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.”

Presentation Poetry

I attended a lunch talk on Tuesday in which the speaker opened by saying how much he enjoyed mathematical modeling. So much, in fact, that it had inspired him to write a poem, which he recited for us from his first slide. He was no T. S. Eliot, but that would have been a bit too much for a lunch talk anyway. As it was, the audience didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the poem, but there’s physicists for you.

Whenever I give a talk or present a poster I always try to search for some gimmick that will stand out in people’s minds, and give me a way to distinguish my message from that of the other talks or posters. I’ve never quite been able to do that to my own satisfaction. What I usually end up doing is taking particular care to produce well-designed, uncluttered slides and hoping the audience notices the difference. They probably don’t, since my ideal of scientific information design is to be neat and unobtrusive.

The best way to make an unforgettable impression is to get your audience to laugh at something entirely frivolous right at the start, but I think you need to have been a scientist for longer than I have if you want to get away with that and still be taken seriously. Starting off with a four-line poem, on the other hand, was cute and stylish. It was unobtrusive like good slide design, but not unnoticeable. It made those who could appreciate it smile; and those who couldn’t simply had a “What?” moment before the real scientific content started. It certainly didn’t detract from taking the speaker seriously.

Now, if only I could find a similar gimmick that fits my personality more than poetry.