Rain in the Desert

My employer, FOM, held their yearly national physics conference again in the town of Veldhoven. It’s always a good opportunity to catch up with people and learn about whatever’s been going on recently in Dutch physics research.

This year, the chairman of the executive board, Niek Lopes Cardozo, opened the conference with a short speech. To my astonishment, he concluded by urging the conference attendees to use Twitter during the conference! This was underscored by two giant projected video screens out in the main hall, scrolling messages from the #FOMveldhoven stream.

How does one set about the task of tweeting about a physics conference? I’m all for getting physicists, who are among the most conservative of scientists, to use exciting new technologies, but in this case I was skeptical. It sounded to me like the proverbial Underpants Gnomes’ half-baked business plan:

  1. Use Twitter.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

…coming the way it did, with little more explanation than “Tweet for Science!” Possibly there was some metaphorical idolatry involved too, as if a consultant had advised FOM that they needed to “leverage the power of social media” and then leaned back in expectation of managers bowing down before him.

I have the unfortunate habit that when I see somebody’s golden calf, I have to poke at it until it falls over. So I decided to plunge wholeheartedly into it, skeptically but with an open mind.

This was new ground for me. I did already have a Twitter account, although I barely post more than once a month. I use it mostly to read other people’s messages. I thought this would be a nice experiment to try and see what ways I could come up with to put it to actual useful use at a conference.

Unfortunately, the results were underwhelming. It was a lot of inane chatter that in my opinion was a waste of time to read and participate in. Neither can I say that my own messages were very scientifically newsworthy — and it follows from symmetry that if I didn’t think other people’s tweets were interesting then they probably didn’t think mine were.

Here’s what kinds of things went on:

  • The usual let-off-steam tweets about trains being late.
  • Lots of chatter in Dutch from FOM. Of course people are free to tweet in whatever language they like, but projecting tweets on a big screen at an international conference in a language that less than half of the attendees speak is not going to make them disposed to participate.
  • Tweets about Twitter itself: can we get #FOMveldhoven to trend, who’ll be the most active Twitterer at the conference, etc. Meta-conversation is the refuge for people who really don’t have anything to say.
  • Tweets about lunch.
  • People exclaiming which talk they were going to, or at, or had just visited. This was the first reasonably useful Twitter phenomenon at the conference. There were not really any people advertising their own talks, but I found out why that was when I went to give my own talk: I was too busy setting up my laptop and concentrating to get out my phone and type a message, and it would have been disruptive to the person who went before me anyway.
  • Tweets about dinner.
  • People repeating the statistic of how many people there were at dinner including someone who didn’t get the chairman’s joke that it was a “world record in Veldhoven” (one-horse town where the conference is held) and tweeted that it was a real world record.
  • Tweets about how fascinating the after-dinner talk was. I thought the talk was fascinating too. So much so, that I paid attention to the speaker while he was speaking. When I got out my phone afterwards, I was half-amused and half-shocked to see how many people had publicly claimed they were listening raptly on a medium that made it impossible for that to be true. (You’d think this was the nadir, but it wasn’t. Read on.)
  • A snide political remark from me about the junior minister of Education which I later thought better of and deleted. Not my proudest moment.
  • Drunk tweets from people in the nerd disco.
  • The absolute nadir: “Rain in the desert! I saw a beautiful girl at #FOMveldhoven” (later deleted) and “Is this being moderated? Beer and boobs #FOMveldhoven” Congratulations assholes, you’ve just undone more progress for women in physics than any “20% female professors by 2020” policy can do. And seriously, only a physicist could be so socially retarded that, instead of telling a woman she’s beautiful, he manages to tell hundreds of others they’re ugly.

I’m convinced that the lack of useful content is because nobody really knew how to put Twitter to work at a physics conference. For example, it didn’t occur to me to post the slides from my talk online until the day after it was over — but I was surprised that I was the only one who posted any slides at all! Twitter is a powerful tool, but it won’t work for you if you don’t know how to use it, and I don’t know how to use it. Apparently hardly anyone else did at this conference either.

Accordingly, following along with the conference on Twitter would have been nice if it hadn’t been shoved into our faces quite so much. Exhorting the attendees in the opening speech and projecting the tweets on a big screen makes people feel expected to join in. Feeling expected to follow along with it makes it all the more annoying when it turns out to be a waste of time. It should have been optional.

I’d like to amend what I tweeted near the beginning of the conference. I said, “Twitter isn’t magical. Tweeting random crap from a conference doesn’t automatically make it nifty.” Twitter can actually make magical things happen, but like most magical things in this world, you can’t just wave a wad of cash around and say “I’ma get me some of that.”


12 thoughts on “Rain in the Desert

  1. Pingback: FOM probeert haar wetenschappelijke staf aan te zetten om te twitteren gedurende Veldhoven 2012 | activescience

  2. Ok, the twitter experiment at Veldhoven wasn’t a shining example of how to bring social media to a science conference. I like how you separate the possibly worthwile from the plain bad in your post. As one of the people tweeting (and as the public information officer at one of the FOM institutes), I’d like to offer some remarks.

    First off, you’re right that FOM is only just starting to use and think about social media. Last year, maybe 10 tweets were made about the whole conference. This year, more people joined in. Sadly, that included bored students with hangovers… On the plus side, there were also a lot of tweets about what people liked in the sessions.

    Regarding prepwork for the use of twitter – the Monday evening included a session on using twitter (read back #FOMmaav). I wasn’t there myself, but from reading the tweets I get the feeling that there was no grand strategy being offered. Let’s see what worked and how FOM can build on that.

    During the conference, I liked the tweets about lectures visited or to be visited the best. They give some sort of sense what the hot topics are – or at least, the topics that make you want to share your thoughts afterwards. Of course, that also makes them more interesting to non-participants. One journalist remarked on twitter that half the people she follows seemed to be at Veldhoven and that she regretted not being there. To stimulate these tweets next year, the chair could invite the audience to tweet about what insights they take away from talks, rather than just asking them to just tweet in general.

    To further encourage exchange of ideas, I like your idea of posting presentations on slideshare. Personally, I’d like to see those presentations go up before the conference. It would both give participants the opportunity to prepare questions, and to start talking about what they’re looking forward to during the conference. Furthermore, ask people to provide easy links to background material. QR-codes on your poster or last slide that take you to the slideshare or PDF of a paper, that sort of thing.

    All in all, I’m not blown away by the quality of twitter-use during this conference – yet. Needs more thought on what the goal is and how to achieve that. Perhaps next year?

    • Gieljan, thanks for your insights. I’m gratified that someone is paying attention… 😉

      I heard something about the Monday evening session, but that was only for group leaders – true? I don’t know what was suggested there, but I would be interested in hearing example success stories of science and social media combinations. That would give people like me a little push in the right direction to actually get something out of it.

      Although, reading back in the #FOMmaav stream as you suggest, I see that apparently some people were rather optimistic on Monday evening: “RT @RobertSpreeuw @gabbyzegers als fysici massaal op Twitter gaan, gaan al die tweets tenminste ergens over #fommaav”

      • Hi Philip,

        Looks like this blog post inspired some discussion! Very good – that’s the only way we can improve. Already there are ideas floating around to do better next year.

        The Monday evening session was just for group leaders, you’re right. I’ll ask Gabby Zegers (my communications counterpart at the main FOM office) what the topics were.

        That tweet was very, very optimistic, and just a bit naive. Physicists tend to think they (we) are good at anything we jump into…

  3. I’m notice a similar problem in schools. I’ve been doing research on how iPads can be useful in k-8 education, and one thing I saw highly recommended was collaborative classroom work where (for example) the teacher reads a story or gives a talk and the kids comment using Evernote or a similar app, and the comments are collected and projected on a smartboard. Besides the obvious distraction problems, I think in general it’s a bad idea to reinforce people’s idea that every single thought they have is valuable and worth recording, particularly when those people are tiny humans with poor impulse control and underdeveloped critical thinking skills.

  4. First; I was the one who twitted the “Rain in desert …”

    Secondly; It had never been detected, actually it had been followed by ” Hangover after dancing with missVeldhoven.

    Finally a word for non-socially-retarded one, If you knew enough about them you must know that all women enjoy those kinds of states because all of them think they are beauty. The desert is created by lack of something, maybe here, lack of a socially retarded physicist like me… not like …


    one Asshole.

    • Hi, whoever you are,

      I appreciate your taking the time to comment on this, and please excuse me for not answering you earlier – I had to think about what I would say, and after that I was on a short vacation followed by a busy period.

      I understand you don’t agree with my opinion, which is fine. However, I think that when you make those kinds of comments at a conference, you are really doing much more damage than you think. I also think you’re completely wrong about all women enjoying such comments. Obviously I’m not going to claim to speak for all women, since I’m not a woman. But I think if you asked women in your surroundings what they thought, then more of them would agree with me than with you. So yes, even though I’m sure you’re a nice person, I still feel that posting a remark like that for everyone to read was an asshole-ish thing to do.

      You’ve got me thinking, however, and I was reading about _why_ these comments might be upsetting or annoying to women. One thing I learned is that mutual attraction to females is an easy topic for male physicists to form a bond of friendship over, but it makes female physicists feel excluded from a group in which they are already in the minority. I also can’t imagine that I would feel welcome as a female physicist if I had the impression that the male physicists were more interested in whether I was good-looking or not, than in my research.

      I think this is an interesting topic, and I would like to continue reading about it and perhaps asking female acquaintances about their experiences at technical and scientific conferences. Perhaps I’ll write more about it sometime.

  5. Pingback: Twitteren vanaf een conferentie « wetenschapper20

  6. Pingback: Rain in the Desert, Part II | The Mad Scientist Review

  7. Pingback: Kleine twitter cursus van het heelal van Govert Schilling & Marcus Chown | activescience

  8. Pingback: Twitteren vanaf een conferentie | RoyMeijer

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