Live Tweeting: Totally Worth It

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I just finished live tweeting my first full conference. It was the Acute Care Surgery Point/Counterpoint Conference in Washington, DC, on June 1-4. It was actually quite the grueling experience, but there’s no question it was worth it.

Skeptical Scalpel, an outstanding Internet presence among surgeons, has recently posted regarding live tweeting at conferences and several concerns thereof. In his typical reasoned and wise fashion, he discusses the limitations to both readers of live tweeting and those doing the tweeting at conferences. His concerns are entirely valid, and I have no disagreement with most of the facts that he lays out. (I disagree somewhat with a few of the assumptions in his mathematical calculations, but they’re critically important neither to his post nor to this one.)

I do, however, disagree with his interpretation that these facts make live tweeting not worth the trouble. If my goal had been to replace the experience of attending the conference with 140-character posts, I would have failed miserably. If I’d been driving to ensure that the subtleties of the speakers’ excellent presentations were encapsulated in a few tweets an hour, I’d be doing a disservice to the reader, to the speaker, and to myself. To think that everything that I was hearing could be boiled down easily into bite-size chunks is both naive and dangerous. On the contrary, my goals were to experience the meeting to the fullest myself, to enhance the experience of other people attending the meeting, and, hopefully, to convince others that this one was a meeting worth attending in the future. If I was able to disperse a modicum of knowledge on top of these goals to the wider audience of people who were unable to attend, all the better.

The Point/Counterpoint Conference really is an awesome one, one where short debates are followed by a brief discussion with the audience and the moderator, and an informal consensus is reached for recommending practice patterns in controversial areas. This lends itself quite well to the live tweet pattern of brief remarks and summaries. In my own live tweeting, I was able to post a few of the specific comments made about each topic, the occasional comical or informative quote, and the resulting consensus decision of each debate. When people on Twitter asked questions or asked for a point to be clarified, I attempted to answer them and to do so.

Spending the time doing this was difficult. My laptop was constantly on and open throughout the entire meeting and sometimes for a great deal of time even after sessions were completed. It involved planning ahead, scheduling tweets to be sent out at the beginning of sessions, and ensuring that I had the next day’s tweets ready to the extent possible before sitting in on an individual debate. However, I still had time to ask questions myself during the sessions; I wasn’t furiously typing away trying to get every last word copied down into the Twitterverse. I still had time to meet new colleagues and network with respected mentors between sessions and in the social hours over food and drink at the end of each day. From a purely academic standpoint, there were several times I likely would have skipped out of a session or two, pay less attention to topics that I didn’t think would particularly interest me, or just go walk the grounds at the beautiful Gaylord National, to relax and enjoy the conference more like a vacation than a scholarly endeavor, if I hadn’t felt the (admittedly self-imposed) responsibility for live tweeting. This, of course, led to my attending sessions that ended up being interesting despite my expectations, attaining knowledge I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and hearing excellent speakers whom I never would have had the opportunity to admire. Above all this, I expanded that olde-tyme (yet valuable) in-person networking with the live tweets as well. Colleagues who would’ve never found it useful or interesting to meet me recognized the Twitter handle and approached me between sessions themselves. Whether they were truly admiring the work I was doing or merely pitying me for being so fastidious in my tweets does not terribly concern me. The fact is, each opportunity was another contact I had made (yes, in person) and whom I might have the opportunity to help, to get help from, or to merely share the travels through our careers.

There were, of course, additional virtual “social contacts” made as well. Similar behavior at previous conferences has led to surprising collaborations like the International General Surgery Journal Club, multicenter studies on social media use among residents and medical students, and “meta-networking” where people like me, Niraj Gusani, and Ben Nwomeh use the social networks to further examine social networking among surgeons.

The most surprising benefit to this live tweeting, however, is that of the archival (modest that would be) of topics discussed and consensi reached. One of my partners—who has remained adamantly anti-Twitter—was impressed by the list of “winning sides” to the Point/Counterpoint debates and we’ve been discussing many of the resolutions at length to consider changing some of our practices. A few other people on Twitter have picked up on one specific decision regarding appropriate care of a potential surgical condition in demented infirmed patients. And surely it will at least be mildly entertaining when 10 years from now we look back to see that the great L.D. Britt recognized the powerhouse that is Adil Haider long before he was the international name that I’m sure he’ll become.

Live tweeting a conference is grueling work. It takes significant planning, surprising dedication, and acceptance that doing so will make you neither a superstar nor a prophet for the masses. But it is most certainly worth it.

[Last edited 11 June 2014 for minor typographical error.]

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