James is Chair of the British Society of Criminology’s Green Criminology Research Network and an Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of Nottingham. His research interests focus on crimes of the powerful more broadly and environmental harm more specifically. His current work looks at the social construction of environmental deviance.
Twitter conferences reach huge audiences. During its two-day symposium, 62,000 people viewed tweets from the Green Criminology Research Network’s account. Twitter was the main vehicle for advertising the event, contributing to 1,800 people viewing the call for papers and 2,100 the subsequent speaker schedule. Over 120 people watched keynote addresses from Dr Angus Nurse and Dr Jenny Maher in real-time. All in all, not bad for an event that cost nothing but time to organise or attend.
Twitter is a relatively new medium for academic conferences. It provides ‘speakers’ with the opportunity to share their research in five or so tweets over fifteen minutes. This is then followed by a fifteen-minute Q&A, a time-limit mainly there to encourage audience movement between papers. With only 1,400 characters, presenters are encouraged to be inventive. The Green Criminology conference saw a mixture of images, videos, charts and text being used to effectively communicate research.
With the prospect of repeated and regional lockdowns on the horizon, Covid-19 brought to the fore issues of accessibility and predictability. These were compounded by widespread restriction of university travel budgets and an intensification of workloads incurred by the rapid shift to online teaching. In this context, preparing for a face-to-face conference seemed futile. Accounting for these circumstances, and taking cue from the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, among others, the Green Criminology Research Network steering group decided that a Twitter conference would be the best way to proceed.
On reflection, Twitter conferences primarily benefit from their inclusivity and accessibility. Anybody with a computer or smartphone can participate and – no longer bound by transport costs, travel time or prohibitively expensive conference fees – almost anybody can attend. Even those in different time zones can use the ‘schedule Tweet’ function to post their ‘paper’ in advance or just catch up with Tweets after the event has ended. Indeed, the Green Criminology symposium hosted over twenty speakers from nine countries, including Israel and Australia. There is also no need to share slides following an event or ask permission to record video-streams because Tweets can be viewed long into the future (provided they are not deleted). However, such benefits are not without their challenges, two of which can be overcome with a little preparatory work.
First, without adequate guidance on what is ultimately an unfamiliar conference format, there is potential for exclusivity. The format may deter those unfamiliar with Twitter, or indeed digital technology more broadly. This is not an inherently bad thing. It may provide a platform for less familiar scholars to present their work, opening up a space for ECRs, and allow technically capable scholars to showcase skills unfamiliar at traditional conferences. Nevertheless, inclusivity is favourable. So, the Green Criminology Network established ground rules from the very start aimed at preventing uncertainty or ambiguity. The call for papers therefore included sections on ‘How will the Twitter Conference Work?’, ‘What if I don’t have a Twitter Account?’, ‘Presenter Guidelines’, ‘Tips and Tricks’, and offered examples from other conferences so people could see how the format worked in practice.
Second, without some way of organising relevant Tweets from the myriad of individual Twitter accounts, there is potential for disorganisation and fragmentation. To address this, three ‘navigation points’ were created through which people could access the conference. First, the Speaker Schedule used Microsoft Sway to link to speaker abstracts and Twitter accounts, providing direct access to papers. This removed the need to navigate Twitter and improved inclusivity among those unfamiliar with the platform. Second, a short, relevant, and consistently used hashtag was important. #GreenCrime2021 was used in the initial call for papers and in every conference tweet prior to, during, and after the event. This provided an easy search term for those wanting to gather all conference tweets in one place. Third and finally, the Tweet Schedule tool provided automatic signposting from the network’s official Twitter account. A Tweet linking to each new speaker, with a title of their paper, was scheduled to send 5 minutes before they were due to present. This meant that anyone could navigate the conference in real-time simply by accessing the network’s Twitter account.
While these measures ensured a successful Twitter conference, it is worth noting that the lack of face-to-face interaction was felt. Questions were asked, answers were forthcoming and discussion ensued, but the inability to see others was a notably absent quality. This is where face-to-face conferences always have the upper hand, whether in-person or over video-call. Indeed, it is for this reason that Twitter may be better suited to research showcases, PGR-conferences, or alongside traditional conferences as a means of expanding the reach of papers. In whichever manner they are used, Twitter conferences have their place. It is worth remembering, however, that their success is contingent on effective preparation; a little of which goes a long way.
Keynote video from Dr Angus Nurse
Keynote video from Dr Jenny Maher
Dr James Heydon, University of Nottingham
Photographs courtesy of author