Have we passed “peak tweeting” at medical conferences? (and other final reflections on social media analysis)

Conferences are an important way of sharing new medical and scientific knowledge. Twitter is an important way of summarising and sharing information from conference. This blog sets out to answer the question: “Have we reached peak tweeting at medical conferences?”. Popular social media tools produce quite misleading results, combining tweets and retweets, tweeters and retweeters, reporting potentially huge audiences based on questionable assumptions. Instead, this analysis uses raw data, breaking down results for tweeters and retweeters. It reports on 3 years of tweeting (2016-18) about four conferences (two public health, one anaesthetics, one quality improvement conference). The answer to the question whether we have passed peak tweeting is: “It’s too early to say whether we have passed the peak, but we quite possibly have, and conference tweeting is certainly evolving”.

Now of course 3 data points do not demonstrate a trend: you need 10-12 points or more for a run chart. Nonetheless, it is of interest that compared with 2017 there were fewer people generating original content at each of these medical conferences in 2018. These four conferences had quite different contributors and audiences, but the findings are consistent. Perhaps the pattern is real, and reflective of wider changes in conference tweeting. The number of tweets also dropped overall, but that may be explained by an increase in number of characters allowed in a tweet (from 140 to 280, November 2017). There was also less retweeting between 2017 and 2018 for three of the conferences.

Nonetheless, there is great content out there, and conference tweeting is maturing, and is likely to continue to evolve. We see the emergence of rapporteurs, specifically setting out to record the conference proceedings in imaginative ways. The Intensive Care Society State of the Art conference is leading the way in this area, and Helen Bevan and colleagues at NHS Horizons continue to generate fabulous content in their general and conference tweeting.

I also highlight that there are some limitations to current social network analysis:

  • Reports of conference audience/ reach on social media (Symplur, Twitonomy, Followthehashtag) are typically wildly optimistic and should be ignored. Their reports on influencers are potentially useful, but should be interpreted with caution.
  • Replies that do not use the conference hashtag are not captured, and sometimes include rich information. This requires more sophisticated tools and analytical approaches adopted from qualitative research methods.
  • Retweets are under-represented in NodeXL reports, and this can sometimes result in very odd results.

That’s me signing out of social media analysis for the time being. I’m off to retrain as a GP, returning to a clinical training grade for the first time in almost 20 years.

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