Using Twitter as a Conference Backchannel
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Using Twitter as a Conference Backchannel

Twitter provides a great way to have conversations. By tagging their tweets with hashtag specific to the conference conference goers do a variety of things: they live-tweet presentations, take notes, share resources and insights, ask for help, and connect with others to build their professional network. Backchannels allow presenters and attendees to participate and interact in ways beyond the typical conference session. They also allow members of the scholarly community who aren’t physically present at the conference to join in on conversations. In this study, we wanted to get a better understanding of exactly how academics use conference backchannels, so we decided to examine the tweets a post that related to two academic conferences the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conferences that occurred in 2014 and 2015. Our specific questions were around the ways in which professors and students participate in backchannels, how hashtags are used, and how participation and the types of tweets posted changes over time. We looked at over 1,400 users who are identified as academics – both professors and students. We also looked at over 350,000 tweets they posted just before, during, and right after these conferences. Academics – students or professors – were responsible for just over 40 % of these tweets this means that the majority of the tweets came from non-academic accounts such as publishers, other professionals like teachers or librarians, or institutional accounts. However, even though academics represented the minority of participants they were more active than non-academics in both tweeting and retweeting. We then looked at the 20 most common hashtags used in the conference backchannel. These hashtags mostly related to conference topics, interest groups, educational research communities, and the conference locations. Some of these hashtags for more commonly used by professors – #queersig, #LGBT, #lgbtq, and #bullying for example. Other hashtags were most often used by students. Some examples where #education, #edchat, #literacies, and #edresearch when you compare the 2014 and 2015 backchannels we found the number of participants in the #AERA15 hashtag increased, but the overall number of tweets declined. Only a small minority of those who tweet during #AERA14 returned to tweet during #AERA15. We also found that tweets academics posted to the backchannel were different than other tweets they posted outside of the conference time. For example, backchannel tweets typically included at least one hashtag but rarely contain links. In addition to the hashtags academics use a variety of other hashtags. Some related to specific events that occurred at the same time as a conference. #BaltimoreUprising for example. Professors are more likely than students to use these hashtags. The hashtags more frequently used by students were ongoing rather than event-specific. Overall the sentiments expressed in the background tweets were generally positive, though the event base hashtags, many of which related to civil rights issues, were more likely to contain negative sentiment. The implications of our Study can be divided into four main areas. First, backchannels provide a unique venue for both scholarly and non-scholarly participation around conferences. While academics might use the backchannel to share research, publishers also use it to market products. The fact that backchannel tweets use more hashtags and fewer links and other tweets suggest some academics use the back-channel more for commentary and conversation around topics rather than for sharing resources. Second, the purposes and attitudes academics have for using Twitter maybe changing. Rather than simply using it to promote their work academics are using Twitter for a variety of both formal and spontaneous conversations. And while these tweets are generally positive, it does not appear that economics are afraid to express their frustration in discontent with current events. Third, while professors and students may participate equally the ways they participate are different, suggesting these groups have different expectations and different goals for the backchannel. By using hashtags like #emergingscholars, students seem to be using the platform for intellectual growth and career development, while professor instead use the backchannel as a way of participating contemporary events or affecting social change. And finally, since professors and students use the backchannel in different ways, it’s likely that factors such as academic roles and their related power dynamics, influence how they participate in these hashtags. Might not the faculty member, with the relative job security, be more willing to tweet their views on social justice issues than a student worried about impressing members of a hiring committee? More research into this area would be worthwhile. A more detailed explanation of our study and discussion of these implications can be found in the published paper. Thanks a lot for tuning in. If you like this summary please share with your friends colleagues and students.

One thought on “Using Twitter as a Conference Backchannel

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