Adventures in Ethics and Science

Last night I arrived home safely from ScienceOnline2010. As expected, the conference was tremendously engaging and useful, as well as being a rollicking good time — so much so that the only blog post I managed to post while there was the Friday Sprog Blog. (Major props to the elder Free-Ride offspring for taking notes from our conversation and letting me bring them with me.)

However, as some others have noted (for example, drdrA), I did manage to maintain an online presence by “Tweeting” my real-time notes from the conference sessions I attended. And, as a step toward blogging something sensible about those sessions, I’m going to compile my Tweets for each and put them up as posts — sort of “open notebook” blog post writing.

Let me pause a moment for a few observations on the experience of Tweeting a conference session as opposed to taking notes in my trusty notebook (which is what I usually do).

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First, on the question of how I was able to Tweet so quickly, I must acknowledge the contribution of my phone.

You will note from the picture that it is not a “smart phone” but something rather less technologically advanced. (Indeed, the most generous characterization another conference goer made of it was that it was maybe kind of steampunk.) It is a phone that places calls, receives calls, and stores phone numbers for me, and that’s about it. It’s old and worn enough that some of the buttons don’t work so well anymore (which means even the placing of calls is sometimes iffy).

Owing to the puny powers of my phone, there was no question but that my Tweeting was going to be done from the full-sized keyboard of my MacBook. Had I been using one of those pretty iPhones, I’m certain that my Tweet-rate would have been dramatically decreased.

Those who use Twitter are familiar with the 140 character limit on each Tweet. If you’re trying to include a “hashtag” (like #scio10) to make your Tweets easily searchable (here, by people following the ScienceOnline2010 conference), that reduces the characters available to capture a thought (here by 8 characters, since I wanted to leave a space between the other Tweet text and the hashtag — I’m enough of a Twitter newbie that I don’t know what happens if you run other characters into the #, and I didn’t want to waste time figuring that out while the sessions were going on).

In short, this means there’s a pressure to find compact ways to capture what’s happening, and that capturing direct quotations that aren’t short and pithy is a losing battle.

Also, because these Tweeted notes were going out to an audience (which notes taken in my notebook generally do not), my focus was much more on accurately capturing the ideas as they were shared than on capturing my own thoughts on them (whether analysis, counter-example, or fuzzy thought on potentially interesting related questions). I pretty much had to accept that I was going to defer most of my detailed reactions until later.

This is not to say that some of my own take did not creep in, either implicitly or explicitly. Indeed, I think it would be an interesting exercise to have the panelists and folks in the discussions which I was Tweeting look at my Tweets to flag the ones that they think represent what they were saying versus the ones that strike them as commentary on what they were saying, and to see how their classification matches my impression of where I was transcribing versus commenting.

Whether it was mostly transcription or commentary, the frantic flow of Tweeting so occupied me that I didn’t really ask questions or offer observations in the sessions, something I regularly do when I take notes with my notebook. On balance, I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing (either from my point of view or that of the panelists or the other folks who attended the sessions). It’s definitely a thing, though, and one I’ll be thinking about some more.

Finally, because I would occasionally have a moment to refresh my screen and see new postings from others with the #scio10 hashtag, I had the sense of being in a bunch of parallel discussions about the sessions, with people in the room with me and with people elsewhere (whether elsewhere at the conference or somewhere else altogether). I suppose this kind of thing has the potential to undermine attention to the conference sessions and the to issues with which the panelists are trying to engage their audiences, but my sense was it didn’t (or at least not very much). If anything, I found it less distracting than being in a conference session where audience members are having such related side-conversations in whispers (or in only slightly lowered voices).

As for the Tweets themselves, here’s what you need to know before you read my conference sessions Tweet compilations:

  • Where possible, I identified the people speaking, whether panelist or session attendee. In some instances, I didn’t know the name of the person speaking. In others, I likely misspelled the speaker’s name.
  • In some instances I identified speakers with their Twitter handles (when I knew them and/or could remember them in time to use them). However, I didn’t do this very consistently; I trusted that the #scio10 hashtag would help the speakers to find my account of what they said so they could correct it if I went badly wrong.
  • When I could include URLs to relevant sites that were discussed, I did. However, I didn’t knock myself out trying to transcribe long URLs into TinyURL (or another URL-shortening site) to then copy and paste the shortened URL into my Tweets.
  • Owing to the serious length constraints of 140 characters, I lapsed into abbreviations at times, including those 1s U C kids using when they txt. I h8 those abbrevs. The irony of this is not lost on me.

If I take this approach to a conference again, I may well investigate one of the strategies for following and archiving Tweets described here.

Having said all that, the next post will be the first aliquot of my notes from the conference, with further thoughts and analysis to come.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    January 18, 2010

    100 points for using the word “aliquot” in a blog post about Twitter.

    Seriously, you were the best live-tweeter there. Sometimes I wished you were in another session as I could watch the one I was in myself, but wanted to also follow what was going on in the other four rooms. You are full of WIN!

    Thank you so much for coming, fourth year in a row, doing a session, and generally injecting your wisdom into the conversations we had there.

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    January 18, 2010

    Hear, hear. Everything about Janet, from the ridiculous tweet rate to the hilarious conversation, was made of pure champion stuff.

    And don’t be too hard on your phone – it can double as a decent rudimentary cosh.

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