social media ban
Image by Mashable

Twitter and blogs have become standard and highly efficient ways for conference and trade show attendees to communicate news coming out of a meeting, but that laissez-faire attitude might be changing.

At the 2011 Advances in Genome Biology and Technology (AGBT) conference in Florida last week, organizers abruptly lowered the boom on social media. In a change of policy, AGBT insisted audience members refrain from real-time tweeting or blogging about presentations unless expressly given permission to do so by the author.

Not surprisingly, the AGBT policy caused a significant amount of consternation, indignation, and even outrage by attendees who are accustomed to tweeting play-by-plays of the juiciest presentations. Non-attendees who usually count on online channels to find out what’s going on at this important conference expressed similar sentiments.

One presenter who passed on the unpopular diktat “…should be ashamed of herself! If she wants to keep things secret she should stay at home… it’s grand time a new generation of scientists take over these baby boomers and get down to business!” read one rant at the blog, which posted a discussion of the quasi-ban.

Somebody else rightly pointed out that the presenter in question, a leading genetics researcher, was just the messenger and not the originator of the policy.

The frustration levels of stymied tweeters and bloggers mounted throughout the three-day conference as presenters routinely forgot to clarify whether or not their talk could be reported.

The AGBT organizers’ motive in imposing censorship — to prevent preliminary data from being distributed widely lest it eventually fail the rigors of scientific peer review — is well-intentioned and consistent with scientists’ aversion to hype.

One presenter also indicated online that she had “several funding requests pending that are based on this work and I think that tweet/blog and all associated comments have a possibility to interfere with the review process.”

Fair enough, but all of this leads to the obvious question: if the material is so preliminary, why is it being presented to hundreds of people at AGBT anyway? And why just gag tweeters and bloggers?

“If you’re speaking to 700 scientists in the room, you are effectively putting something out into the “public domain” observed blogger Anthony Fejes, author of the blog.

The AGBT policy also raises another interesting question about the nature of social media: how is tweeting or blogging different from talking offline about a presentation or even emailing about it? The biggest difference obviously is that you can reach a lot more people, thousands, with a single online posting.

Before the rise of the Web, only mainstream media had that kind of reach. In an ironic twist, I have heard journalists complain that credentialed reporters sometimes get kicked out of meetings while others, who aren’t part of the official press corps, are free to remain and tweet away about what transpires.

In the end, many commenters on the AGBT issue concluded that those instituting the ban simply didn’t understand social media.

This reminds me of my days as a reporter in the early days of what was quaintly called “computer-assisted reporting.” Back then I regularly requested electronic copies of public records from government agencies — not a particular, single record, but rather their entire database of computer records, often numbering in the hundreds of thousands, even millions. This made many bureaucrats nervous. They were happy to hand over a single paper property tax record, for example, or two, or three, or even a dozen. But ALL of them on a disk? No way.

Eventually I was involved in a lawsuit where the newspaper I worked for sued a public agency to get the data, and won.

I wish I had a copy of the court’s decision to quote from, but the bottom line was that the content of the records was what determined whether or not it was public, rather than the means by which it was delivered. I’d say that’s still pretty sound logic.

To track the conference Twitter conversation, search #AGBT.