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Can following a conference on Twitter substitute for attending the meeting?

How much information and insight from a conference can be gained on Twitter for those who stay home?

Over the last week, I’ve been running an experiment to answer these two questions. Instead of going to EDUCAUSE 2018 (10/30-11/2) in Denver, I followed the conference on #EDU18.

The good news, if you are an organizer and host of professional and academic conferences, is that Twitter is not a substitute for attendance. Twitter in no shape or form replicates the experience of physically attending a meeting with peers.

The bad news is that Twitter provides very little conference value, in my experience, for those not attending the conference. The value-add of conference Twitter hashtag accumulates primarily to those attending the meeting.

When it comes to academic and professional meetings, Twitter is a complement to attending and not a substitute.

Why is this so?

Twitter, as it turns out, is an excellent platform for the discovery and strengthening of peer networks. In the context of an academic or professional conference, tweets can cement and reinforce bonds between participants.

What Twitter is not is a medium for critical and complex analysis.

In wading through the #EDU18 stream, I read lots of tweets on how particular sessions resonated. The keynotes by Michele Norris and Alexis Ohanian appear to have gone over quite well. Also lots of support for sessions about diversity and career development.

The #EDU18 hashtag was also a place where EDUCAUSE conference goers expressed their delight in seeing colleagues from other institutions. Twitter reveals just how small the higher ed IT community is.  Everyone not only knows everybody - they feel bonded to their network.

What I did not see in the tweets about EDUCAUSE 18 was all that much doubt.

Twitter is a poor platform to express dissatisfaction and ambivalence. This is particularly true when the intended consumers of the tweets are not the larger world, but rather other your peers at the conference.

If anyone was worried about the failure of the higher ed IT profession to effectively advocate for adequate funding for public higher education, then that worry did not come across on #EDU18 Twitter.

Nor was there much tweeting about the contrast between the promises of the edtech companies to improve the productivity and efficiency of colleges and universities, and the reality of rising student costs and stubbornly low 6-year graduation rates.

I’m sure that at EDUCAUSE there were discussions about the role of IT at schools facing existential financial challenges.  But again that discussion was not on Twitter.

In reading the #EDU18 tweets, I enjoyed hearing from people I’ve known professionally for over a decade. It is fun to listen to the voices of colleagues as they react to their conference experience.

What following a conference on Twitter does not provide is context, data, and analysis. Conference Twitter provides reaction but not substance.

The performative nature of Twitter makes things worse when trying to use the platform to follow a conference. Tweeting is one way that professionals present themselves.  It is a tool to build an image as much as it is to inform and share. Representations of uncertainty, gray areas, and doubts do not make for good tweets.

This is not an argument against using Twitter at conferences. The Twitter backchannel seems to enrich the conference attendee experience greatly.

Where I do worry is about to the extent that Twitter crowds out other longer-form writing.

You could make a case that tweeting is a gateway drug for blogging.  But I have not seen any evidence to support that claim. Instead, I fear that tweeting sucks up the energy for writing.

I’ve been looking for critical reflections of EDUCAUSE 2018 participants. If you know of any, please share.

What might a skeptical and critical approach to a convening of a professional association even look like on Twitter?

Were there discussions among the attendees of EDUCAUSE 2018 about the role of educational IT in addressing issues such as public disinvestment, adjunctification, and institutional sustainability?

Is it possible that Twitter is having the unintended consequence of eroding the value of professional and academic conferences to those stakeholders who cannot physically attend the meetings?

Is there any responsibility of academic and professional conference goers to share deeper levels of content and analysis with those not in attendance?

Do you ever follow academic and professionals conferences that you can’t attend on Twitter?

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