Why would anyone want to read tweets from an academic conference they're not attending? This was my first impression of the lunacy of people tweeting from conferences. Why would anyone compose those tweets*? Who would read them? And how can you get a 14 min talk into 140 characters (10 chars per minute of science)?
Then I tried it. And I kinda liked it. Reading the tweets from a conference you cannot attend is like reading its Coles Notes summary. You find out some interesting research, and "meet" some tweeters you might want to follow. And if you're a journal (hypothetically of course) you might even hear about some good research that could fit with your journal and warrant an e-mail to the author to find out more.
Conferences are where researchers present early research findings, seldom fully analyzed never mind published. This is the raw stuff of science. Conference talks are kind of like NHL prospects; they're exciting because they're raw and full of potential (with published papers being veteran NHLers in this perhaps-far-reaching simile that makes perfect sense to me as I write it at 11:30pm). In person is by far the best way to attend a conference (you can't share a beer with a colleague via Twitter), but via Twitter is at least kinda sorta being at the conference.
Want to try it? Good timing. Right now there are two biological conferences relevant to North American natural history, both with Twitter streams you can check on to follow conference updates.
1. Ecological Society of America. Aug 5-10 in Portland, Oregon, USA.
Twitter stream: #ESA2012
2. World Congress of Herpetology. Aug 8-14 in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Twitter stream: #wch2012
Unlike speed dating, if you don't like a tweeter you can just skip to the next one without hurting their feelings or wasting a precious six minutes of your time. And you can do it wearing your comfy grubby clothes, pit-stains and all.
*I'm referring to tweets composed after a talk as opposed to during the talk itself, which must take the tweeter's attention away from the very talk they like so much that they're tweeting it (as Jeremy Fox has noted in his blog).