[Two notes: The comments below are my opinions. Sometimes convention need to be re-examined, especially as new technology and other conventions around us change. Second, I have replaced the original photo, above, with one that is more generic. At least one reader recognized the venue in the original and felt it implied a particular criticism of the meeting organizers. That was not the intention. For the record, I am not trying to single out any scientific group, society, association, division, agency, etc. as particularly better or worse at hosting these sessions and picking participants. To my knowledge, every poster session across the globe is nearly identical. Thus, my comments are meant to be universal. More importantly, the question I am hoping to discuss is this: Given existing technology and what we know about communication science, can poster sessions be improved to optimize the flow of information and maximize the networking/career outreach benefits for both the poster presenter and the session attendees?]
Among many things, McLuhan was famously know for his “medium is the massage/message” meme. What I have always understood this to mean is that significant nuances and implications to one’s choice of media to deliver what ever it is that one wants to deliver, whether it be art, entertainment, opinion, facts . . . or even science discoveries.
Going a step further, McLuhan says the medium creates and molds an audience suited for it. Unlike, perhaps a piece of sculpture in a public place, he noted that the rise of TV and electronic media gave rise to an isolated, impersonal audience whose moods could/would shift every half hour or hour.
What’s this got to do with posters sessions? A lot, I think. To repeat myself, I think posters are much more than just a logically ordered collection of facts on paper. They are a billboard to a person’s (most likely a grad student, post doc or young professional) “fact set,” but also to their work style, intellect, interests, ability to deliver and interpret results. They also can reflect a person’s ability to communicate and network.
I am not convinced that facts and conclusions presented on the posters, themselves, are the most important aspect of poster sessions. My sense is that the poster presenters go into these sessions with excitement and high hopes about the conversations, questions, sharing, discussions of alternative methodologies, comparisons of paths to different conclusions and, of course, networking and job hunting.
Yet, these ugly, two-dimensional posters do little if anything to create an audience that really engages in those conversations and networking. I think the engagement that does occur between reader and presenter in poster sessions happens in spite of the medium, not because of it. Social courtesies make it difficult to not acknowledge the presenter in some way. On occasion, a reader will attempt to engage in a deeper discussion of the work of a presenter, but, nearly by definition, these interactions are confined to the facts and subject matter of the poster. Nevertheless, the entire set up of a poster session encourages readers to easily and impersonally “change the channel,” move three feet to their left or right and start reading the next poster.
In this sense, the old science-fair format is better. At least there, the observers are encouraged to stop and see the entrant’s “performance” of their faux volcano or a beating heart.
So, I’d expect that if McLuhan were around to provide an opinion, he would say that if you want to create an audience geared to engagement, conversations and networking, he’d tell you to find a medium and an approach through that medium that does that.
But, a sheet of 4′ X 6′ white cardboard with words jammed into every nook and cranny? I think he’d have a good laugh at the notion that this stimulates good conversation.
Even putting a bowl of M&Ms or some other cheap snack in front of your poster would be an improvement .