Summers, I. How to be… a twitter moderator, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2017. Available at:
The email comes from a wonderful conference organizer, lets call her, for example, Tessa, “Dear X, would you be interested in being a Twitter moderator for a session at our upcoming conference?” The idea appeals, but you actually have no idea how it’s done. Google is not much help, but there’s been an amazing conference in Berlin where lots of talented people have been doing it very well. You think surely there must be some sort of guide or reference manual as to how to do it but there’s not. So you ask some of those amazing moderators from Berlin how they did it. Fortunately for you they are happy to tell you. Disaster averted.
Eve Purdy is currently doing an MSc in Anthropology at the University of North Texas. She’s also been an amazing Twitter moderator at dasSMACC. She is on the advisory board of CanadiEM and also writes at Manu et Corde.
She has also played mother hen to many, many SMACC juniors.
What does it actually involve?
Being a Twitter moderator is a unique and evolving conference role. It allows and encourages engagement from everyone in the audience. Essentially your job is to curate online discussion related to the conference session. You can collect questions to pose to the speaker or panel and answer/direct questions as they arise online or forward along virtually to the speakers to answer later.
Procedurally, the conference session will have a hashtag (such as #DFTB17) that audience members can use to comment on the session. I recommend that questions should include your personal twitter handle so as not to be missed – there can be a lot to keep track of. Your twitter handle and procedure you hope the audience to follow should be outlined clearly at the beginning by the conference chair.
How to do it well
The main task is to follow the online discussion and extract common questions or themes that are arising in real time. In order to do it well you need to:
- Follow the online discussion
- Identify the common themes/questions
- Briefly summarize the online discussion and then focus on a single question when prompted by the session chair
- Give credit to the audience members contributing to the online discussion
- After the session you can continue to engage in the online discussion by replying to tweets directed at you and sending along specific tweets/questions to the relevant speakers.
Eve’s top tips…
Be comfortable with the twitter interface you are using. Decide beforehand whether you are going to use your phone, your iPad, the web-browser on your laptop, or a program like Hootsuite. There is no one right choice. I like having multiple open web browsers (one to my notifications and one to the session/conference hashtag). Find what works for you and practice how you are going to keep track.
Often times you will only be able to ask one or two questions of the speakers or panel members. This can feel stressful when there is so much quality discussion. Rest assured that the discussion is documented online and can be returned to by you and the speakers later on!
And some traps to avoid
Don’t feel like you need to respond to every tweet in real time. If you do, you will easily get overwhelmed as there can be hundreds of tweets directed your way and using the session hashtag. You should focus on curating the online discussion. I would often retweet many discussion points but didn’t respond directly unless it was to clarify a question/comment. After the session you can respond more personally.
Make sure the device you are using is well charged and connected to the wifi! Nothing more embarrassing than tech troubles.
It is easy to engage on twitter with the people you already know well. Be sure to include and engage people outside of your pre-existing network.
Chris Nickson, intensivist at the Alfred in Melbourne is one of the co-founders of SMACC as well as Life in the Fast Lane. He was also present at the birth of the FOAM movement, providing more than just clean towels and hot water.
He has also been amazingly generous in offering the DFTB team advice.
It is worth thinking about why we should even have a Twitter moderator. In my mind, having a Twitter moderator has three key benefits to a conference session:
It allows the conference to engage with a much wider audience than that which is physically present. A great example from the first SMACC conference in 2013, was Trauma expert Karim Brohi, based in London, interacting with a discussion of coagulopathy in Sydney. Furthermore, the conversation can continue between the physical and virtual audience, and the speakers, long after the physical session has finished.
The session runs more smoothly. No longer does the audience have to be subjected to mini-lectures, thinly disguised as questions, from microphone-hogging audience members. Control of timing is easier because the Chair is working on the same team as the person asking the questions.
The moderator can pick out universal themes and common questions that are important to the audience. This means the questions asked are potentially of broader interest, and more democratic, than those provided by whoever can run to a microphone the fastest.
There are some other challenges though.
Not everyone is on Twitter – it can be a challenge to get all the physical audience to buy in, and this will vary at different conferences. What works for SMACC and DFTB may not work for conferences with different audiences.
The Twitter moderator has to be a great multi-tasker. Triaging the Twitter feed must be combined with listening closely to the live discussion. This ensures important topics that have been neglected can be highlighted with Twitter comments, and to make sure a question isn’t asked to the speaker that has already been answered in the presentation. It is also important that the Twitter moderator knows the Chair’s overall plan, and what the session speakers will cover, so as not to unintentionally steal their thunder by addressing a topic before the time is right. Have a shared awareness of where the question fits into an overall pattern of the session rather than just the individual presentation.
Usually the chair is in charge of the session. Be thick-skinned, the chair might have to cut you off or modify or re-direct the question.
Thanks Eve and Chris. It’s an emerging role, and different people do it differently. What works for you and what problems have you encountered? Have you tried to use twitter through a moderator to ask questions or follow the debate about a conference session. How was it? What works? Let us know in the comments.