The ASCO Social Abstract Project: Initial Findings

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights, Public Relations Practice on June 9, 2011

Last week, I launched a project to aggregate social media mentions of research that was presented at the just-concluded American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. That work is still ongoing. About 10,000 tweets have been tagged on Twitter with the meeting’s hashtag (#ASCO11), in addition to the countless blog posts and Facebook updates describing the meeting. Word-for-word, the online ASCO commentary now runs longer than “A Tale of Two Cities.”

I have worked my way through more than half of those social mentions, and I continue to compile tweets on my Social Abstract Project spreadsheet (you may participate by using this form). And though the project isn’t complete, there are some conclusions I can already draw:

  • People Care About Everything. The attention at ASCO tends to follow the dozen or so pieces of research that ASCO promotes through its press conferences, but the Social Abstract Project — when complete — will probably flag more than 200 different posters and presentations that got social media attention. It’s great that technology is allowing docs to memorialize research that might otherwise be forgotten.
  • Twitter is a Tough Medium for Medical Meetings. As several tweeters noted, 140-character tweets (or even a series of 140-character tweets) doesn’t allow for much nuance, and cancer is nothing if not nuanced. Adding to the problem is that Twitter is incredibly hard to mine for specific information; the number of tweets that referenced specific abstracts (either by including the abstract number or by linking to the abstract) was about 2 percent of the total number of tweets. That makes it devilishly difficult to sift through the tweets (remember, there are 10,000 of them), either by hand or in an automated fashion.
  • The #ASCO11 Hashtag May Be Losing Its Effectiveness. The volume of tweets was simply too high for most ordinary mortals to process. Though hashtag proliferation often leads to confusion, it might be time to think about creative ways to segment ASCO commentary. David Miller proposed #ASCO11d for data and #ASCO11s for social. NPR’s Scott Hensley, slightly more tongue-in-cheek, suggested #ASCO11bs and #ASCO11truedat.
  • “Socializing” the Meeting Can’t Be Done Without Help. Making the meeting more open to commentary means making it dead simple to participate, a weakness of my Social Abstract Project (despite the mobile-friendly form, commenting in that way required people to go outside their usual information-sharing habits). I noted last month, the easiest way to “get social” with regard to abstracts would be for ASCO itself to open the web pages for each individual piece of research to commenting. The other way we can turbo-charge this sharing is wider use of QR codes, which allow smartphone-toting attendees to scan a poster or slide and go directly to a place where they can weigh in. I saw three QR codes on research at the meeting; I’m hoping for 3,000 such codes within 3 years.

My goal, then, for the next 12 months, will be to work on making some of the small changes. The folks at ASCO are committed to staying at the cutting edge, technologically (their “Virtual Meeting” products, while not social, were nonetheless impressive and show a deep commitment to using all mediums to communicate), and I hope to open a dialogue with them. We’ll be talking with researchers about boosting the use of QR codes. And I’m hoping that we can develop some Twitter best-practices — such as the inclusion of links or abstract numbers, or the use of more specific hashtags — that will make it easier for those at the meeting or those looking later to make sense of the deluge.

I’ll keep updating the spreadsheet and following up via Twitter. Thanks to all that supported or participated in this experiment.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a director at WCG in the product group, where he specializes in media. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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3 Responses

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  1. Even short of QR codes, having the presenter display their abstract # on their poster would be helpful.

    Personally, I find some of the most interesting stuff by browsing posters. This means I don’t always have an abstract number. When trying to participate in this project, it was sometimes tough to track down the abstract number.

    “We” also need to convince Twitter to exclude the handle from the 140-character limit on RTs. I always angle for under 125 characters in my tweets to make RTs easy. Adding “#ASCO11″ and “abs ####” get me under 110 characters of content. There were times I’d really like the 15 characters in my handle (BiotechStockRsr) back.

  2. David –

    Agree totally on abstract numbers. It is the only way, retrospectively, to compare a comment to the actual research. You did a hell of a job of tweeting abstract numbers, though. Thanks.

    As for Twitter, I’m worried that it is a fundamentally flawed medium for this kind of commentary. 110 characters isn’t enough to be thoughtful (usually). But neither is 140. I suspect this is why FriendFeed was so popular with the scientist set. Not sure what the solution is for that. Twitter is the most public/ubiquitous way to microblog, so we might be stuck.

  3. One idea I had was to take actual notes on an iPad using Penultimate, make a jpeg from that, and then post the image with twitter to get around the character limitation and get more information out. Aside from it being hard to write much, and even less neatly, with a stylus and iPad, the convention center wifi just didn’t work well. Perhaps it was the volumes of people trying to get online in the same space, but nobody around me was successful with getting onto the wifi in the larger sessions. I relied on an iPhone to get tweets out (and only intermittently — I’m on AT&T), without the written notes.

    I hope McCormick Center beefs up the wifi so that it’s actually possible to use it even as part of the the teeming masses there for the big sessions.

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