Twitter conferences as a low-carbon, far-reaching and inclusive way of communicating research. Caravaggi, A., Olin, A.B., Franklin, K.A. & Dudley, S.P. 2021 IBIS. DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12959 VIEW
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been forced to work from home. Teaching, meetings and conferences have been cancelled or moved online. While many of us may miss catching up by the coffee machine or discussing our research in person with colleagues, this shift towards virtual interactions is not entirely without benefits. Even before the pandemic hit, traditional face-to-face conference formats were criticised for their large environmental footprint, large cost and exclusionary setup (see Sarabipour et al. 2021). Some of these drawbacks can be at least partially addressed by virtual conferences.
Twitter conferences are one format of virtual conferencing that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Like face-to-face conferences, they take place over a set range of dates and follow a programme of scheduled presentations, including plenaries. The presentations are in the form of a series of tweets, usually with accompanying graphics and/or videos (see Figure 1 for an example). All tweets are grouped under a common conference-specific hashtag to make the presentations easy to find (see e.g. #BOU18TC, #BTcon18, #UPMTC, #WSTC6). In our recent paper (Caravaggi et al. 2021), we took advantage of these conference hashtags, and used hashtag data from several Twitter conferences and analogous face-to-face conferences to examine the reach and impact of the tweets and to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions of Twitter conferences, as compared to face-to-face conferences.
We found that tweets from Twitter conferences have the ability to reach a large audience, often generate high levels of engagement from viewers and could potentially also promote greater collaborations and knowledge exchange across academic subfields. This suggests that Twitter conferences could be an efficient way to disseminate research to a widespread audience, and can act as a partial replacement for, and supplement to, face-to-face conferences. This is good news, for many reasons. For example, conferencing on Twitter may contribute to deconstructing some of the barriers which often prevent people from participating in face-to-face conferences, such as the often large cost associated with travels, visa, accommodation and conference fees (see Sarabipour et al. 2021). Countries, universities and organisations with fewer economic resources are typically less likely to afford to attend, which leads to a reduction in diversity and an amplification of the voices of those that are already established. This may be exacerbated by other obstacles acting to prevent people from participating in face-to-face conferences, such as caring responsibilities or disabilities (Sarabipour et al. 2021). While Twitter conferences cannot fully solve these issues, they are better placed to address some of them by being free and allowing flexible participation from most locations with an internet connection. They also have the benefit of the material being available to members of the public, arguably in a more accessible format than most types of science dissemination.
We also found that the difference in emissions between Twitter conferences and face-to-face conferences is vast. While the exact ratio will depend on where participants are based and their means of transportation, estimated travel emissions from the face-to-face conferences we considered were generally several million times those that resulted from the presenters tweeting their research. To get a sense of scale, this is on the same order of magnitude as the ratio of the total weight of 100 males of the largest living bird (ostriches) to the weight of a single male of the lightest bird (bee hummingbirds). Emissions from conference travel can constitute a significant part of the personal and institutional carbon footprint for academics (Spinellis & Louridas 2013) and are thus an important target for efforts to reduce emissions and for setting a positive example. This may be particularly important for researchers in fields such as ornithology and ecology, where the potential impact of climate change on our study systems is ever present. In this context, contributing to increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions while travelling to a conference discussing these impacts is somewhat paradoxical (Grémillet 2008).
At the same time, Twitter conferences have their own drawbacks, such as not being able to provide organisers with much needed funds, excluding individuals with limited internet access or limited experience with social media, and possibly reduced possibilities for networking and socialising. In the future, we envisage Twitter conferences, and other virtual conferences, as existing alongside, and complementing, face-to-face conferences. Twitter can also be combined with other virtual platforms such as at the most recent BOU annual meeting #BOU2021, which was held simultaneously on Zoom and Twitter. The necessity of running a conference face-to-face needs to be carefully considered, but may be a good option for small conferences on a narrow topic, where participants are likely to form close collaborations. Hybrids are also possible, or dividing the conference into national or regional “hubs” (see Sarabipour et al. 2021).
To harness the full potential of Twitter conferences, they need to be promoted on a broad front, making use of all relevant offline and online channels, to reach as many potential participants as possible. Special efforts need to be made to target people who do not spend much time on social media, and to also guide them through each step of participation. In general, clear guidelines and plenty of support is key, with the BOU hosting many excellent resources.
Grémillet, D. 2008. Paradox of flying to meetings to protect the environment. Nature 455: 1175. VIEW
Sarabipour, S., Khan, A., Seah, Y.F.S. Mwakilili, A.D., Numoki, F.N., Sáez, P.J., Schwessinger, B., Debat, H.J., Mestrovic, T. 2021. Changing scientific meetings for the better. Nature Human Behaviour 5: 296–300. VIEW
Spinellis, D. & Louridas, P. 2013. The carbon footprint of conference papers. PLoS ONE 8: e66508. VIEW
Top right: Twitter logo