Social media activity at ISPAH 2018: running to keep up

By Graham Mackenzie @gmacscotland

Social media shakes up traditional models of broadcasting. Two years ago Chris Oliver, Andrew Murray and I wrote an editorial describing how, from Edinburgh, UK, we had used Twitter to view and share information with the International Society of Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH) conference in Bangkok, Thailand (November 2016).[1] The ISPAH 2018 conference was held in London, 15-17 October 2018. I was asked to repeat the study reflecting on advances in social network analysis over this period.

Social media combines the role of presenter, reviewer and audience. Sharing is rapid and can be global. Simple social media tools and more sophisticated social network analytics can help summarise information quickly. However, there are pitfalls and hazards in relying on such data alone and the outputs of even the simplest social media tools are typically poorly defined. [2] We can use the raw data captured as a by-product of social network analysis to work up methods that are simple, transparent and reproducible. [3]

Tweets at ISPAH 2016 and ISPAH 2018

Comparing the 2016 and 2018 ISPAH conferences, the number of original tweets and replies more than doubled (from 1,062 to 2,337), tweeters almost tripled (from 171 to 500) and accounts that just retweeted almost doubled (from 1,019 to 1,821). [4,5] Accordingly, without attempting to estimate audience using misleading assumptions, we can be confident that the number of tweeters creating, responding to and disseminating content during ISPAH increased.

The figure splits social media accounts related to ISPAH2018 into tweeters, retweeters and tweeters mentioned in tweets. The majority of key influencers identified using social network metrics tweeted, retweeted and were mentioned by others (n=8/10). The World Health Organisation (WHO) was a top 10 influencer without tweeting – it was mentioned 82 times. The majority of “participants” retweeted without generating their own content.

Most popular tweets

We also identified the most popular tweets from the conference. I recorded the 130 most retweeted posts from the days leading up to and across the three days of the conference (just over 5% of all #ISPAH2018 tweets). The tweeters identified (n=70) ranged from big names (organisations and individuals) to individuals with a much smaller following. Both groups are essential in spreading the message. These tweets captured materials about all of the main plenary sessions, many parallel sessions, and the main outputs from the conference.

Missed opportunities

Looking at the tweeters in the different sections of the Venn diagram [Online supplement], there are clearly missed opportunities: imagine if WHO had tweeted about ISPAH to their 4.6 million followers; or if people who just tweeted had also retweeted key content to their followers; or if each conference delegate who did not tweet had shared a single tweet with their take home message from the conference. Even in the central zone – the key influencers – there was a mismatch between retweets received and retweets made.

The need for digital curation

Twitter should be fun and informative, but can feel like just another task. It should be social, but often it feels corporate. If you rely on Twitter to serve you up “top” content rather than exploring the “latest” results you will rarely see beyond the slick content from official sources and experienced tweeters. If you start to interact more widely, by retweeting and replying to posts that interest you, Twitter will start to serve you a wider range of content. However, many tweeters will still feel overwhelmed by the volume of information. At around 800 tweets and replies per day during ISPAH2018, delegates would have had to read two tweets a minute, 9AM to 5PM, allowing time off for breaks and lunch. Conference organisers need to build digital curation into their social media plan, but looking beyond the quick metrics and explaining their methods.[6] Being social reaps dividends, both in knowledge and connections, but we need to learn more to use it wisely.

Figure: Twitter accounts tweeting, retweeting or mentioned in tweets using #ISPAH2018 hashtag (n=2,738 accounts)

Source: NodeXL

To download the online supplement, click below:

Online supplement


Graham Mackenzie @gmacscotland: Consultant in Public Health Medicine, NHS Lothian, Waverley Gate, 2-4 Waterloo Place, Edinburgh, EH1 3EG, UK.


  1. Graham Mackenzie, Andrew Murray, Chris Oliver. Virtual attendance at an international physical activity meeting using Twitter: how can data visualisation provide a presence? DOI 10.1136/bjsports-2016-097373. 24 October 2018.
  2. ScotPublicHealth blog: Social network analysis: quirks, pitfalls and biases. 24 October 2018.
  3. ScotPublicHealth blog: Monitoring health related activity on Twitter: Tips for individuals, organisations, campaigns and conference organisers.  accessed 24 October 2018.
  4. ISPAH2016 summary in “top tweets” (using 2018 methods).
  5. ISPAH2018 summary in “top tweets”. 24 October 2018
  6. ScotPublicHealth blog: How to run social media for a health conference: planning, tweeting and summarising. accessed 24 October 2018

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