Reflections on a Digital Conference

Or, The Trials and Tribulations of Live-Tweeting

A few weeks ago, the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum project wrapped up with a conference. 

The Forum itself is a bit of an experiment, and the conference was no different. It was conceived of and conducted as an international exchange of ideas, with academics participating from several institutions in Alberta, Canada and Ukraine. 

During the course of the project, we met monthly via video conference. These were occasionally challenging to schedule due to the number of conference rooms to coordinate, never mind the time difference between Edmonton and Kyiv, but despite a few glitches, they proved an effective and valuable component of the project. It was a great way to put names to faces, and ensure everyone involved was aware of what their colleagues were doing.

Thus, it was a natural extension of these video conferences to present research papers at the concluding conference the same ways. The project’s coordinating committee collected video from each presenter, and arranged to have the whole proceeding broadcast over LiveStream, interspersed with commentary and introductions from participants at each institution’s video conference centres. 

I was involved in this process in a technical capacity. I updated the website with announcements from the coordinating committee, set up a page indexing the presenters’ abstracts, made blog posts with announcements and further information, and created a presenter gallery cross-referencing portraits to each person’s talk. For the LiveStream, I set up a page with the stream embedded in it alongside social media widgets for discussion. 

On the day of the conference, I attended at the University of Alberta’s conference room to monitor the website for comments, make any necessary last-minute updates, and to live-tweet the event while the Project Coordinator did the same on Facebook.

From my perspective, the conference proceeded smoothly. I was able to devote the vast majority of my time to updating the project’s Twitter account (@EuromaidanForum) with information on and salient points from each speaker. 

It was intense.

Twitter is a great medium for providing capsules of information as events happen. It forces you to distill information down and hone in on the most important parts. This requires the ability to swiftly discern and capture points, and the judgement to pick up on when to give up and move on to the next point.

It was challenging to maintain active listening and simultaneously write out speakers’ points in a form suited for Twitter. I swiftly began copy/pasting the speaker’s name followed by a colon to the beginning of each tweet, so I could save time typing and move on to capturing the topic at hand. It helped immensely, but came with its own problems – in one instance, I didn’t realize until much later that I’d copied a misspelling of one person’s name. The error, which normally would have jumped out at me, was lost in the flurry to write out his points. 

Another challenge was that I couldn’t always pick up on a person’s points or details about them to present it on the Twitter stream. Faced with a barrage of information, I rarely had the opportunity to ask others for clarification, and often simply had to move on or risk losing the thread entirely. As such, some speakers were better represented than others, something I regret particularly as a native English speaker attempting to represent terms and concepts from native Ukrainian speakers presenting in English. Pausing to check my spelling on an unfamiliar Ukrainian term tripped me up more than once, which I feel was a disservice to those speakers and their work.

One thing that particularly helped on this front was input from academic observers. On a few key instances, I was able to re-tweet their observations, which provided a welcome alternate view and enabled me to provide valuable commentary to followers in instances where my own capacity had stumbled. This also required some snap judgements regarding what to include or pass by, but for the most part was a welcome supplement.

However, commentary from others had its drawbacks as well. In one instance, the forum account had an argument tweeted at it when observers disagreed with a speaker’s point, and the account’s notifications were peppered for a while with the exchange. It was at once fascinating, from an academic perspective, and highly distracting.

As a whole, the event was an exercise in integrating social media. Despite the challenges, I received positive feedback from the coordinating committee and others. My impression is that it was overall a valuable addition to the conference, and I’m pleased to have ended my time on the project on such a high note.

For those interested, a recording of the conference is available to watch over LiveStream. I have also collected my live-tweets via Storify.

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