The story of learning through conferences and Twitter intertwines in a story that might be coming to an end for both.
To say there’s a lot of change in the air is both cliche and an understatement in November 2022. Of the many notable changes, two of them are of particular importance to me this week and reflect a more extensive set of issues for how I (we) learn, share, and connect. Both of these issues overlap.
The first is due to the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk and the second is that I will be attending my first in-person professional conference since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The conference, the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association, is being held in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Twitter and Me
I joined Twitter 15 years ago as one of its earliest adoptees and evangelists. Like most people in 2007, I joined Twitter out of curiosity and wasn’t sure what it was supposed to do, only that it was becoming a fast-moving social media platform. I was studying social media and public health communication at the time, so it made sense to join a platform that looked to offer a new way to share and learn — even if I had little idea of how that would work.
I don’t think anyone did. But like most social platforms, it was put out into the world and largely shaped by the emergent interactions that came through it. I couldn’t study something that I didn’t understand, so I dove in. It was incredible.
I used to describe Twitter as a place to learn things you never knew possible from people you never knew existed. In its early days, Twitter was a vibrant space for ideas, allowing me to connect with them directly, follow their real-time thoughts, and share. I met many people — some who became good friends in real life. Many of these people are valued colleagues and collaborators, all thanks to Twitter.
Back then, Twitter was a space that – like most social networks — was less commercial, less political, and less populated. With time this would change on every level, and with the change came a precipitous drop in meaningful interaction on Twitter.
This shift signalled the rise of Twitter as a ‘populist echo chamber’ with more users seemingly content to ‘yell’ their opinion only to be yelled back at. Gone was much of the means to inform, debate, learn and discuss. Worse, I lost the diversity of perspectives and the chance to engage with people meaningfully. I’ve stopped meeting interesting, thoughtful, and kind people through Twitter.
Conferences: Learning Through Serendipity
I used to meet people through conferences because of Twitter. The idea of ‘live tweeting’ thoughts, observations, and links during real-life events was one of the earliest ways that Twitter connected people. All of a sudden, a conference ballroom filled with 3000 people might be reduced to a group of 25 people who immediately provided sources of information and shared interests. Our tweets made large events feel more intimate.
I’d often reach out to these people and make connections at the conference. What could have been static, unidirectional content at a conference suddenly became alive. It was learning improv, with each tweet being a “yes, and…” as people shared, added to, and debated what we were seeing and experiencing at conferences.
Live tweeting still exists, but it’s not the same. This year, the American Evaluation Association is hosting its first in-person event since 2019 (AEA 2022). I’ve met some of my favourite colleagues at this event, and Twitter has allowed me to stay in touch and maintain my relationships between annual conferences. I gain much from AEA conferences — only some of its knowledge. I get more from connecting with colleagues and my profession than new knowledge.
Now, both Twitter and conferences are at risk of leaving my professional orbit. My value of both is in question.
I don’t know what to expect when I attend AEA 2022. It will likely involve some mask-wearing (by me, at least) and will be much smaller. I’m not doing the popular Design Loft event this year. I hope that many of my colleagues will be there, although I know that many are staying home.
The pandemic has changed people’s calculations about the value of in-person events. It’s certainly changed mine. I am coming with different expectations this time and much more uncertainty.
There’s much value in seeing people in real life and experiencing the warmth and informal ways people interact when together. I find online interactions are great for maintaining connections, but they are difficult spaces to grow them. That’s what conferences do.
But there are accessibility issues. In 2022, what do you do if you’re immunocompromised? Is all the travel worth the risk? Is all that travel — and its environmental impact — worth the harm it does?
What about the accessibility created by costs? I will be spending over $3000 to attend this conference by the time everything is added. Is it worth it? Will I gain that in professional development, connections, and possible new business? Will my involvement substantially contribute to the profession by having me there? I hope so.
Do I see a chapter turn in my learning? And will this be tweeted?