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Biomedicine in museums

Attending academic conferences is a waste of time, money and environmental resources — and intellectual energy

Every time I see a conference call for papers in my field of expertise these days, I’m thinking: could this meeting have been organised on Twitter or Google+ or some other online platform instead?

I’d rather participate in an academic discussion on my iPad at home or in a café than sitting in an ugly meeting room in an anonymous hotel somewhere in the middle of global nowhere. Better take a couple of rounds of discussions on Twitter than waiting for a mic to be passed down the aisle of a crowded conference room and then trying to hear what’s being said through the noise of the air-condition. Not to mention trying to have serious ‘discussions’ with people in the breaks between sessions, when everyone is running frantically around to find a toilet before trying to locate the next meeting room.

Going to conferences more and more feels like a kind of ritualised masochism. You’re time-lagged and sleep-deprived and are fed tasteless transfat-saturated cookies or small sandwiches with processed meat on soft white bread. Travelling is a waste of time, money and environmental resources: it drains your research grant for money that could have been used more productively, produces unnecessary tons of carbon dioxide, and helps transnational hotel chains increase their profit margins.

It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating again: Twitter is, in my experience, an almost perfect medium for academic discussions. I know: 140 characters seems ridiculously short, especially for academics who are used to writing books. But think again:

  • Twitter sessions allow many discussants to join the conversation.
  • Session are rapid and facilitate easy turn-taking; you don’t need to struggle for speaking time.
  • Formal authority doesn’t count (it doesn’t matter if you’re a professor or a young grad student); only the strength of the argument counts.
  • Twitter culture doesn’t give any room for pontificators or discussants who speak way too looong.
  • Sessions can be spontaneous or planned, intense or lazy, existentially loaded or technically straight. They can last for 30 seconds or 5 hours, depending on the issue at hand, the interest of the participants and the power of the argument.
  • Your personal features don’t matter: You can be a stutterer without being disclosed as such, and you can participate even if you have bad hair or a bad breath or forgot to apply your favourite deodorant.
  • And technically, it’s a piece of cake.

Again 140 characters isn’t much. But it’s more than enough for an elevator pitch. And if you have more on your mind, you can always link to a blog post.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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