A few weeks ago I ran a conference in Florence, Italy on Social Media and Political Participation. We had 12 people people present papers and probably somewhere between 60-80 people who attended presentations. However, in addition to simply holding the conference, we also live-streamed it over the internet and gave the conference a hashtag: #SMaPP_LPD. The figure above shows all the twitter accounts that tweeted using that hashtag (weighted by the number tweets they issued) and their connections to other people who tweeted about the conference.
The benefits of live-streaming a conference in order to increase access to the conference are obvious: people who can not attend the conference can still watch the presentation. Our best guess is that we somewhere between doubled and tripled the number of people who could “attend” the conference, with over 130 people logging on to the feed on Friday and over 60 people doing so on Saturday. But the other great thing about live streaming is that not only can it extend your reach geographically, it can also do so temporally. So we’re in the process now of preparing a video archive of all the presentations (which will be up on the conference website shortly). We’ve already posted everyone’s presentation slides, so what this means is that shortly anyone will be able to download the slides for a presentation and then watch the video of the presentation whenever they like.
But the other point I really want to make is how much I felt the use of the conference hashtag improved my own experience attending the conference. Throughout the two days of presentations, I was able to communicate with other people – both in Florence and watching over the live-stream – about the papers as they were being presented. I got to see what other people found interesting about presentations and you could communicate in real time about issues being raised by presenters. Moreover, I personally found that – far from being distracting – the fact that I was looking at the Twitter feed and tweeting kept me more engaged with the presentation. You all know the feeling: no matter how interesting a conference, by the 6th paper of the day everyone (especially if they are jet-lagged!) starts to zone out a bit and get sleepy. I found the hash-tag conversation to be an antidote to this common feeling; it kept me alert and more engaged with the paper presentation. Furthermore, by “summarizing” what I was thinking about papers in 140 characters, I think I was actually more quickly processing what I was learning than simply by listening. As the conference moderator, I was also able to take questions over Twitter, thus allowing people who weren’t in Florence to participate in the question and answer session in real time, which is kind of amazing if you stop to think about it.
At a time when political science is increasingly coming under attack for not having enough to offer those outside academia, live-streaming and hash-tagging conferences seems a relatively simple way to make our research more accessible to a wider audience. And my experience is that this is a win-win situation: the same thing that allows more people access to our research can enhance our own conference experience, in addition to making it possible for us to “attend” more conferences beyond what our normal travel schedules/budgets would allow.
So consider this post a plea to conference organizers everywhere: please think about live-streaming and setting up a hash-tag as a part of your conference in the future! Adding a hash-tag is costless. Yes, live-streaming costs money, but so do a lot of other things associated with conferences, and my sense is that the cost of live-streaming is falling and will continue to do so. In the long-run, if we can make live-streaming a regular part of conference (much the same way “conference dinners” are usually automatically included in any conference budget) I think the payoff will be more than worth it.