What are the ethics of live-streaming at conferences?

If you've only recently come to terms with people tweeting at conferences, there's another shock coming soon.

It was only a few years ago people were discussing the ethics of tweeting from conferences. There seems to be more acceptance, or at least familiarity, with Twitter, but technology moves on. We’ve been running a few experiments here and there’s clearly another debate on the horizon, should conference talks be live-streamed?

A recap on Tweeting conferences

If you’re happy with what conference tweeting is, you can skip ahead. I am aware some of our readers might still want to catch-up on conference tweeting.

If you’re giving a talk and you see someone furiously prodding at their phone, then this might be a good sign. It’s become more common to tweet while a speaker is talking, pulling out key points from their talk and posting them to Twitter. People tend to do this through their own initiative, so coverage can be patchy, but when two of three tweeters post from a talk you can get a sense of the essence of the talk, if not the details. But how do people who aren’t at the conference find out about these tweets? They search for a hashtag on Twitter.

A hashtag is a short identifier preceded by a # sign added on to the end of a tweet. So someone hashtagging a tweet with #IBC17 might be talking about the International Botanical Conference this year. Because we don’t usually include # signs in text, it’s a handy way of pulling out tags in searches. Search for #IBC17 on Twitter and you’ll see a stream of tweets about the Congress or whoever else might be using the tag. Given this post is being written well before the congress (and the congress is in China – behind the Great Firewall) it’s far, far, more likely to be the International Blues Challenge at the moment.

There’s no central authority issuing hashtags, so these clashes happen, particularly with shorter tags, which are more desirable as they leave more characters for tweeting. One year a biological society holding its conference clashed with the Salon Erotica Barcelona starting its promotion, which led to some unintended biology in the tweet stream.

The advantage of these tweets is that they can get wider exposure for a talk than would otherwise happen. People at the same conference might have an interest. How many times have you had to choose between sessions because two interesting talks clash? Following the hashtag could reveal research you’re interested in and let you know who you should try networking with at the next break. It could also advertise your work to people further afield who aren’t at the conference but see that you might be working on something relevant.

It’s not all positive. There has been a particular problem in Astronomy. Astronomical data can often be released after a six-month embargo, so there’s a pressure on the research teams using the data to publish as quickly as possible. Showing a slide of unpublished data at a conference can give rival teams an earlier start on the data. Tweeting of a photo of a slide exposes it around the world. This led to some talks where data flashed up and down on the screen so briefly, you could ask why it was included at all.

Botany doesn’t have the same problem to the same degree – but there’s still a matter of exposure.

My view is if I wanted to scoop somebody or plagiarise her work I wouldn’t advertise I’d been to her talk. I’d get the best record I could and then use it privately. Good conference tweeting credits the speaker, so at the very least the tweets establish priority for some research. If research could be damaged by making some information public, then I think it’s not a great idea to announce that information in a room full of strangers. It’s also worth bearing in mind that each tweet is a maximum of 140 characters, minus the characters used in the hashtag. You’re not going to get every detail tweeted from your talk.

Which brings us to live streaming.

How can you live stream from a conference?

I’ve seen people live stream, transmit a video or a talk over the internet, at a conference and drooled over the AV equipment they’ve used, which seemed beyond my pocket even after selling a major body organ. I’ve also seen people try to live stream a conference, using a webcam that had far too low a resolution to be useful and a microphone that couldn’t hear the speaker. These would be connected to an under-powered computer on a flaky WiFi connection. Good live streaming was difficult and expensive.

Things have changed.

First phones are much better. The top-of-the-range phones all handle 4K video. They could record and broadcast a 360p stream for a live feed with ease. They also have 4G connections. 4G is comparable to broadband in terms of speed. It’s rarely better, but not far off the older broadband connections.

There are also easy apps that can take advantage of that. Facebook now has Facebook Live. An alternative is Periscope, where you don’t need to be signed up to watch a broadcast. There’s also a live option on YouTube. It’s not perfect, you can get a sense of what the production is like by visiting Periscope or YouTube. While not all the streams are great, you can see that it could be possible to get the whole talk.

You can live stream a talk but should you?

You’re not about to see me at conferences with a Joby Gorillapod, mount and an external shotgun microphone for grabbing your talk – at least not without your permission.

My feeling is that academic talks have a limited re-watch value. That means if your listening to a speaker who is on tour around campuses, then transmitting the talk would be a disservice because it’ll reduce the appeal for people later on the tour. There are also some speakers who always drop the same things into their talk no matter what the subject is. Again, revealing that John Smith only has the one anecdote, and the punchline is that it’s always a pineapple, would be unreasonable.*

However, for a lot of speakers, I think a good stream would have value. Most academics give talks that are timely and date rapidly. In the sciences there’s not so much of a tradition that the talk is the paper.** An archived stream would give a better record of what was said (again establishing priority) and maybe protect the speaker from any hassles from getting misquoted or only partially represented. On the downside, it might also remove the defence of saying “I was misquoted” when you say something silly.

The audience can be larger than you can fit into the room. It can be timeshifted through re-runs, so you’re not in such a bad position if you’re giving your talk at some unreasonably early hour. It’s also possible to see for people who can’t afford, either because of time or money, to get to the conference at all.

But if we’re going to stream talks, is there any reason for people to still attend a conference? Couldn’t we do it all online? We could, but I think there’s still going to be a place for the society conference. Seeing a stream from Plant Biology 2017 tells me that the speaker adheres to the ethical rules of the ASPB, and there’s likely to be something of interest in the talk. The conference organisers are an indication that the talk proposed is going to meet some standards.

There’s also the social factor. I’m not going to be in Hawaii (or Dallas). I’m not going to be able to mix and chat with ASPB members the way the conference attendees can. I’m not really going to be able to ask people questions at the talks or in the poster displays.

Life is becoming more public

I think my biggest negative feeling about live streaming talks (or anything else) is that it’s a very public way of living. I don’t walk up to random people and spread the good news about botany, or at least I don’t think I do. But when I post to Facebook or Twitter and it appears in other people’s streams there, that’s what I’m doing. Doing this through video feels more public and more personal.

In the case of conferences, this are often supposed to be public meetings – if the public fancies paying the conference fee. So, in this case, it’s a deliberately public action in a public venue. It’s not so weird, or narcissitic, to stream your own talk if you’re giving one at a conference as it would be to live stream your trip to supermarket to buy a loaf of bread.

I’m not wholly embracing the technology, but I think it’s a good idea to think hard about what we want a conference or event to do, and whether the technology can help.

Unfortunately while trying to read round on this, I just found a lot of pages on how to do this and none on whether it’s a good idea. If you know of someone else whose already blogged on this – or if you have your own opinion – leave a message in the comment box below.


* Apologies if anyone really does only have one anecdote where the surprise is you’re talking about a pineapple.

** While in the humanities I have attended plenty of talks where a paper has been read at me. Including lines like “As Broadman nineteen eighty-five has shown…”