About the #SOLO12 Conference

On Monday evening I returned home, tired but feeling exhilarated after a great #SOLO12 (Spot On 2012) conference. This two-day conference, formerly known as Science Online, is part of “a series of community events for the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online“. After the two opening plenary talks delegates could then attend one of three parallel sessions covering (1) science communication and outreach; (2) online tools and digital publishing or (3) science policy. In total there were 27 parallel sessions, with participants being able to attend up to 9 sessions, in any of the three tracks.

In reality we could also eavesdrop on sessions we weren’t attending as participants made extensive use of Twitter over the two days which helped the participants renew old connections, establish new ones, share resources and engage in discussions. I have been informed that there are were 6,900 distinct tweets for the event (and over 10,000 if you include retweets). The conference organisers will shortly be providing access to the archive of tweets, together with a range of visualisations.

Since I have an interest in archiving and analysis of tweets, especially at events, I made use of a couple of freely available tools in order to illustrate approaches which others may find useful.

I set up an Epilogger archive of the conference tweets on the afternoon of the second day of the conference and therefore this does not provide complete coverage. However, as shown below, that there have been 1,977 tweets to date posted using one of the ~28 conference hashtags (the #solo12 hashtags was for the conference in general, with separate hashtags, such as #solo12open, being used for the parallel sessions.

Epilogger statistics for Twitter usage at the Spot On 12 conference (10-14 Nov 2012)

It should be noted I set up the Epilogger archive halfway though the conference after realising that it could be used to provided an aggregation of the session hashtags. This was a feature of Epilogger I was previously unaware of. The service is one I would recommend to others, particularly if they wish to make use of multiple hashtags at an event.

Using Social Media at Conferences and Other Events (#solo12SMC)


In addition to participating in the workshop sessions, Tony Hirst (@psychemedia) and myself facilitated a session on Using Social Media at Conferences and Other Events: Backchannel, Amplification, Remote Participation and Legacy.

This was a very relevant topic for Tony and I to facilitate: back in 2005 I was the lead author of a paper on “Using Networked Technologies to Support Conferences” which described approaches to exploiting what later became known as ‘Amplified conferences’ – and after Lorcan Dempsey coined this phrase I set up the corresponding Wikipedia entry. Since 2005 UKOLN’s annual IWMW (Institutional Web Management Workshop) has been amplified, through video-streaming of plenary talks and support for discussions, initially using IRC and later Twitter. Our experiences in providing amplified events, and advising others on best practices, led to joint work with ILRT, University of Bristol for the JISC-funded Greening Events II project. Our key deliverable (illustrated) was the Greening Events II: Event Amplification Report (available in PDF and MS Word formats). The report, which provided case studies from a number of amplified events organised by UKOLN, was written by Kirsty Pitkin, who runs the Event Amplifier blog, together with Paul Shabajee, ILRT, University of Bristol.

Tony Hirst has been active in analysing and visualising Twitter discussions on events, as well as providing broader observations on the relevance of technologies to support events, which he has described on his OUseful blog. This has included posts on So What Do Simple Hashtag Community Visualisations Tell Us?Structural Differences in Hashtag Communities: Highly Interconnected or Not?Small World? A Snapshot of How My Twitter “Friends” Follow Each Other…, Visualising Twitter User Timeline Activity in RBlogging Academic LecturesTwitter Powered Subtitles for Conference Audio/Videos on Youtube and Searching the Backchannel – Martin Bean, OU VC, Twitter Captioned at JISC10.

Reflections on the Session

I had produced some slides and uploaded them to Slideshare in advance of the workshop but, since the conference organisers had asked the workshop facilitators to keep the presentations to a minimum, I didn’t make significant use of the slides. Instead I asked the participants to address the questions “What is an Event?“, “What are the main purposes of an event?” and “How can technologies enhance these purposes?“.

As the session was being live-streamed we were able to engage a remote audience in these discussions. And since there was a local and remote audience we encouraged people to ensure that discussions taking place in the room were also shared on Twitter.

I had previously set up an Epilogger archive for the #solo12smc tweets. The service reports that there were 384 tweets, with 80 links and 4 photographs shared. In addition to the Epilogger archive, as a backup I also created a Twubs archive. Shortly after the workshop was over I manually curated the tweets using Storify. I also manually curated the tweets using Chirpstory in order to be able to compare these two manual curation Twitter tools.

Reading the archive of the tweets posted during the session was very valuable in being able to have a broader view of the discussions than was possible through participation in the smaller discussion groups. The resource is also useful not just for the workshop participants but also others with an interest in the evolving best practices for the provision of amplified events.

I will therefore summarise some of the key points made in the Twitter discussion and give my thoughts.

Key Points

At the start of the workshop Tony Hirst tweeted “If you’re in the #solo12smc session, please send a tweet using the tag.” There was a purpose for this request: to provide an identifier (the Twitter user’s ID) which, used in conjunction with the session hashtag, will enable Twitter analysis tools to identify those who participated. It should be added that such ‘checking in’ will also be helpful for others who see the tweet as this can be useful in building new connections or restablishing existing ones (along the lines of “Are you in the same room? We’ve only met on Twuitter – fancy coffee later?“).

I have found that having people summarised what I have said can provide useful insights which may not have occurred to me previously. I therefore found the following observation from @nailest useful:

@BrianKelly in #solo12smc trying to get away from idea of “one to many” plenary talk and get us all sharing opinions & expertise. 

It was also useful to get feedback on the decision to move away from the planned structure for the session and let the participants help set the agenda:

“I had planned a structure but decided to throw it away” Yay!! #solo12smc

I then asked people to describe why they were attending the session and what they hoped to gain. The responses included:

#solo12smc here to find out how to optimise @SfAMtweets effectiveness online at conferences – how to get critical mass “talking”

In the #solo12smc session to find out how to boost the SM activities of @britsciassociat and it’s various events and programmes

#solo12SMC Social media use creates a parallel, virtual conference which frees content to the world. How do you measure conference impact?

Why are we at #solo12SMC ? I want to understand best practice to help when planning/attending future conferences #solo12

I find it interesting why some conference have a lot of twitter activity and others none. I wonder why this is. #solo12SMC
As an occasional conference organiser, I’d like to know how to maximise social media use and my responsibilities re archiving. #solo12smc

We also received comments from remote participants:

Watching @briankelly talk about soc media and conferences at #solo12SMC http://t.co/H8P5ezqF ‘Tis lovely to feel involved from my bathroom.

which led to some discussion in the room which was relayed to Twitter:

Are people who listen to events on twitter freeloading by virtually lurking? #solo12SMC

A number of other concerns about event amplification were raised:

#solo12SMC Is using twitter at conferences more alienating than helpful? Not everyone has a device to tweet from!

If you have gone to the trouble to get everyone in one place at one time, they should talk to each other, not tweet in isolation #solo12SMC

I have to admit that since I was the session facilitator, I was not able to engage with this Twitter discussion at the time. The use of Twitter seems to provide a higher bandwidth at such events, in which discussions would normally have to be mediated by the facilitator or speaker. An advantage of having an archive of tweets, rather than regarding tweets as disposal and not to be viewed after they have been posted, is being able to see the issues raised, reflect on them and respond to them.

Responding to the Issues

The amplified event ‘free-loaders’

Are those who participate in amplified events ‘free-loaders’? Does the time and energy spent in setting up an amplified event environment detract from effort which could be spent in supporting the local audience, especially if the local participants have had to pay to attend? This topic was addressed earlier this year in a post entitled Streaming of IWMW 2012 Plenary Talks – But Who Pays?

The post gave an example of how one former attendee at IWMW events was unable to attend last year’s event as she was away on maternity leave. However since a live video stream was available she was able to keep up-to-date with developments and engage in discussions on Twitter whilst, as shown, still holding her baby. Rather than free-loading, this provides an example of how amplification of an event can help members of the community to maintain their links with the community. This example was for someone on maternity leave, but it could equally apply for those may may be too ill to attend or even those who do not have the finances to pay the event fee or the associated travel

Equality of access?

Is using Twitter at conferences more alienating than helpful, since not everyone has a device to tweet from? I suspect this may have been a rhetorical response to my request for examples of possible barriers to event amplification. Should we ban people using laptops at conferences as not everyone will have a laptop?

Lack of Engagement?

A more relevant concern relates to the dangers that participants at an event will fail to engage with others if they spend their time looking at the screen of the mobile devices. This issue was commented on by @MCeeP in his Notes on my brief time at SpotOn 12:

At one sessions (Assessing social media impact) I was standing right at the back, because it was so popular, and I could see the entire audience (and their many screens) throughout. At a conservative estimate I would say that around 75% of the audience were simultaneously tweeting/facebooking and at one point 2/3 of the presenters were tweeting as well! Now I am all for social interaction and communication but I did think that it was a little bizarre, presenting anything to a room full of people staring at screens is not the best experience and I am not convinced that they were all discussing/live tweeting the actual talk.

As can be seen from the accompanying photograph (taken from a IWMW event), this does provide an accurate description of technology-focussed events which take place in the sector.

This was a topic addressed in a recent post on Sharing (or Over-Sharing?) at #ILI2012 under the heading Does Sharing on Mobile Devices Hinder Real World Discussions? The sentiment expressed in the comments reflects my feelings – tweeting at events can help develop and strengthen connections. And just because people are looking at their screens or typing comments doesn’t mean they aren’t concentrating.

Perhaps the differing views simply reflect differences in our personal styles of working. I’ve expressed my thoughts in this post. However I’d be very interested in the opinions of others, as such feedback may help shape the plans for future Spot On events.

NOTE: Shortly after publishing this post I noticed that a video-recording of the session has been published on the Spot On 2012 Conference Web site. The video is also available on YouTube and is embedded below.


View Twitter conversation from: [Topsy]