Twitter at conferences is here to stay

In what may only be a sly little bit of linkbait, Joseph Jaffe calls for a ban on Twitter at conferences. It’s an issue that’s been bobbing around since the Great Keynote Meltdown at High Ed Web 2009 in October and danah boyd’s hard time at the Web 2.0 Expo last month. Jaffe complains that Twittering at conferences rips off the content that you paid for with your registration to share with your community of followers, akin to illegal file sharing. He also charges that the twittering has speakers under attack by abusive mobs of badge-wearing meeting attendees. Jaffe’s trying to be provocative, and it’s cute, in a way. But he’s just plain wrong. First, check out his video, then read a few reasons why he’s wrong: Why Joseph Jaffe is wrong about Twitter at conferences Twitter augments the live presentation with annotations. Backchannel participants often post links to sites, applications, studies, articles, or other things mentioned by the speaker. If a speaker mentions someone who’s not at the session, someone on the backchannel will let them know. All this creates a rich, connected record of the talk, through fairly easy, crowdsourced effort. It happens in realtime but is a handy reference later. The Twitter stream can set up and improve the Q & A. Participants can submit questions via Twitter, and some basic ones can be answered by other participants on the backchannel. The twitter backchannel is great marketing for the conference and for the associations sponsoring the conference. How many of the folks following along from home on Twitter will come to the conference next year? Jaffe’s baloney about stealing the content is a canard. Sharing the conference experience makes you a salesperson for the conference. And in the there’s no such thing as bad publicity department: I’ll bet Joseph Jaffe a bottle of Ardmore 30 year old Highland Single Malt that the High Ed Web conference in 2010 will have at least 10% more attendees than 2009 despite the down economy. And I’d chalk up its higher profile to the viral kerfuffle created by the back channel’s response to a terrible front channel. The backchannel can be great publicity for the speaker, if s/he does well. The twitter stream is another way the presenter can learn which parts of the talk resonated, and which fell flat. A lot of talks are given over and over again to different audiences. The best speakers refine them over time. Sometimes you can tell what works from the audience’s response in smiles, boos, laughs, or applause, but sometimes you have no idea what they are thinking. As a speaker, you can look back after a talk at the twitter stream and see which of your lines got quoted, which got questioned. It’s a more moment-to-moment record that post-talk survey cards provide (though they are useful, too.) The Twitter backchannel is usually constructive and respectful, like most of the discussion at conferences. People are there to have fun and learn. The few examples of the backchannel “turning on” the speaker are the exception to the rule. Attendees who paid good money are not a mob, and they don’t act like one. Speakers always have to prove themselves, but they aren’t under attack. When a speaker is truly outstanding, the backchannel quiets down. I’ve seen the twitterers close their laptops and go off the grid for a great, inspiring presentation. The audience knows when they need to just sit quietly and take in the experience of a great talk, and so do most of the twitterers on the backchannel. All of that said, twittering at conferences needs to evolve, and backchannel participants will need to learn how to tweet appropriately. Leave the backchannel in the back. The challenge danah boyd faced at ew2 was caused in large part by having the backchannel broadcast to the entire audience on giant TV screens behind her which she couldn’t see but everyone watching her could. I first saw this technique at the first Personal Democracy Forum in 2003 (?) and it was distracting and annoying. Participation in the backchannel should be voluntary. Don’t make me watch it when I’d rather just focus on the speakers. Plus, the speakers shouldn’t have to share the stage with the backchannel. I’d be happy to see this practice (which mainly happens at tech shows) banned at conferences. I agree with Jaffe that speakers shouldn’t have to monitor the backchannel while they talk. Instead, have an aide monitor it for the speaker and create places in the presentation for the aide to forward any important information or questions from the backchannel. Bad behavior on the backchannel will be dealt with by the backchannel. Most people on Twitter are presenting themselves as who they really are, and not hiding behind anonymous handles. Their reputation will be affected by their tweets and they will be accountable for what they say. The backchannel will learn to police itself to stamp out really bad behavior. Over time, I expect twittering at conferences will be a self-healing system. What do you think? Does Twitter enhance conferences? Or does Twitter destroy the experience of a professional meeting? Maybe he’s just stirring the pot a bit, but is Joseph Jaffe right or am I? Or are we both right? Update 12/21/2009: Chris Pirillo phrases the issue as a question: Should Twitter Be Banned at Conferences?

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10 Responses to Twitter at conferences is here to stay
  1. @tojuliusNo Gravatar
    December 17, 2009 | 2:43 pm

    I agree with pretty much all your points John.

    Specially with your point:
    <quote>All of that said, twittering at conferences needs to evolve, and backchannel participants will need to learn how to tweet appropriately.</quote>

    What I am finding out is that I am getting annoyed by live tweeting from conferences if I am not interested in what discussed.

    I get my stream flooded with hashtags of subjects I don't necessarily care about by twitterers convinced that live tweeting heaps of content is actually a great idea.

    I see two solutions to that:

    1. Get a twitter account specific for conferences.
    2. Use Google Wave

    I would cherish the chance of twitter implementing selective tweeting or pausing the stream if you are using an hashtag. Until then we need to be sure that what we are tweeting from the event is actually well thought, succinct and relevant to our follower base.

    Great post

    • johnmccroryNo Gravatar
      December 17, 2009 | 4:34 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Julius. I think you are right that the backchannel can get messy. It may be that Twitter is not the best tool for it. I know some folks have liked using Meebo for live chats at conference sessions. Or perhaps Twitter itself and various Twitter tools will develop features that improve the backchannel experience. I think Tweetchat

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    December 17, 2009 | 4:25 pm

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