Thursday, October 29, 2015


I'm just recently back from the New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) conference, the top variationist sociolinguistics conference in North America. This was NWAV44, hosted by the University of Toronto, and as usual it was a lot of fun, and really exhausting.

When you go to a conference regularly enough, you start making conference friends, people who you only know and really only ever see in the context of the conference. Seeing my conference friends again is always one of the things I look forward to when going to NWAV, and it's what makes it all the more disappointing when I can't go for some reason or another. Of course, nowadays, if you can't make it to NWAV in person, you can always follow along at home on the Twitter hashtag. Really, it's almost like a parallel conference going on on Twitter. I go to a lot of conferences that get tweeted about, but I feel like NWAV tends to have a much higher rate of twitter traffic, and this was especially true of NWAV44. The Manchester LEL twitter account speculated that this might be the most tweeted about conference of all time.

It definitely spawned the most parody accounts (@GreatHallBird@nwavAVghost). But, I thought I'd take this up and pick over the Twitter traffic on the #NWAV44 stream. I pulled down all the tweets I could with the twitteR package, excluding retweets.

In the 4 days of the conference, there were 3,196 tweets on #NWAV44. Here's the distribution of tweets, binned into 10 minute intervals, color coded by what was happening at the conference at the time (according to the official schedule).

The highest number of tweets in any 10 minute period was 53, for a rate of 5.3 tweets a minute, during the second paper session on Saturday.

There wasn't much tweeting during the poster session, which is too bad. First of all, it means a bit less exposure for people in the poster sessions. Second of all, posters are an intrinsically visual medium, and conventional wisdom is that tweets with pictures attached get more attention. I can't tell whether a tweet has a picture attached in this data, but I can tell if it has a link. I broke tweets down into two categories: tweets with an "https" link and does not contain the words "slide" or "talk", and all others. Winds up looking like this:
might have image n average retweets average favorites
yes 378 1.29 3.31
no 2,818 0.82 1.89

Maybe something to think about next time you're live tweeting a conference.

Another thing I was interested in was what the average tweeting rate was during any given 20 minute talk + 10 minute question period. So, I took each talk period, and counted up how many tweets were sent each minute. Here's what it looks like.

During a talk, it looks like there's a pretty steady average of 2 to 3 tweets per minute persisting into the Q&A period, dropping off precipitously during the lat 5 minutes of Q&A as the speakers switched over. It's really pretty striking that during the meat of any given talk period, the most common number of tweets in a minute is something like 1 or 2, not 0.

One last thing I looked at was tweets about the birds. In the Great Hall in Hart House, there were at least two birds flying around the rafters and eating the crumbs after coffee sessions. It was a major topic of twitter conversation, and spawned the parody account @GreatHallBird. The volume of tweeting about the birds reached its peak on the third day of the conference, when about 8% of all tweets contained the string [bB]ird.

There was initially some competing ways of referring to the bird. Some people originally decided to call it "Ferdinand", but midday on the 24th, the @GreatHallBird account started tweeting, and eventually that standard became the most popular. Here is what people were calling the birds out of the options of just "[bB]ird", "[fF]erdinand" and "[gG]reat\s?[hH]all\s?[bB]ird"

Unfortunately, I don't have access to historical twitter data to check how #NWAV44 compared to other large conferences, like maybe #ICPHS2015.

UPDATE: I just realized that I didn't filter out tweets by the @GreatHallBird account itself when estimating the rate of tweets about the birds. When I exclude its tweets, as well as any line initial @-mentions, nothing really changes that much qualitatively, but the third day of the conference tops out at about 7% tweets about the bird, instead of 8%.


  1. Question periods were only 5 minutes!

  2. Ah! Explains the drop off after 5 minutes even better.

  3. During any given 20-minute talk period, 4 talks were going on, right? So it may be 2-3 tweets per minute, but that's like 0.5 tweets per minute per talk. Or did you already correct for that?


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