Did the chatbox kill the conference Twitter star?

Has the move to online conferences led to the death of the Twitter hashtag? Simon Varnell wonders if those beyond the virtual plenary room are missing out.

Simon Varwell is Senior Development Consultant at Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland (sparqs)

With the suspension of face to face conferences over the past year, various familiar event features have been condemned to history, at least temporarily.

For me these include early alarms, long train journeys, and taxis to beautiful campuses – or obscure conference venues in identikit edge-of-town business parks. Also gone are the sometimes unsuccessful attempts at juggling conference bags, personal effects, and cups of underwhelming coffee all while trying to shake someone’s hand or give out a business card.

What’s the hashtag?

But another notable casualty seems to have been the conference Twitter chat. In those heady pre-pandemic days, those of us on Twitter would enjoy distilling our thoughts on conference proceedings, promoting the content of the event to those not there, and asking questions or interacting with fellow participants (often strangers) through the ubiquitous conference hashtag. As someone who tweets through my own work account as well as having responsibility for my agency’s Twitter presence, this was always a key part of my conference experience. Our sector is all about sharing knowledge, and tweeting felt like a natural continuation of that.

Yet I sense there’s been a decline in academic conference Twitter chat of late, and I’m not the only one to notice. This tweet a few days ago by Wonkhe’s own David Kernohan asks a good question, and the responses to it are worth reading.

The answers come from different perspectives but mostly point to the same thing: conference tweets are in decline thanks to the chatboxes available with all the main online conference platforms. The shift to these nifty sidebar interactions is unsurprising: they’re quick and easy, and they’re on the same screen and devices as the event we’re joining (so there’s no need to juggle your mobile and computer, for instance, if you’re lucky enough to have both).

Moreover, the conversation is much more concentrated with only those at the event appearing on your radar. Unlike Twitter chat where your feed is still full of the usual business and range of notifications, the chatbox will be cleared of the “clutter” and enables total focus on the business of the conference.

Beyond the zoom window

So far, so convenient and predictable. I can’t help thinking, though, that this shift is important, and – from the perspective of my own work in student engagement – raises some questions that are worth considering.

I’ve seen less “bleed” of conference proceedings to a wider audience. Twitter hashtags have the advantage of publicising what’s happening at an event to those who are not taking part, and I’ve often appreciated seeing a distillation of points from a conference I was interested in but unable to attend (or only knew about when the tweets started flowing). Now that comments are shifting to a participants-only “closed shop”, there’s less opportunity to evangelise the great things being shared. This is important because, in a year of stress and trauma, our successes are no less remarkable and just as worthy (if not more so) of sharing beyond their immediate audience. Are we not celebrating what we’re doing this past year as much as we might?

And there is an accessibility implication for student engagement. While staff often struggled to get to all the face to face conferences they would have liked, for either cost or diary reasons – for students who don’t always have the professional networks or support to be able to attend (or even hear about) relevant events. For all who may be interested in an event there are practicalities that will preclude those with caring or work responsibilities from taking a day (or more) away to go to a conference.

Seeing tweets from such proceedings can be something of a compensation, and if that has been muted then many will miss out. Online events are in a sense much more accessible now, with no travel costs and the ability to dip in and out of content to return to other responsibilities, making not just their attendance but their contribution as presenters or chatbox participants so much easier. But even an hour or so over lunch may not be possible for some

The student experience

As students do more easily access online events it is notable that they will enjoy more of an equity of voice within those chatboxes. While those tweeting proceedings may get amplified more within a hashtag if they are a respected name with lots of followers or a senior staff member, there is no such privilege in the sidebar of an online platform. All chat contributions are taken on merit, especially given that the lack of a clickable bio like on Twitter means we don’t necessarily know who a contributor might be. A couple of sentences from the experienced leader in the field has as much chance of catching the eye of participants as the same contribution from an undergraduate student at their first conference, and to those not in the know the two may be indistinguishable.

So – do we mourn the decline of the Twitter hashtag and the chance to widely share what we’re engaging in? Do we expect Twitter to be redefined as a more niche or occasional form of broadcasting proceedings? Indeed, was it always niche given not everyone uses it? Or should we unequivocally celebrate the opportunities for accessibility and equity that chatboxes provide?

Perhaps, to use one of the big phrases of the past year, the solution lies in a blended approach. The flexibility of online tools has been written about much as we adjust to pandemic learning and teaching, and it is a strength of today’s conferences that we can choose to share thoughts in multiple different ways whether on Twitter, in chatboxes or through other accompanying avenues for sharing that organisers might offer such as Padlet or Google Doc collaboration.

Personally I will keep tweeting at the events I attend: it’s a great way of seeing who else is following proceedings, and unlike in chatboxes you can share and highlight screenshots from presentations. But I will always enjoy the convenience and immediacy of the chatbox at the side.

For people tweeting about Wonkfest this week, we’d encourage you to use the hashtag #BuildBackHigher

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