ALT-C this year once more brought the use of Twitter at conferences to the fore again and discussions on the value of the back channel.
Last year in November danah boyd delivered a speech at the Web 2.0 Expo and according to her own words:
From my perspective, I did a dreadful job at delivering my message.
If you read the rest of her blog entry you realise that she was having a bad day.
So that happens to us all. However what marked out danah’s bad day was how the Twitter back channel pushed the front channel out of the way, as danah says in her blog:
The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. Not me.
The internal audience started to use Twitter to not just comment on the speech, but also to attack the way in which danah was presenting, these attacks then became personal. Where this process was exacerbated was there was a live Twitter stream on a screen in the room.
You can see for yourself how she did in this video.
Having heard danah speak before I didn’t think it was that bad and certainly not as bad as the back channel decided it was.
So you can imagine my hesitation when a few weeks later I was delivering a keynote at ASCILITE 09 in Auckland. I had planned to use a Twitterwall and use KeynoteTweet, an Applescript which in conjunction with Keynote will automatically send tweets as slides appear.
In the auditorium there were two projectors, one would have my slides upon them, whilst the other would have Twitterfall showing all the #ascilite09 tweets. Twitterfall worked well, with a fair few people in the UK and elsewhere following the tweets from my keynote.
Of course having read about danah’s experiences I was concerned about having a live Twitter feed in your presentation, especially when it is behind you. However looking over the stream of Tweets it would appear everything went fine. This year I have given more presentations and where there is room I do try and have a live Twitter stream available.
Lets fast forward to the first week in September, when I walked into the main auditorium at ALT-C 2010 I was pleasantly surprised to see Twitterfall live on a side screen to the main screen. So when Donald Clark walked onto the stage I was looking forward to the keynote and the back channel discussion on Twitter. So I was equally surprised when as the keynote started, the Twitterfall screen “disappeared”. I noted my disappointment in a tweet.
In hindsight some may think it was probably wise of ALT not to have the live Twitterwall behind Donald considering what the back channel was saying about his keynote. Though we must remember that though the back channel is not on display, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. During the final plenary session at ALT-C we did have the Twitterwall on display and as we listened to the panels of speakers we could see what the audience thought floating down behind them.
During this session, @AJCann asked
OK, who in the room finds the Twitterfall distracting and would like it turned off? Vote now.
It was pointed out that this tweet would only reach the Twitter audience… so a vote was asked for in the hall.
Great to see overwhelming vote for Twitterfall ON from the hall
In the end it was felt by the delegates in the room that the Twitterfall added value to the session.
Now not everyone thinks that is the case all the time:
Seb Schmoller in a blog post says:
My experience at this year’s ALT conference has been that the value of the back-channel has varied widely: sometimes it seems to work like a bad feedback loop on a sound system; sometimes it seems to add focus and clarity to a discussion, and to induce productive involvement.
He also said
I’ve got mixed views about the way that Twitter works in these situations. I’m incapable of following a line of argument whilst i) trying to write pithy observations on it, and ii) keeping an eye on what other people using Twitter are writing.
Seb also links to some research and asks whether
…this kind of research evidence show that those who think they can multi-task are, like phone-using drivers, deluding themselves?
I do wonder though if twittering during a keynote or presentation is in fact mult-tasking as eluded in this research.
I would agree if I was watching an episode of the West Wing during an ALT-C keynote then no I would not be able to give my full attention to either. I know I am not paying attention to what is happening during a presentation if I am checking my e-mail or Facebook. However I see twittering during a keynote presentation as a single activity and not multi-tasking. It is in my opinion akin to note taking during a lecture or checking on something said by the presenter in a text book (or online). I will agree it is going to have some kind of impact, but would like to see if the positive outweighs the negative.
You are engaged with the process and engaging with others. The nice thing of course during a keynote is you have the choice if you want to engage, no one is going to mind.
Overall from my experience, Twitter has really added value to conferences I have attended and made them more joined up and much more a social affair. It has helped to build a real community, especially at ALT-C.