Live-Tweeting: Spread the Word & Communicate the Science

In May, I was part of incredible process!  Michigan Science Writers, a science writing group of which I am a part, was asked to provide social media coverage for the Michigan Meeting 2016, entitled "Unseen Partners: Manipulating Microbial Communities that Support Life on Earth". As a part of this, various members from our science writing group provided live tweeting and live blogging coverage of the meeting over the course of it's two and a half day run. It was a daunting task to organize, but the execution ended brilliantly! However, there was one instance during Day 2 of the conference which really demonstrated why live social media coverage of conferences such as this is so important.


In the second session of day 2, Dr. Norman Pace and Dr. W. Ford Doolittle debated the phylogenetic "Tree of Life", a field in which both have focused their past research. Though they've previously worked together on said research (Doolittle was a postdoctoral fellow in the Pace Laboratory), they held very different opinions regarding the issue.  

In April of this year, a group out of UC Berkeley published “A new view of the tree of life” in Nature Microbiology. In this article, they claimed that their findings “dramatically expanded version of the tree of life, with Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya included". In these phylogentic trees, Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya are classically clumped into two groups: Prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms that lack a nucleus (Bacteria & Archaea), and Eukaryotes, which have a nucleus and organelles. The goal of this debate was for Pace and Doolittle to offer their differing opinions on the validity of these groupings and the “Tree of Life” itself. For a summary of what they said, check out the MiSciWriters Live Blog of this Event.


Throughout the debate (and the event as a whole), MiSciWriters, meeting attendees, and interested parties took part in a Twitter discussion via the hashtag: #MiMicrobe. It was fascinating to see the engagement on the #MiMicrobe feed. Not only was there engagement between conference attendees, but many people outside of the conference were asking questions, re-tweeting, commenting, etc. I knew that people tweeted science, but I, a Twitter newbie, never quite realized how successful live-tweeting can be! Using #MiMicrobe was great for the sake of not only promoting an event, but of keeping the attendees and those that were unable to attend, engaged! It was fantastic to see! But what was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the meeting had yet to come...

As a result of the continued Twitter-sation, the author of the paper in question, Dr. Laura Hug, chimed into the debate. At first though, her input could have been seen as critical of the event.

It’s disheartening to be criticized publicly for conclusions we did not make, after taking great care for interpret our results.
— Dr. Laura Hug

 Dr. Hug's disappointment was apparent not only in this tweet, but in the Twitter Discussion that followed, going on to state that she faced a lot of criticism for not choosing a side in the debate. This initial negative feedback from Dr. Hug, though, morphed into something that I found to be most incredible.

Not only were Dr. Hug's comments read by the Twitter-sphere, but her comments were given voice in the Q&A forum following the debate. Eventually, she took the advice of the #MiMicrobe Tweeps and tweeted her own questions into the debate. It would've been easy for these questions to be lost in the endless commentary going on on the Michigan Meeting hashtag, as it was a very active hashtag. But, we were all very aware of Dr. Hug's input!


During the Q&A portion of the debate, Dr. Pat Schloss, a University Michigan Associate Professor and speaker at the Michigan Meeting, made sure that Dr. Hug's questions were addressed. Referencing the on-going social media conversation, Dr. Schloss posed Hug's questions to the panelists. Pace responded with apologies for a "nasty" letter in response to the article, while defending his stance that the tree was based on "bad phylogeny." This back and forth of questions from Dr. Hug and responses from the panel was communicated via Twitter by both Dr. Schloss and other meeting attendees. 

pat schloss tweet.jpg

Again, let me reiterate, I am new to Twitter. I've never seen Twitter in action before, and definitely haven't seen it contribute so profoundly to a scientific discussion. So, I am still in awe of and completely inspired by not only the exchanges that occurred on Twitter, but that we were able to let others, particularly Dr. Hug, voice their own opinions and ask questions. 


During the debate and throughout the conference, we were pleasantly surprised to see the amount of feedback and engagement that we were getting. Not only were people, like Dr. Hug, tweeting in their questions, but there were many people just following the #MiMicrobe feed! 

There were people in completely different time zones! Some people that were 6 hours ahead (ie - out of the U.S.) following the feed. People who got sucked into the "vortex." I love that top Tweet over on the left. "I tried to leave work 45 minutes ago (now 6pm here) but got sucked into the #MiMicrobe vortex!" Love it! It was 12pm Eastern Time when that tweet came in. Heck - we even started getting spam on the hashtag. (I guess that's how you know you've made it!)

It was incredible to go from someone who's sole Tweet in history had been a live-save on The Voice (after which I promptly deleted my Twitter!) to someone who had more followers than Tweets, who was connecting people that I would otherwise never meet, etc. Twitter kind of blew me away over the course of this conference...the reach was amazing and completely unexpected from my perspective!

The conversation on Twitter kept Tweeps and #MiMicrobe attendees so engaged for so long that we actually ran over-time during this debate, into the lunch hour. Nobody seemed to mind too much, as they stayed stuck to their seat watching the scientific shenanigans go down. It was incredible! 


Live-tweeting this conference was a fantastic experience!

Firstly, it was a great way to make connections! For example, my academic adviser from undergrad noticed that myself and another friend of his were live-tweeting #MiMicrobe. As a result, he introduced us on Twitter and I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Mark Owen Martin, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, back near my hometown! You may have seen his tweets, other social media accounts, or read his blog Microbial Supremacy! I made many other new connections last week on Twitter, adding to the value of live tweeting a conference as a networking tool. 

It also was a form of note-taking which was really cool! I was able to look back at the tweets, whether one of mine or someone else's, to review that interesting idea or example later. That in and of itself is super helpful since we all know that it's difficult to capture everything during a conference!

Perhaps the thing I loved the most about live Tweeting this event was that it required me to focus, and to rephrase concepts in my own words, distilling them down into something that was bite-sized and intriguing. That's often something that we, as scientists, collectively struggle with. How do we ditch the jargon, ditch the extraneous, and just tell it like it is? Just say the things that is most exciting, intriguing, or mind-boggling, instead of all the detail we tend to get bogged down in.

If live-tweeting did anything, it allowed me to hone and fine-tune those communication skills. It's something I'm really excited to implement in future conferences, and something that I think any scientist could benefit from trying at their next conference.


LOVE IT! I totally think you should. If it's not obvious at this point, I'm a fan of Twitter for science communication! But there are some things to keep in mind whether you're just the one live-tweeting, or you want to use live-tweeting for your next event.

Firstly, for just my live-tweeters: there are some conferences that prohibit live-tweeting. Others encourage it! If you're concerned, just ask! The conference organizers and presenter should indicate to you whether or not they allow it. If a conference is promoting live-tweeting of their event, you'll likely get several people interacting, offering different thoughts, perspectives, notes, etc. This is especially nice when you're at larger conferences with concurrent sessions. Obviously it's more fun when there are many different tweeters, but if you want to make it a Twitter discussion, talk about it! If it's cool with the conference, get the conversation going!

Check out the #MiMicrobe twitter feed for a good example!

Also, experienced Tweeters need not worry! If my experience taught me anything, it's that you don't have to have experience live-tweeting to live-tweet! I had none. I said it before, and I'll say it again - the only tweet I'd sent before this conference  started was a live-save on The Voice. Once I started Tweeting (and got used to the character limit!) it was easy to keep going. So don't feel like you have to be all Twitter-experienced to tackled live-tweeting! Just go for it and have fun.

For conference organizers, here are some thoughts/suggestions:

  1. Choose a simple hashtag. There's a 140-character limit, and distilling scientific ideas into that limit is hard enough! It's even harder when you've got a 20 character hashtag to contend with. So keep it short and sweet.  The #MiMicrobe worked REALLY well, in my opinion, because it was concise, and it made sense! It's easier said then done, but put some effort into your hashtag and it will be the most successful

  2. Make your hashtag known before the event! Heck - make social media known! Share your hashtag on event promotional posters, communications, etc. so people know that this will be occurring! If you want people to get involved, you need to tell them to get involved!

  3. Allow people to submit questions via Twitter. As you can see by the Dr. Hug example shown above, letting people Tweet in their questions, and encouraging that, is REALLY beneficial to keep the conversation current, and to engage those outside of your conference attendance. This debate was perhaps the most well-tweeted part of the conference, but I think seeing that Dr. Hug tweeted in in and of itself demonstrates why promoting question submissions is so valuable!

  4. Prepare for spam! #MiMicrobe was trending for a while on Twitter, and ironically, we did get some sexy SPAM Tweets. I guess that's how you know your hashtag is doing well. But, still, it was kind of awkward. So, just prepare! If it's a big event and you anticipate a lot of Tweets, plan for some spam!