Posted by: Jeremy Fox | June 11, 2012

Against live-tweeting talks (UPDATEDx2)

A rant against live-tweeting talks, here.

I don’t tweet at all, so I don’t live-tweet. In particular, I don’t feel like I’d provide much of value to anyone by live-tweeting talks, or that I’d get a lot of value out of following others’ live tweets.* And while it doesn’t bother me much as a speaker–I just ignore people who are doing it, much as I ignore undergrads who text during class–I can understand how it would bug some people.

I do agree with the linked post that those who do it get less out of the talk. In particular, I try to make my talks as dense and fast-paced as possible without risking losing the audience. That is, I try to design my talks so that you have to pay close attention, and so that your close attention is rewarded. You’ll hopefully feel like you really got a lot out of the time you spent listening to me. I question whether you’ll be able to fully follow a talk, especially the sort of talk I try to give, if you’re live-tweeting. Studies show that even people who think they’re good at “multi-tasking” and have practiced it a lot actually aren’t good at it, by any measure.

So live-tweeting doesn’t really bother or offend me personally, though I can see why it would offend others. I think the people who do it are mostly hurting themselves, if only a little, and not for much benefit that I can see. But I’m an old guy, so I suspect some of our regular commenters are totally going to disagree with me on this.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I certainly don’t think that the only people who ever pay less-than-full attention to a talk are the people who are live-tweeting. Far from it. And as a speaker, I personally am no more bothered by live-tweeters than I am by people who aren’t paying full attention for some other reason.

UPDATE #2: Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m not big on the way this post is being summarized on Twitter. The post isn’t really about whether “talks should be ‘tweetable'”, it’s about the benefits and costs of live-tweeting them. Anything is ‘tweetable’. But in truth, this probably says more about me than it does about Twitter or folks who use it. I tend to distrust other people’s short summaries of anything, whether tweeted or not. And just for the record, let me say that commenters here, and Joan Strassman in her own post, have articulated some good reasons why one might live-tweet (or tweet right after a talk), or follow the live-tweets of others. So while I personally still don’t see much value in live-tweeting, I can understand why others do. As with many things in life, it’s a question of doing what works for you.

*To be clear, I do see value in many other uses of Twitter.


  1. I love following people who are live tweeting talks. It’s often exciting and interesting, and I usually end up looking up a few people I’ve never heard of to find out more about their work.

    • Is the excitement necessarily tied to it being live? Can it be, as another commenter suggests, slightly delayed?

      • I like the short, immediate snippets, and joining in the conversation myself as it’s happening. The tone of someone in a talk is really different than someone reflecting on a talk – you’re discovering things as they do!

      • Sorry, I don’t really get it. I’d think you’d have just as much immediacy and excitement if they were tweets made right after the talk. Plus, I’d much rather hear someone’s considered reaction (recognizing that that considered reaction could still be “OMG THAT WAS F***ING AWESOME!!!!111!”; for instance, I don’t think my blog posts from ESA last year were lacking in enthusiasm!). I mean, what if the speaker says something I don’t immediately understand, or that I think I understand but I actually don’t, or that I disagree with only to change my mind after hearing the full talk? Do you really want to read my tweets of confusion and mistakes? Especially while you’re sitting in a talk of your own? Ok, if you do, fine I guess, different strokes for different folks. But I just don’t see the attraction.

  2. Disappointingly, I agree with you (in general). It’s often hard enough to squeeze an important, novel scientific point into 15 minutes, never mind 140 characters. Luckily, in my last conference presentation, I included a “deliberate” fail mechanism, by including a large (but ultimately non-fatal) error in some slides. Nobody brought it up at the end of the talk, but if someone had been tweeting those parts, there’d be at least one more confused person out there.

    Where I disagree (though apparently not entirely) is with students typing in class. It distracts me and, more importantly, other students. My feeling is that if a student doesn’t want to give me their full attention, they can go and get the information from somewhere else. I find tapping away on a keyboard/phone extremely disrespectful to the other students. I also recall (possibly from a pedagogy course) some evidence that students recall lectures better if they write notes by hand, rather than typing into a computer. Perhaps because they’re less tempted to check twitterface updates all the time.

    However, this may also reflect changes I need to make to my own presentation style. Engaging students on the media they want to use is an important aspect of teaching.

    • Re: students in class, as long as they’re not distracting other students, I don’t say anything about it. They’re adults, if they want to pay tuition for the privilege of not paying attention to the lecturer, that’s their choice. On the first day of class I do recommend to them that they take notes by hand and not text etc. in class, and I explain my reasons for this recommendation, but then after that I just ignore it.

      The idea of (deliberately?!) sabotaging one’s own talk in order to frustrate live-tweeters is an interesting one. Especially if you warned the audience in advance: at some point there will be an error that you’ll only be able to detect if you’re paying attention. Map-making companies do something similar, or used to–include some small, deliberate errors (in their case, to discourage copying by other companies, by enabling the copying to be proven).

      Re: changing your teaching style to engage students in the media they prefer, yes–up to a point. But if that media is not an effective way to convey what you want to convey, you can’t. If students were all really into fingerpainting and many were doing it in class, would you try to find a way to convey theoretical ecology via fingerpainting?

      • I think my comment and your response nicely illustrate our different academic histories, Jeremy.

        Having gone through a free university education in the UK, subsequently taught in the UK when there were no tuition fees, and then in Finland, where there are no student fees, I couldn’t rely on the “you’re paying for it, it’s your loss” argument.

        I’ll face a different challenge in a few months when I return to teaching in the UK now that student fees are in force.

        And I may have mis-characterised my in-talk twitter-fail mechanism. When I said ‘”deliberate” fail mechanism’, I meant ‘unintentional mathematical error’. Apparent quote-use fail, sorry 😉

        As for Andrew’s (artificialhabitat) delayed twitter use strategy (below): I think that this is an excellent way to use twitter at conferences. If you’re already in the talk, you don’t need to follow a live-tweet version from someone else. If you’re not in the talk, you probably won’t crash in half way through just because someone tweeted “Fox graph shows cool results! #zombie slayer”. If you’re not in the conference, you can surely wait for the coffee break for an update, or at least for the question/answer period after the talk.

      • Although now that you suggest it, the vision of a bunch of people bursting into my talk halfway through because they read a tweet that I’m slaying some zombie idea is awesome. I have no problem with people live-tweeting if they can make that happen! 😉

      • Good point about our academic histories Mike. Although even if the students weren’t paying to be there, I’d take the same attitude, on the grounds that they’re adults who ought to be free to decide how to take notes, or whether to pay attention, or even whether to attend, so long as they don’t disturb or distract anyone else.

      • I guess another aspect of my experience is that I taught courses that were over-subscribed. So if there are uninterested students sitting and suffering through my lectures, they may very well be taking a seat from someone who would be genuinely interested in the topic without me putting on a jester´s hat and juggling chainsaws to keep their attention.

        I genuinely like the idea of fingerpainting though. Just think how much fun a bifurcation diagram would be then!

      • “I genuinely like the idea of fingerpainting though. Just think how much fun a bifurcation diagram would be then!”

        Just think how messy and unreadable an equation would be then. 😉

        Clearly I should’ve used an even more laughable example. So let’s say your students are all into interpretive dance instead of fingerpainting. Or they all think that they can communicate with the dead and prefer to have all information communicated to them via seances with their deceased loved ones. 😉

    • You mean, you’re disappointed that you agree with my general point in this one post? Or, you generally disagree with everything I say, and find that disappointing? 😉 “Maybe this post will finally be one I agree with! [reads] Nope. [sighs]”

      • I´ll leave the final interpretation up to you. But let´s just say I enjoy a good flame war in a comments thread.

  3. I recently experimented with live-tweeting at a conference. Yes, I found that if I was tweeting I was not giving my full attention to the talk, obviously. In the end I settled on a system that worked for me – I would watch the talk, scribbling a few brief notes on what I thought might be the key points of interest, which I would then rapidly tweet after the talk. Perhaps this isn’t really ‘live-tweeting’ in the strictest sense, but in any case I found that it actually helped me to focus my attention on what the presenter was trying to get across.

    I also found that reviewing the conference hashtags between sessions or in the evenings helped me to get a flavour of what was going on in some of the parallel sessions, as well as getting different people’s takes on the talks I attended.

    Finally, yes, if we are focused on our smart phones/ipads/etc we are not paying full attention, and the linked post makes I think too much of the rudeness and potential to upset the speaker if they realise you’re not paying attention. This is a silly complaint. It is inevitable that a proportion of the audience are not attending your session to hear your talk, they’re merely sitting through it to get to the next one. There will always be people answering emails, working on their talk for the next day or dozing off after the amount they drank at the conference banquet – not to mention people turning up late or leaving in order to get to another talk they want to see. It is utterly bizarre in this context to highlight tweeters, who are at least making an effort to follow what you’re saying.

  4. I actually find that live-tweeting HELPS me pay attention to a talk. It helps me really try and sit there and find what is at the core of a speaker’s talk. What is the nugget that will truly be useful to both me and, well, everyone? And, frankly, I’d argue that if a talk is designed such that if I miss one small 20-second piece, the whole thing falls apart, the problem is not with me, but the speaker. I sometime take the keep-notes-tweet-after. But, it depends on my level of engagement with the talk. That, and the entire thing creates a rich focused stream for folk not at a conference. Personally, I love conference live-tweets when I’m not there. It’s good information, and I’ve seen it start a number of great conversations about a talk between people who are both at a conference and not at a conference.

    • “It helps me really try and sit there and find what is at the core of a speaker’s talk.”

      So if you weren’t live-tweeting you’d struggle to pay attention, or to think about what the speaker is saying as she’s saying it? I’m guessing I must be misunderstanding you a bit here.

      “I’d argue that if a talk is designed such that if I miss one small 20-second piece, the whole thing falls apart, the problem is not with me, but the speaker.”

      I don’t disagree. But it’s rarely the case that, even in a dense talk, if you miss a 20 second piece the whole thing falls apart. Scientific talks just aren’t structured like that, at least not in my experience. I can’t think of any talk I’ve ever seen where I missed one tiny bit and because of that was totally confused for the rest of the talk. Much more likely, you’ll just end up having a question about that 20 second piece. All of which is to say that no, I don’t think live-tweeting is going to prevent you from understanding the main thrust of a talk, even a dense one. So while I do think it costs you some understanding I think that cost is likely to be small. (Though I will say that if, as a speaker, I see you not paying attention during my talk, whether because of live-tweeting or any other reason, and then afterwards you raise your hand and ask me a question I answered during my talk, I can’t promise that my answer won’t subtly convey annoyance. 😉 )

      The notion of looking for the “core” or “nugget” that you can take home or make use of is actually an interesting one I’ll probably devote a whole post to at some point. Lots of people listen that way (whether or not they’re live-tweeting), and also read that way, and for good reasons. But that approach has risks or costs that I don’t think are as widely recognized as they should be. Basically, reading or listening just to get “the gist” or “the bottom line” means that, by definition, you’re not so worried about the details. Which matters if the details are wrong, so that the “bottom line” is wrong too (as in many papers about the IDH, for instance), or if the same “gist” can correspond to various sorts of underlying but quite distinct details (see my old post on 20 different “stability” concepts, for instance). FWIW, I don’t listen or read that way. If I’m bothering to attend a talk, or to read an entire paper, I listen closely, or read carefully. That’s what works for me.

      “It’s good information, and I’ve seen it start a number of great conversations about a talk between people who are both at a conference and not at a conference.”

      Fair enough. I freely admit that, if certain people find live-tweeting valuable, then pretty much by definition, it is valuable–to those particular people. I suspect that’s what a lot of this comes down to, as I replied to Sarcozona–different strokes for different folks.

    • I agree with jebrynes’ comment. I’d also add that twitter is a great way for scientists to take responsibility for communicating our work to the public. It’s better for other scientists to be filtering your research talk into 140 characters than for a journalist who doesn’t really understand the topic to do it.

      “Basically, reading or listening just to get “the gist” or “the bottom line” means that, by definition, you’re not so worried about the details.”

      I’d argue that in 15-20 minute talks, you almost never get the details anyway. Either the format is just too short to include all the relevant information, or the speaker has included so many details in the talk that you can’t possibly catch them all. You get the details from 1 hour talks or from the paper, but not in conference talks.

      • “You get the details from 1 hour talks or from the paper, but not in conference talks.”

        Good point.

  5. […] on the Oikos blog, Jeremy Fox shared some interesting thoughts on whether or not a talk should be tweetable. He did not think […]

  6. Thanks Jeremy for raising an interesting and apparently controversial question, as you do. I must admit though, I don’t understand what you’re on about here.

    Do you have the same objection to live note-taking? If I sit in a talk and write down the important points in a little notebook in shorthand, does this mean I am probably getting less out of the talk than someone listening without writing? Maybe we should all wait until the talk ends and then write down our notes. (I find that very valuable in short talks, but I’d never condemn in-talk note-taking because of it).

    Perhaps the keyboard is the issue? If I took those notes on a laptop instead of a notebook, am I getting less out of it? (annoying keyboard sounds aside).

    Or maybe it’s the sharing? If I share those notes collaboratively, and post them for others to see, does that mean I get less out of the talk?

    Now one could go after bad tweeting, just as one could go after folks drawing doodles instead of taking good notes, but that’s a different kettle of fish. Perhaps the public nature of tweets forces us to make them more valuable.

    As a speaker I’ve found reading the live-tweets of my talk to give helpful feedback. As an audience-member I value links to relevant papers, highlights, questions & polite counterpoints.

    Little at a conference is more exciting than digesting an intriguing talk in the hallways after. But how often have you started such a discussion with a complete stranger? The shared experience in live-tweeting is both introduction and icebreaker, rather than talking only to people you already know about the talks you’ve seen.

    You can see both hand-scrawled notes and my tweets from my last evolution conference here: I’ll let the reader decide which are more useful. At ESA the following month, twitter was my primary notebook:

    • Good points. To be honest, I hadn’t been aware that some people use Twitter as a note-taking device. Again, different strokes for different folks. When I take notes on something (which I basically never do at scientific talks) I do it by hand and they’re very detailed; that’s what works for me. But I’m old. 😉

      When I wrote the original post, my mental image of someone live-tweeting a talk was along the lines of how I see undergrad students using their smartphones in class–they’re mostly looking down, focused primarily on the phone, listening with half an ear while they text or tweet or whatever. And that’s probably the mental image that the author of the linked polemic had in mind as well. Thanks to you and the other commenters, I have a different mental image, or rather set of images. Clearly there are various reasons why people live-tweet talks, and many of those reasons are good ones.

      As for live-tweeting fostering discussion with people you don’t know, that only works if those other people are also on twitter, so it’s a bad way to meet old people like me. 😉 I leave it to you to judge whether that’s a bug or a feature. 😉 Plus, I go to ESA in large part to catch up with people I already know, which tends to fill up most of my time there. So I personally don’t feel too much need for a way to generate spontaneous conversations with strangers at meetings. That’s just how geezers like me roll. 😉 You young ‘uns still use the word “roll” like that, right? 😉

  7. […] learn the details. For instance, you read the abstract of an interesting-looking paper, or read a live-tweet of a talk, and decide to go read some papers on that topic. Or, you read a bunch of abstracts, and decide to […]

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