LearnHow should we use Twitter at tech events?

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writes on January 7, 2010

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Earlier this week I linked up a number of the great articles I read over the holiday period. Included in that list was this video from Chris Pirillo. If you use Twitter, attend tech conferences and have 10 minutes to spare then please have a watch.

I can’t help but agree with a lot of what Chris says. There’s no question that Twitter is a great “backchannel” at events and to a certain degree a barometer of what attendees are enjoying and what they are not.

Checking Twitter for feedback is often the first thing speakers do when they come off stage, smiles and more often downbeat faces follow. A quick tweet, perhaps in jest, lacks any real context and I think this is one of the main issues. Was it the talk, do they disagree, was it technically wrong or do they just not like the presenter. It’s hard to know with certainty when the feedback is 140 characters or less.

Twitter becomes the show

Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher, wrote a very open and enlightening blog post on her experiences at last years New York Web 2.0 Expo. In it she describes how the addition of audience participation via the live Twitter stream influenced her presentation in a very negative way. She remarks:

The problem with a public-facing Twitter stream in events like this is that it FORCES the audience to pay attention the backchannel. So even audience members who want to focus on the content get distracted. Most folks can’t multitask that well.

I experienced a similar situation last year at an event in London. Although the live Twitter stream was moderated, unlike in Danah’s case, I still found myself paying more attention to the “tweets” than the speaker. Often the audience laughed at new tweets, much to the amazement of the speaker who was in the throws of delivering a very important and serious point. It became distracting for both speaker and audience.

Equally had the speaker turned round and seen a screen full of personal or non complimentary remarks I am sure their talk would have been affected negatively.

Without question there’s a time and a place for Twitter streams. At Future of Web Apps London 2009 the live hashtag stream during the “Kevin and Gary” show became part of the show and worked really well. However I believe that it wouldn’t have worked so well during Kevin’s keynote. Context is key.

Your thoughts

This is just my opinion and please feel free to disagree. I am sure many of you will and that’s great. What do you think? Is Twitter the answer or should conference organisers offer up more in depth ways of providing feedback during and after and event? Let us know.

0 Responses to “How should we use Twitter at tech events?”

  1. I have put together a tutorial on how to log tweets after or during events to create an archive of event activity for later viewing. Check it out: http://ngn.bz/log

  2. interesting way to spend time talking to a camera in your car. I wonder what police would have to say about it.

  3. A live twitter stream is great for Q&A, but totally distracting for a talk. I can’t help but read everything, and can’t possibly listen at the same time. If people need a distraction, they can use their laptops / phones to follow a stream. I have a lot of sympathy for danah boyd.

  4. I have been at Twitter-stream-enabled-conferences before, and I can only agree with the general opinion expressed on this post.

    Although it can bring value to the keynotes — being hypertext and all — it can also easily distract not only the speaker but most of the audience. Having the stream only available on the web, not on stage, makes it an opt-in to get distracted from the keynote.

    When it comes to panels / questions time, then I totally agree on having the stream on stage. As Joel Hughes said speaking into a mic can be intimidating.

  5. Twitter is great for back channel but it needs to stay in the back channel. See Scott Berkuns post also on the Web 2.0 Expo issue also http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2009/the-challenge-of-visible-twitter-at-conferences/

    If a twitter stream is going to be put on the main screen at a conference, do it in the breaks between speakers – like the way it was done at StackOverflow DevDays.

  6. I do agree with you.

    I was at FOWA in London and the Twitter stream behind Kevin and Gary was amusing and almost shaped the direction of the show. It was the end of the conference and the show was a bit of light relief.

    However, if the stream had been present throughout all the talks I believe it would have been distracting and possibly inappropriate. People are paying a fair amount of money to attend the events, and some people potentially taking the tweets off topic could disrupt the talks and therefore their value.

    If the stream was available on the web, rather than behind the talker, then this could add value. People who wanted to participate and read it could without disrupting others or the talker…a win win!

  7. Hi,
    I think we’ve just go to do a better job of integrating Twitter into these events.

    It’s a poor show when people are basically rude to people speaking – perhaps there should be a “set the tone of the #hashtag” speach at the beginning – i.e. what is and what is not acceptable.

    Going back to the great FoWD/A events i’ve been to (and I have mentioned this before http://www.joelhughes.com/twitter-and-fowa-2009-conference) we need to do better on getting questions from the audience – that whole speaking-into-mikes thing is pretty off putting.

    At the end of the day Twitter is fairly new and Twitter+Conferences is by definition newer. It’s like inviting a nutter to your party – you really need to think long and hard about how you’re going to handle him!

    Joel

    • Keir Whitaker on January 7, 2010 at 4:58 pm said:

      Hey Joel, I like the idea of a “setting the tone of the hashtag” at the beginning of the session. I think that could work well. The other way is moderation but there’s the overhead of managing it although there are tools that can help.

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