Ubiquitous conferences?

Here are the notes I prepared for a contribution to the 3rd swiss historical days, for a session about scientific communication in the digital era, organised by the late Peter Haber. I publish them “as is”.

History needs primary sources, explicit methods, interpretation, publication and debate. Debates are made to point out weaknesses and strengths of our works, to understand the great steps to achieve to have a better understanding of the past – or at least of the artifacts from the past. One of the tool to have discussion and debate around historians’ work are academic events and, among them, the most typical one: conferences. What does it mean to organise an academic conference in the digital and social networks age?

I’ll try in this contribution to draw conclusions from my experiences as both organiser and participant to conferences and will particularly insist on how things went during Digital Humanities Luxembourg 2012 and THATCamp Paris 2012.

Dealing with conferences in several “places”

  • Presentation of DHLU / THATCamp 2012;
    • DHLU as a rather traditionnal conference, linked to another one (THATCamp Luxembourg/Trier) that was less traditional;
    • THATCamp Paris 2012 was a RRCHNM style unconference;
    • Both were digital humanities / digital history conferences with lots of participants keen to speak about the conference on social media (social networks / blogs);
  • Why several “places”/”spaces”:
    • Physical space itself;
    • Social networks: twitter;
    • Blogs, storify, etc.
  • What happened;
    • In the case of DHLU, we had 723 tweets. If, during the first day, the tweets were rather on the same topics than the papers presented, it was not the case on the second day with two debates that came from discussions held during presentations, but went to themes that were not delt by the paper: the future of digital humanities and a widely heard sentence during the conference: “I’m just a historian” – which also led to a very good blog post by Sean Takats;
    • In the case of THATCamp Paris 2012, we had 2848 tweets, a storify, and several blog posts. The tweets were relating debates during workshops, discussion between parallel workshops – sometimes dealing with comme themes -, and were a continuation of the numerous debates that were happening in workshops;
  • The idea here is to get advantage from this situation and to turn those ubiquitous conferences into enhanced conferences. How to do this? And, what’s the interest of doing this?

Preparing the tools (How to do this)

  • First, have plugs and wi-fi;
  • Choose a social network (well, if you can choose – you audience may choose it for you) with the most open API.
    • In our case, Twitter had a sufficient API. Not sure it will stay like this – Twitter is a golden jail that is progressively closing;
    • Choose a hashtag (or something equivalent) and test it before (see #tcp for THATCamp Paris 2010 – mixing THATCamp with people discussing the TCP protocol);
    • Beware Facebook for instance – unless you can create an FB app;
    • Read the general condition of use of the social network – There are some restrictions on the use of the social network and data retrieval;
  • Retrieve your data and store them somewhere for preservation: in the end, it’s part of the proceedings
    • Choose carefully the tools that you are going to use, notably to retrieve your data;
    • Don’t forget to start collecting what’s happening on social networks before the conference starts and don’t stop immediatly after the end of the conference. It will also be usefull to notably identify blog posts about your conference.

Example: DHLU. Use of TAGS + TAGS explorer.
It is slow: it fits for a small conference, not for bigger ones (ie no more than a couple of thousands tweets). It is graphically appealing, but does not mean you can use it easily.

For larger conference, possibility to use the 140dev PHP lib. Needs more work to set it up (not that much), but, more important, you need to know better SQL request language.

What’s the interest of doing this?

What’s interesting here is

  • Content – what was said;
  • Network: who’s discussing with whom;
  • Integration to your conference.


In the case of DHLU, the content of the first day did not really differ from the physical conference – mainly comments, quotation of the speakers’ papers.

The second day was quite different, with some discussions starting as comments of a paper and then going to themes that were not at all in the paper.

One of the discussion that was linked to the conference (ie with the right hashtag) was centered on the relations between Digital Humanities and some subdisciplines – notably digital history. Will DH become part of Humanities, will it split into digital history, digital anthropology, etc. Another strong debate happened around an often used expression: that was the #onlyahistorian affair too.

In other words, it helps you in analysing and understanding the themes that are debated within a community.

In the case of THATCamp Paris 2012, we went further and did some text analysis, with the help of a parisian firm who wanted to test its tools. As for DHLU 2012, I did a wordcloud of the tweets. But someone was interested in an expression cloud and topic modelling.

We spoke in Paris about (a lot) Paul Bertrand’s keynote but also pedagogy, methods and education. I cannot say that I learned something from this text analysis, but I can have, in one eye, a global view on a 200 participants conference.


With TAGS Explorer, you can visualize discussions and networks. In the case of a small conference, it’s more or less obvisou that everybody will discuss with everybody.

In the case of a larger conference, you may have the possibility to analyse some sub groups of a network more focused communities of interest.

But the most important thing here, is the participation of people that are not in your physical conference, but who can give interesting appreciations on your conference during the conference itself. It’s an enrichment of your conference and of the debate.

Integration to your conference

  • I used this material for the DHLU’s conclusions;
  • I integrated them to the website of the conference;
  • I suppose, though not tried it yet, that you can include this material in the conference’s proceedings.

2 réflexions sur « Ubiquitous conferences? »

  1. Ping : Sur Peter Haber et son Digital Past – Retour du séminaire #DHEHESS | Frédéric Clavert

  2. Ping : Les réseaux sociaux pour chercheurs: une illusion? | Frédéric Clavert

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