#BTCon18 as much a “real” conference as any conference that you packed up a poster tube and got on a plane to attend!

BTCon18 was the most unique conference I’ve been a part of, both in terms of the diversity of presentations and the clarity with which ideas and research can be presented when you’re forced to cut away every possible bit of fat.”

I love how you are promoting scicomm, I am from Guatemala, science is not a priority in third-world countries and it can be difficult to attend congresses or other science events , so for me being able to get to know what other people around the world are doing, in real time and without the need to go to another country is just amazing, this is the first time I’ve heard and participate (as an spectator ) and I look forward to more scicomm events.

I had an absolute blast with BTcon18- got to interact with many researchers and learned lots from outside my field. I enjoyed the challenge of breaking my science down to simple statements. It was great!

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