Twittering at the conference

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.

14 thoughts on “Twittering at the conference”

  1. You raise some really interesting points here James especially as an experienced speaker at conferences.

    I can only speak from my own experience. I’ve used twitter actively for nearly a year now and it has greatly enriched my own conference experiences. Sometimes this has been because of thought provoking responses from other delegates, whether in agreement or disagreement with the speaker.

    In many ways the best approach I’ve seen has involved the speaker taking the time to actively engage with the backchannel and respond to comments or using it as a crowdsourcing tool to get feedback from delegates.

    Through twitter I have met a wide variety of practitioners who influence me at conferences. I don’t believe this would have been as easy without twitter.

    I appreciate there can be a negative side to twitter and disagreement can tip over into unpleasantness. Although not at ALT-C I have read a lot about the reactions to Donald Clark’s keynote and was following some of the feedback at the time. Had I been delivering that keynote and been aware of the comments people were publishing through a twitter wall I strongly suspect it would have been off-putting.

    Overall however, my feeling is that use of twitter really enhances this type of event and I for one intend to continue using it.

  2. I’ve just re-read my comment back. To be clear, I’m referring to James as an experienced conference speaker in my first paragraph, not me.

  3. Re: “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 half agree – by which I mean, I’m not sure. I think there are times when Twitter functions largely like a note-taking device but I think this is often not the case – particularly where there’s a significant ‘conversation’ taking place and even moreso where that conversation is more about style then it is about content.

    If I really want to take notes online and live during a talk, I use something like CoverItLive rather than Twitter – because the use of that tool carries far less distraction than does Twitter.

    I tend to agree with Seb, that projecting the Twitter stream behind the speaker is more of a hindrance than a help in terms of getting the message across. I have no problem with Twitter being projected during Q&A and/or during more explicitly discussion-type sessions. But as you say, the fact that the stream isn’t being projected doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The reality of presenting at almost any event these days is that feedback on what you are saying and how you are saying it is available in real time – which makes the whole process of presenting even more intimidating than it used to be.

  4. Sorry… one other thing… I think that projecting Twitter live during a session carries with it the slight danger that it encourages both a “cleverer than thou” attitude and a desire to be flippant/funny. I have no evidence for this but I feel like I see it in my own as well as in others’ use of Twitter.

    Of course, this happens anyway to a certain extent – it’s part of the nature of Twitter – but I wonder if the live-projection makes it worse?

    Conversely, I completely agree with Nathan (above)… that the use of Twitter during conferences is almost overwhelmingly positive and greatly increases social networking and knowledge sharing.

    1. That did in fact happen at #altc2010 when I mentioned that there was no Twitterwall a couple of people immediately posted tweets with inappropriate words in them…

      I didn’t mention the JISC09 twitter stream where again “clever” comments were posted as someone thought it was funny. See point two on my blog post
      Ten reasons why Twitter will eventually wither and die…


  5. Some useful points – for me, the first thing that really made me see the worth of twitter was at a conference, when it was projected onto the screen; before that I didn’t really see the point.

    I do take the point that it can be distracting, esp. as Andy points out, if there are people who’re trying to get attention by being funny etc.

    Nathan said “ad I been delivering that keynote and been aware of the comments people were publishing through a twitter wall I strongly suspect it would have been off-putting.” – though I wonder how often the presenter actually sees the discussion at the time – all good presentation rules tell you to look at the audience, not the screen!

    I used, as AJ knows, the live features in Google Presentations during my session – luckily I had a (remote) colleague who could answer any questions as I didn’t look at the screen; though luckily, as far as I could tell, there were no tweckles (or should that be geckles?)

    I wonder, also how much the points that (?) Frances made about the differences between being publicly private & privately public would come into play – if a screen is shown to the whole audience & they all know it is, does the heckling differ from when it’s only on your own screen … even if just about everyone has a screen?

    1. I have considered at presentations I have given assigning a role to someone to support the presentation as a social reporter. Not just tweets about the presentation, but answering questions etc… in a similar role to a moderator on Elluminate.


  6. My only concern with tweets during any presentation, is that ‘comments’ are tweeted at presenter points during the presentation, which could be a ‘knee jerk’ reaction and the full picture or essence of what the presenter is actaully trying to get across has not yet been relayed. (Not leaving much time for reflection). As you have said, we all can have ‘bad’ days and if we are hounded on every thing that we may let slip, at times this could be unjustified. On the positive having this audience input should push us to really ‘think’ about how we are presenting our ‘piece’ andwhether our message is conveyed as prepared. As I see it there are positives and negatives…

  7. An interesting discussion. I think at the end of the day if you are the sort of person who is good at multi-tasking, twitter isn’t going to be much of a distraction from the talk. If you aren’t, then it is probably best to just concentrate on what is being said. Just as we all over time have had to learn the art of emailing, there is a definite art to tweeting. I think my own use of twitter at events has grown-up a bit since I first starting using it at UKSG several years back, I will now only tweet directly about a talk if I need clarification, want to ask other people’s express opinion on a point made or if I feel I can add something to what has been said. This has really helped me understand what I am getting from a talk.

    Reactions to presentations have always happened – I kind of hope that is why speakers present in the first place. I’ve come across some speakers who think they are there to impart their divine knowledge which the audience must accept as the ultimate truth (including one who threatened to sue me because I dared say he was ‘wrong’ on twitter!) and I find this very depressing. Don’t you want the audience to have a conversation with you? Isn’t it good that twitter now gives us the opportunity to publicly record those ‘tea break’ debates?

    The experience that Danah had was obviously quite cruel and wrong – mocking someone is not debate. However I often see speaker’s entirely over-react to the critique of their talk given on twitter and feel the need to fight back about it instead of using it as an opportunity to discuss and learn. Again, unfortunate.

    Tweetwalls can encourage people to play the smart alec but can also remind the more grown-up side of the audience that the tagged tweets are public…it is easy to forget that when you get engaged in a conversation. I wonder what the employers of the people mocking Danah thought of their behaviour?

    I’ve yet to present in a situation where there are a serious number of tweeters out there so I may have to revise my opinion if I get beaten up too badly on twitter one day 🙂 For FAM10, I am making sure that I make all of my speakers aware that people will be tweeting and I’m suggesting if they are worried that they say a quick hello to the twitter stream before giving the presentation. I’ve noticed this can significantly breakdown the ‘us vs them’ scenario that can separate audience from speaker…and doesn’t mean you have to become an avid user if it isn’t for you 🙂

  8. Do you think there’s a difference between having a Twitterwall for a keynote and for a panel session? And does the size of the audience make a difference?

    Personally I think I’d be happier having a Twitterwall while I spoke if the audience was small because the whole session is likely to be less formal and more adaptive anyway. Also with a smaller audience, I think people are less likely to make offputting remarks as it feels less anonymous.

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