Last week a couple of thousand of us turned up to within gliding distance of the London City Airport to attend Intecol. There we had the usual rounds of talks, meetings, coffee, lunches, workshops, more coffee, talks, and even fairy cakes. But the one thing that was new (aside from the usual new ecology) was the way the meeting worked with twitter.

I’ve been on twitter for several years, sending out my 140 character long pearls of wisdom with an unfortunate frequency. I have tweeted from meetings, but often there have been few others doing this. But at Intecol we seemed to have found a critical mass. Twitter can be trivial, which lead to ideas like this:

But there were also more serious discussions, for example about the gender balance of speakers (during a plenary panel discussion where all of the panel were male: in fairness, I think one woman had dropped out, and Georgina Mace had done enough that day already).

Where twitter really worked was in the plenaries. A decision had been taken to only allow questions via twitter. This worked well: at the end of the talk the session chair stood up and read the questions, sometimes bundling several together. This meant we didn’t have a delay between questions as the next speaker was chosen, and put in the vicinity of a microphone. It also prevented the typical situation where a (usually senior) academic gives a five-minute lecture, ending with “do you agree?”. Most of the questions were relatively general, which I think works well with plenaries.

The weaknesses of using twitter to ask questions in plenaries included the obvious one that the twitless couldn’t join in. In the longer term this might be solved as more people join twitter, and one twitter discussion that started at the end of Intecol was about organising workshops and other forms of training on using twitter. The other problem is that when a question has been answered, it is not possible to answer back, so there is no feedback. I think this is less of a problem in plenaries than in smaller sessions, partly because of the general nature of the questions. Overall, though, I think the positives outweigh the problems, as long as sufficient people are on twitter to take part in the discussions.

Outside of meeting, twitter is useful to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Last year we introduced tweetable abstracts, which we use to tweet a paper when it is published. We also tweet new blog posts, the latest issues, and anything else we think is relevant to readers of MEE.

If you want to get on twitter, just sign up, and start following a few people, for example @MethodsEcolEvol, @RobFreckleton (Rob Freckleton, our glorious Editor in Chief), and of course I tweet at @BobOHara.