Every year I make a pilgrimage to the ‘Virgin Megastore’ of my chosen specialty, The American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting.
The meeting, which is the worlds’ biggest rheumatology meeting is held over 5 days and attracts almost 16,000 delegates. The volume of research presented at this single meeting is simply staggering. This year there were over 2,500 scientific abstracts presented (published in a book which is the size of the telephone directory of good sized city). Each of these pieces of research is also displayed in the form of posters over a 3 day period in a hall the size of a football pitch. You need to be in good shape to view even a fraction of whats on display.
There was a time, in recent memory, when it was possible to skim the entire book of abstracts for the meeting during the transatlantic flight to the US (with plenty of time left over for a nap and the in-flight movie). This year, a few hours on the flight and a further couple of hours in my hotel room only got me half way through abstracts presented on DAY ONE by the time day two came along. At that point I simply gave up.
Thankfully, the organizers of the meeting are aware that most delegates will be unable to digest all of the research presented in this way and organise nice, succinct 30min – 1 hour reviews on everything they think we should know about. There’s also plenary sessions where the pick of the best scientific abstracts are presented and discussed by people who know what they’re talking about. Whereas these updates are presented by smart, eloquent speakers with nice slides and data, no single attendee will recall everything that was said at each presentation. This year there were over 400 such sessions. I didn’t get to all of them.
Of course the Annual Scientific Meeting isn’t all about what goes on in the lecture rooms. Even the most diligent of attendee sees the meeting as time to catch up with old friends and colleagues in a non-work environment, keep on gossip, and even do some sight seeing. Although these social opportunities may act in some ways as a distraction to the core meeting, I find that a lot of the important work of the meeting take place precisely in this environment; many of the ‘juicy morsels’ of clinical information are exchanged between colleagues at breakfast buffets, on shuttle buses and even in the Jacuzzi’s, bars and restaurants of the convention hotels.
Given that it is often these brief informal information swaps that I find so potent and informative, I wondered about using Twitter to replicate this sort of information exchange. Twitter is a free online social networking service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters (about 20 words), informally known as “tweets”. The format of its short textual summaries closely mimics (to my mind) the short verbal exchanges which help communicate so much information in so little time.
I used a laptop (excellent free Wifi access is essential) to post my tweets and to follow the activity of other tweeters at the conference. For each presentation I attended, I ‘posted’ a number salient, take home points about the presentation with links, where possible, to the source material / speaker.
To be certain of exposure of me tweets wider audience than my relatively limited number of ‘followers’, I also posted my Tweets to a ‘discussion group’ (or ‘Hashtag’ = #ACR2011) for the meeting and also to discussion groups for specific disease (e.g. #rheumatoid #rheum #autoimmune #osteoarthritis). This way, anyone who was interested on following the proceedings of the meeting could see my comments and those of any delegate posting in this way. It was also possible for non attendees to post questions to this on-going meeting discussion which could be replied to by any delegate or observer.
Tweeting from the meeting was a really invigorating experience. The process of funneling of a large amount of information into its distilled essence required a high level of attention to the presentations (much like reading a book for a book-club – knowing you’re going to have to discuss the content later). It made me more tenacious in my pursuit of an understanding of the topic in situations where I might have otherwise allow jet lag or other meeting distractions get the better of me. There’s an implied level of responsibility when communicating information in this way, that demands that you get it right. As a result, I got a lot more from the presentations than I usually do. My Tweets from the meeting have also acted as short aide memoir to the whole proceedings.
The feedback from the my tweeting efforts was very rewarding. I received live comments and questions from rheumatologists in other countries and from many patients. A graph of the influence of all tweeters at the meeting was posted online so I could see the range of people my tweets were influencing . While I was attending a lecture on one topic there colleagues tweeting information from other sessions so I was able to be in two places simultaneously.
I would throroughly recommend getting familiar with Twitter in anticipation of your next big conference. The more you tweet, the more you’ll learn and the more rapidly you will disseminate information to other rheumatologists. Although the Twitter experience hardly replicates the bonhomie, fun and immersive atmosphere of actually attending a conference, using it will add to your experience of the conference whether you’re in Washington DC or in Galway for #ACR2012.