Culture clashes and conference etiquette

Here I am on ScienceBlogs, thanks to the loose definition of “science” that lets in “information science” and the even looser definition of “information science” that includes whatever it is I do.
And yesterday I found myself wondering whether I had any business being here–although the thought was more along the lines of “Holy cr*p! What’s going on here?” The situation had nothing to do with this blog–and a lot, I think, to do with culture clashes along the lines of that half-century-old notion of the Two Cultures.

The trigger

The trigger was a cluster of conversations taking place on FriendFeed and in blogs, some of them on this platform. It had to do with the propriety of liveblogging talks during a conference, talks not explicitly labeled as secret or closed. And after reading some of the conversations, I realized that, for all my decades as a systems analyst/programmer, I’m on the “humanities side” of this particular gulf.

The odd thing is that I’m not a big fan of liveblogging as a technique, for a couple of reasons:

  • As explored at length in “Speaking and attention: It all depends,” as a speaker, I used to have trouble with the idea of inattention–that, between backchannels, liveblogging, twittering, etc., the people in the audience weren’t really there fully.
  • Also as a speaker, I felt–and feel–that liveblogging and twittering tend to force speeches into a bullet-point mode: If a speaker wishes to build to a point using narrative means (“tell a story”), these bits-and-pieces techniques will work against effectiveness.
  • As a writer who frequently comments on what others have said, I encountered the dark side of liveblogging and conference reporting in general: Namely, what happens if you disagree with anything that’s reported. (If you’re high-fiving and saying “Wow, so-and-so made a great point,” all is well.) To wit, and particularly if the speaker is in one of the charmed circles, you get hit with some combination of “They never said that,” “You’re taking it out of context” and “That wasn’t what they meant at all.” (“Hit with” is the appropriate phrase.) After a couple of incidents, I came to a decision: I’d treat all conference reports, but specifically liveblogs and twitter streams, as fictional–I might note them, but would never, ever comment on them or believe they necessarily had anything to do with what was actually said (or meant).

But that’s a far cry from saying that liveblogging is either inappropriate or borderline unethical. I might say “I wish you’d listen for five minutes before you start tapping away–and by the way, feel free to leave if I’m not getting through to you,” but I would never say people were wrong to liveblog (or engage in backchannel chatter, which may or may not have anything to do with the actual speech).

The gulf?

The more I followed this particular controversy, the more I realized that “conference” in my context meant something very different than “conference” in the science context, at least as these scientists were using it.
Maybe–maybe–conferences-as-in-science, or at least some of them, can reasonably assume that, although anyone who registers can listen to a speech and, presumably, take notes on it and circulate those notes to friends & colleagues, that doesn’t make the contents of the speech public–that it’s reasonable to tell not only professional journalists but everyone that they shouldn’t reveal what was going on while it’s going on. (Maybe all such conferences should be held in Las Vegas, given the town’s advertising motto.)
But conferences-as-in-librarianship, at least all the ones I’ve ever attended, have had no such assumptions. On the other hand, very few speeches at those conferences involve stunning new discoveries backed by methodologically-sound research and even fewer involve any danger of being “scooped” or losing huge research grants because early information gets out too soon. As for the latter, so far I’ve encountered…well, none. People speak because they want to inform, to share ideas and winning strategies, to advocate, or because they’re On the Circuit and were invited to give Speech X to a new audience. (There are other motives, I’m sure, but sharing and informing are certainly the dominant ones.) People want what they say to reach a wider audience. Some speakers must love liveblogging, particularly those whose speeches lend themselves to the process.
Can we communicate across this gulf? Is it a real gulf, or is it edge cases? People like John D. and Christina P. convince me that the answer to the first question is yes, at least for some of us. The second one? Who knows?


I don’t have a conclusion. There are culture clashes of sorts even within librarianship, to be sure, but most of the time I also see a shared culture, at least among the types of librarians most likely to be involved in the American Library Association. On the other hand, I just wrote (and then deleted) a whole set of internal “culture clashes,” many of them from (some) librarians within one specialty who (always wrongly) either treat other types of libraries/librarians as inferior or assume that all libraries are like their own specialty. And I’m fairly certain that there are many culture clashes within science, even if you leave out the social sciences.
I’ll keep trying to communicate.
Oh, and before you ask, I do at least vaguely understand entropy and the second law of thermodynamics–but thinking about or remembering that law is no more relevant to my everyday life or writing than any Shakespeare play is relevant to the everyday life of a nuclear physicist. On the other hand, when someone proposes a system that operates with 100% efficiency, a vague awareness of the second law does trigger my BS-meter…

A footnote and digression: If you want to get one of us wifty humanities types to pick up on the second law, for Gaia’s sake stay away from the Wikipedia entry! This site, though, ain’t bad: “If the first law of thermodynamics says you can’t win, then the second law of thermodynamics says you can’t even break even.” Followed by much more detail, to be sure.

8 Responses to “Culture clashes and conference etiquette”

  1. Mark Lindner says:

    I did have an LIS PhD candidate tell me (quite forcefully) to remove the photos I had of 2 of her presentation slides because this was her dissertation work, blah blah blah. I went ahead and removed them with much grumbling under my breath. They were not by any stretch her key points but relevant to my interests. So while we are generally more open, not all of us are.
    By the way, I no longer attend her many presentations or read her papers.

  2. So, are you part of the charmed circles, Walt? On a serious note, I may need to reread that link from C&I. I do remember for a while in the librarian blogs some fuss over the “he said this/no, he didn’t” from liveblogging, just not quite where I read it.
    And yes, what you do is information science.
    Best, and keep on blogging.

  3. I prefer to read someone’s reasoned summary of a session, but I’ve been grateful for live blogging for finding information – although typically twitter feeds are too fast and furious. I have done both: live blogged and written summaries later. For re-finding what happened when, I find my live-blogged sessions most useful (to me!) because they are enough to fill in my memories. I’ve always blogged with my current and future self as my primary audience. I tweeted some during the general sessions at sla – but mostly because I was too tired to carry my laptop! Even then, I tried to make observations instead of play by play.
    BTW- I think this culture clash is even within science. If you’re required to do a 10 page paper that will be published in proceedings, you can hardly complain about blogging! But some conferences have no proceedings so that people are free to write journal articles later so I would think it depends on the conference.

  4. Angel: Maybe at one point, certainly not recently–or at least I’m not in the “too many speaking invitations to think about, hot journal invitations…” group. I was more on the receiving end.
    Christina: I have no problem with people liveblogging for their future self–it’s a form of note-taking. Once I decided that I shouldn’t try to use it as a useful source, for various reasons, it hasn’t been a problem–and I can skip the 6-8 different versions of some conference programs very rapidly.
    It’s only tough when I read a program overview (usually not liveblogging) that’s really intriguing–and realize that I can’t reasonably rely on it as the basis for anything else. Such is life.

  5. Podblack says:

    Heh, my first experience of Twitter at a conference? Try watching someone openly Twitter on their phone an insult about your presentation and reading it later! :p Maybe they were just jealous, but it turned me off it for life! I’d already consolidated my ‘you know, just having your mobile phone on during a presentation is bad manners anyway’. Could a presenter request that it is NOT Tweeted and be respected? Could a blow-by-blow account hold off, or be used for sessions where the presenter is okay with it – or has an ‘official Tweeter’ on hand?
    I had read enough on issues with students being disciplined in educational settings with continual photo-snapping and uploading them, so I’d always go for the option of talking / emailing to the presenter after the talk to see if I could get their slides or if they could direct me to a summary.
    But what of using a camera that takes video? I’d taken short less-than-one-minute films of single lectures at a conference last year and turned them into a sequence of ‘what the conference was like’. I had one person completely rip out a sequence my footage without crediting or asking me – who then stubbornly argued that they’d ’embedded it’. No, embedding is taking my link and acknowledging me as film-maker. _Not_ cutting out the bit you like and not telling me and then lying about what you did!
    In response to that, I’m now coordinating with the conference organiser to take similar short-YouTube-ready videos in future and make the footage their property. However, I should also be sure via them if presenters are okay with an amateur video added to the mix, as there is already an ‘official video’ being done during presentations anyway.
    Keeping a laptop open? I have had a well-known author next to me get told to move (when we were seated in the back row!) when they were typing, although it didn’t bother me. Apparently there were people seated nearby who found it distracting, not the presenter? So, that’s another factor to consider.
    So, in light of all of these experiences, I’m going to take the approach in future to be more sensitive and take a notepad and jot down ideas – and just use my laptop to lean on. I can always take a moment after the lecture to type down what I heard. Ask the conference track organiser about what is suitable so presenters (or attendees) aren’t distracted by my fondness for technology. Oh – and mobile phones? Turned off! 🙂

  6. Podblack: Fortunately, since I no longer use Twitter (for now) and rarely speak any more, I haven’t encountered the direct putdown. These days, in library conferences, I suspect I wouldn’t even suggest that people not liveblog or tweet–actually asking for full attention would be far too antediluvian.
    Cell phones that aren’t on vibrate, though: That’s not only rude to the speaker, it’s rude to everyone in the room. But it still happens–although not all that often in library conferences.

  7. zayıflama says:

    I had read enough on issues with students being disciplined in educational settings with continual photo-snapping and uploading them, so I’d always go for the option of talking / emailing to the presenter after the talk to see if I could get their slides or if they could direct me to a summary.

  8. Greg Laden says:

    Dear Abby,
    Until recently I had a laptop that sounded like a C 130 taking off. The fan was so strong that if I sat in the front row and the speaker was using loose leaf notes, there was a risk that they would blow away. One speaker’s toupee flew off.
    Should I not be live blogging?
    Signed, Limited by Laptop
    But seriously (well, that was half serious … but now I have a silent laptop, so it’s OK) my interpretation is that this dust up is more about journalist vs. blogger, and in that context, it is mainly about what people are accustom to or what sorts of rules have emerged (in journalism … there are no rules in blogging per se). And this problem will go away, and the people who don’t want you to look at them or hear them when they are giving a talk at a conference anyone can pay to go to will continue to be annoying.