Too Many Tweets Make A… Historical Record?

In which we debate the historical usefulness of hashtags, especially in connection with scientific conferences like IUPS 2013.

I occasionally get asked, within my University and even beyond it, to pose as some kind of social media expert. Which I’m not, of course – I’m more like a person with far too much familiarity with f!*ting about on the internet.

There is also, of course, the problem that being identified within one’s profession as ‘the bloke that does that ‘social media’ stuff’ is potentially a kind of unwelcome badge that says: ‘Yes, he IS that bloke who spends far too much time f!*ting about on the internet’.

But… since I admit to having a Twitter feed, and a couple of blogs, of which this is one, I’m probably guilty as charged. And getting back to social media, I dare say I perhaps have more familiarity with it than some.

Which might be why, the other morning at IUPS 2013 in Birmingham, I found myself explaining Twitter, hashtags – like #iups2013 – and Storify to one of my Physiological Society History and Archives Committee colleagues, Prof Dafydd Walters.[Who, by the way, both Dr Billyo and I reckon would be a natural for Twitter. Would someone please talk him into signing up?]

The interesting point to come out of this discussion was whether something like a conference hashtag, or more precisely the tweets using it, would be the nearest thing these days to an historically-useful record of what went on at the conference.

Which is partly interesting because such records are increasingly not kept in a formal way, in the fashion they once were, by the societies running conferences.

For instance, the Physiological Society used to have something called the ‘Meetings Minutes Book’. This was supposed to be a record of every scientific meeting the Society ran, going right back to the mid 1870s. Each meeting was recorded in a report written by the Society’s Meetings Secretary. These reports were then read out at (or more precisely after) the dinner which would be part of the following meeting.

I can’t remember when this finally stopped happening, but it was probably only after the turn of the millennium. I’m a bit hazy on the exact date, but I’m sure I remember the minutes book being read out at the dinners in 2000-2001.

Now, I don’t want to bemoan the loss of this tradition, though it obviously had a long an interesting history. It was not popular – to put it mildly – with the rank-and-file younger attendees in the 1980s  when I first went along, let alone later (I can’t speak for earlier). The style of the reports was supposed – supposed! – to be humorous AND informative, but that is a difficult balance to achieve. All the Meetings Secretaries I have known clearly struggled with the task of producing something amusing each time, and after-dinner speeches that aren’t funny are, as you could guess, not very welcome. For those that don’t know, the tradition had its beginning in the Physiological Society’s Victorian origins as a dining club for men (definitely men) of science, and it likely outlived its usefulness, at the latest, at the start of the 1960s.

And yet – as Dafydd Walters pointed out, one thing the meetings book and its reports did provide was some kind of informal or more impressionistic record of what had been going on at the meeting. The list of lectures, communications, and posters – the conference programme, in other words – would tell you something. But it wouldn’t tell you, say, which was the best-received lecture, or which drew the largest audience, or which one provoked the most heated discussion. A conference programme would also not tell you who said what in the speeches after the dinner – possibly an important guide to what issues were preoccupying physiologists at the time – or what they were talking about in the bars or the restaurants afterwards.

It hardly needs saying that this kind of stuff would be of considerable interest to an historian trying, perhaps years later, to work out what was going on in physiology in 1975, or 1983, or whenever.

So what is the equivalent ‘information source’ for a conference in the post-meetings-book era? Like IUPS 2013?

Well, one could certainly argue that a compendium of the tweets under the #iups2013 hashtag might do it. Especially now that tweets often include photographs.*

Which I think means – to all those tweeting the conference – ‘tweet on dudes’. (Or something).

It is, after all, for the record.

PS – If you are not UK-based, and didn’t get the joke in the title, I refer you to our Prime Minister, Mr Cameron.


* The Physiological Society’s office staff are already onto this, via the medium of Storify – see here.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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