On November 16 & 17, 2020, Discard Studies held our first ever Twitter Conference. Held over two days, 20 presenters delivered threads of 10-12 Tweets on topics ranging from the role of the plastic sachet economy on environmental justice to the way automation and artificial intelligence in waste management during the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened issues of invisibilizing and externalizing labour. The conference cohered through the use of the #Discard2020 hashtag and retweeting from the @DiscardStudies Twitter account. The goal of the Twitter Conference was to maintain the spirit of learning about new work, meeting new scholars, and showcasing diverse scholarship in the field characteristic of face-to-face conferences with the accessibility and documentation of an online conference. The conference was organized by the three Discard Studies editors (Max Liboiron, Josh Lepawsky, and Alex Zahara), drawing on previous Twitter Conferences by Public Archaeology, The World Seabird Union, and the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).
The Twitter Conference included both synchronous and asynchronous interactive elements, unlike a Zoom conference, which allowed a broader range of audience engagement–people could follow along with threads as they were posted and ask questions directly at the end, but we also found people adding to threads hours and even days later, tagging new people and organizations as the conversation developed. The threads remain as an interactive record of the presentation and ensuing conversations.
The two-day conference started with a welcome and land acknowledgment by the Discard Studies account that highlighted and tagged the scholars who were going to present that day. We would also outline how the day would work: starting at their allotted time, presenters post a tweet once every minute, tagging @DiscardStudies and #Discard2020 in the first tweet so we could retweet it from our account. They would stay online for about 15 minutes after their last post to answer comments and questions. Finally, they would sign off with a final tweet and the next presentation would start. This post shows the behind the scenes practices that made #Discard2020 a success. It’s designed for those who are trying to create their own (we recommend it!).
Choosing presenters: Like most other academic conferences, there was an open call for papers and we asked for short abstracts (200 words). We chose presenters based on three things: there was a clear, well-articulated argument, the writing was accessible, and the content was appropriate to the field. We knew Twitter writing can be demanding as a genre of writing, so these priorities allowed us to choose presenters who had a good chance of maneuvering the challenging format.
Scheduling: When we contacted selected presenters, we gave them a link to an author’s guide to writing for Twitter with tips and tricks and asked them to select a time for their presentation. For the latter, we used Doodle and changed settings so people could choose only one time and each time could only be chosen once. Doodle is good in an important way here: it changes the time zones to match the IP address!
We choose to have three chunks every day– one that was suitable to the full range of participants in Asia, Europe, and North America. In our own timeline (NST), that meant 7am, our lunchtime, and our early evening. Once the schedule was finalized, we emailed it out to presenters so they could make any changes. Some of them caught errors, shifted titles, and otherwise improved things. We choose to include multiple time zones in the final schedule instead of centering time somewhere in Canada. We then posted the schedule online (spoiler: organizers used this schedule *a lot* during the conference to help keep track of things). We also made a master spreadsheet for ourselves with the time, name, twitter handle, etc of each presenter as well as a sign up time for each editor to be the main facilitator for a chunk of the schedule.
Preparing presenters: Our author’s Twitter Conference guidelines include instructions on how the conference would work, technical details like tagging conventions, alt text/image descriptions, common abbreviations and threading, and finally some tips on how to write for public audiences in a condensed form. We also offered authors editorial support. We would review and comment on threads as many times as they liked so long as we had some lead time. This went very well– we sometimes caught technical errors (like not counting spaces as a character) but mainly we did what we usually do as editors–offer support on strengthening arguments and shoring up evidence for those arguments. This aspect of the process was remarked on consistently by presenters as being highly valued.
The conference itself!
We have an editorial team of three people at Discard studies. One person was designated to be the core facilitator at all times. They would tweet out welcomes, timelines, and links to the schedule, and 5-10 minutes before a presenter was to start we would direct message (DM) them to say we were there and ask if they needed anything. Often they did. This meant we were retweeting, DMing, tweeting schedules, and ensuring audience members could see and find things. We also had a troll protocol worked out in case haters showed up. Luckily, we didn’t have to use it. Overall, this meant editors were pressing a lot of buttons and keeping track. Some of us tried Tweet Deck or similar, but in the end, we all just used the regular Twitter platform. By the end, we got into the flow and started anticipating issues as they arose.
The other two editors would be in the wings (if scheduling allowed) and would also interact from their personal accounts, asking questions and retweeting as well. We had prepared many questions and comments ahead of time. Sometimes, the facilitating editor would skip back and forth between the Discard Studies account and their own account. That was a bit intense.
Most audience members said they followed the conference by using the hashtag. But we found most used a combination of methods, including following the Discard Studies page and going directly to the presenter’s pages. We editors also used a combination of methods to find and track presentations.
A few lessons from facilitators:
- since everyone is in a different time zone, say things like “in half an hour” rather than giving a time.
- Put all your tweets through a text editor first. We published many spelling errors at first!
- Have questions for presenters, introductions, and outros prepped and ready to go ahead of time in a text editor!
- We asked all presenters to use alt text/image descriptions as part of disability justice. Twitter currently makes it hard to see if it’s working, but you can left click on an image and select “inspect” to see if the alt text code is there.
- All of our presenters were able to tweet as themselves, but we did have the option of the DS account tweeting on someone’s behalf if they didn’t want to join Twitter (legit!). We would have used a format that made it clear we were quoting someone else/presenting for a third party.
- make sure you have a protocol for dealing with trolls or rude commenters ahead of time. It’s harder to figure that out in the moment and in a coordinated fashion across multiple organizers. Ours was: we would engage with them politely but firmly as the DS account first, and if they did not change tactics we would ask the presenter to block them, and then we would block them (it has to be in that order, otherwise we would be unable to see if they continued to harass the presenter).
Engagement: The best part of the conference was the engagement after the presentations, just like an irl (in real life) conference. We prepared questions ahead of time to get the ball rolling, but all presenters were engaged and sometimes that engagement continued days after the conference. The tricky part was finding all the comments– usually they were posted to the last tweet on the thread, but if they weren’t authors didn’t always find them. When editors were fluent on the Twitter platform, we would often provide the presenter with the link via DM. At the end of the conference, we collected all the comments and emailed them to the presenters along with a thank you– almost everyone said they had missed one or two of the questions in the frenzy.
Engagement was best when authors tagged others in their fields whose work they drew on or who they wanted to be in conversation with. This often created a bit of a lag in engagement, but resulted in the strongest and most sustained engagement. Other authors had audience members show up specifically for their threads and would engage in real time. Not surprisingly, the more followers someone had, the more engagement they got from their own timelines. However, a few people who joined Twitter just for the conference or who had a couple of hundred followers also had significant engagement on their excellent threads so the number of followers didn’t determine audience engagement.
We did a little bit of audience-engagement tweeting, asking attendees what their key texts in the field were and sending out a survey. This went well and we’ll likely structure more of this intentionally in the future to bring the community together even more.
Some of the feedback we got from presenters and audience members was that the highlight of the conference was “Hearing from new (to me) researchers & projects” and “Discovering a diverse community of researchers, scholars, and presenters.” One person wrote that they enjoyed “Interacting with other people live, remotely, but not on Zoom; how the organizers were always engaging with the participants, speakers and commenters alike (kept things lively!)”
After the conference
Before our feed went back to business as usual, we linked the original schedule to the lead tweet of each thread, making it easy to find them in the future. We’re finding a lot of people are still accessing the schedule even though the conference is over– we assume it is to catch up on the threads they might have missed.
We created a short survey that asked how people found and followed presentations and the high and low points of the experimental form. The feedback is folded into this post. We also checked our website and Twitter analytics to get an idea of how people were moving around, and where they were based.
Editors did a debrief afterward. The number one word we used was “intense,” followed by “good.” For editors with care duties, tight budgets, or high workloads, we found the Twitter conference provided the flexibility and less organizational effort than an irl conference, but many of the advantages. Overall, we thought that it was a great format and had many advantages over getting on a plane and traveling for a day to a new location just to have a conference. At the same time, we think there are ways to increase the community and networking aspects of conferences that are so crucial to collective intellectual work, such as having a zoom after party where people could go into different rooms on their own (based on survey feedback), or similar.
The conference certainly enriched the Discard Studies platform. We gained 207 followers, our Twitter feed had 876% more engagement than usual, 773% more profile visits, and we helped make links between scholars while sharing new work, especially by emerging researchers–the goals of the Discard Studies platform! We will now be able to approach some of the authors and ask them to turn their presentations into articles for Discard Studies.
We hope this overview is useful to you in planning your own Twitter Conference.