What Will Be An Unpopular View Of Twitter At Conferences

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First off: I love Twitter. On top of that, there is no right or wrong way to use Twitter. People will either follow or ignore you.

So, if someone is following you, clearly they are deriving some kind of value from you. And, if you can’t find a follower to save your life, it’s equally obvious that your 140 characters bursts of content are not resonating with an audience. The rub may be when you’re forced to endure (or follow along) even when you don’t want to. That was the case at this past week’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York City. It’s nothing new that some conferences run the tweeting as it’s happening live on the screen behind the keynote speakers, but things went a little wonky at this event when some of the audience members (and the tweets they were posting) turned on the speakers.

This is frustrating because what makes Twitter so great is your ability to choose who you follow, unlike these conferences that force you to endure some of these people.

Yes, these people playing along on Twitter have the freedom to say whatever they want about anybody or anything, and yes, the conference organizers can make the decision as to whether or not they want to run the tweets live on the screen as they happen, but what’s missing is what makes Twitter so great: the choice of who to follow (and who to ignore). Speakers don’t deserve your attention, they definitely have to earn it, but for those who shelled out the shekels to attend this conference, it does take away from the experience if the audience’s energy is more focused on the tweets on the wall behind the speaker than what’s coming out of the speaker’s mouths.

Maybe I’m becoming one of those old people who would prefer things the way they were.

Probably not. A few weeks prior to Web Expo 2.0, I was fortunate enough to attend Mesh Marketing which featured Hugh MacLeod (GapingVoid and author of Ignore Everybody) as a keynote speaker. I watched from the sides (they had couches there) and marvelled at how few people were actually watching and connecting to Hugh versus how the majority of people had their heads buried in either their laptops of iPhones. Listen, if you want to spend a special moment like watching Hugh MacLeod wasted on telling everyone who follows you on Twitter about how you’re watching Hugh MacLeod, it’s your life to get that meta. In this instance, they were tweeting up a storm, but not disturbing those who were actually living in the moment.

It’s an important differentiation for people who organize conferences to consider when it comes to Twitter.

Those that really want so much interaction (with both audience and speaker at the same time through channels like Twitter) can still get it. They can sit and watch the speakers while hunched over their laptops or tapping away on their mobile devices while not disturbing anyone but their own Twitter stream. Those that want to simply take part as an audience member can do so without the streaming flow of tweets to distract them. They can even check out those tweets and hashtags after the speaker has finished, during a break, etc…

The bigger question becomes: do speakers simply have to get used to this new type of format or can there be a better way to make this work so everyone interested gets what they want out of an event? 


  1. If we wish for this to not happen at conferences, making our wishes known to the organizers comes first, don’t you think? The second thing that has to happen is that the conference organizers need to listen and take action if they respect those wishes.
    If the speakers don’t want this, and they have clout, I’m sure they can discourage this kind of thing, as well.
    If we want to have a back channel, fine: let be a back channel, then, not a distraction trying to compete with the main event.

  2. I do think the speaker is important in this equation. Few speakers can give their best when they aren’t getting appropriate reactions from the crowd. There’s a symbiosis to achieve. If everyone is tweeting, you don’t get the real-time personal reactions….and therefore you are also less likely to get the best of your speaker.
    Someone who’s been tweeting and live-blogging at conferences for at least 5 years, AKA part of the problem

  3. There is a better way –
    I attended the PhoCusWright conference last week – A travel industry event that pulls in the top online travel companies, travel suppliers and startups with its Travel Innovation Summit.
    The organizers did an amazing job, creating a special site for event attendees – it was fundamentally a mash-up of streaming video and Twubs so the Twitter hashtags that were assigned to each session could be consolidated into a common stream.
    Even better, during talkback sessions following the formal presentations, they projected the twitter stream for a special hashtag that enabled participants both in the audience, those on an online ticket (video enabled feed) and others following sans video in the general Twittosphere to ask questions that were integrated with the audience questions.
    It worked great – they used the technology to enhance the event for all involved. Now they have a video archive, plus all the commentary generated via Twitter captured in a archive for participants to review at their leisure.
    They provided a great mix of engagement options to suit the personalized preferences of each attendee. A very forward thinking approach by a group that prides itself on presenting a forward thinking conference.

  4. I didn’t attend, but only saw the video of Chris Brogan’s keynote. Even with tight cropping the tweet background was annoying. Had I attended, I would have either closed my eyes or block the screen with a book or something. I don’t care what the subject matter of the tweets were.

  5. I had the same experience as Mr. Wolff while watching Chris Brogan’s video. Huge distraction. As an event organizer, I had to wait until the day after my last conference to read the tweets. I was just too busy being In The Moment in the room and taking notes about what inspired me rather that discern what inspired others… which is often inane.
    I think it might be best (yes, this is a question for Mitch’s readers) that a moderator be assigned to track the hashtag back channel and use it as a springboard for the Q&A session after the speech.
    “Mr. Speaker, several people are wondering if…”
    “Here’s a questions from Barack Obama who wants to know…”
    What do you (all) think?

  6. Mitch, I both disagree and agree. I disagree w/ your comment that “Speakers don’t deserve your attention, they definitely have to earn it.” Maybe I too am becoming one of those old people but I believe giving a speaker your attention is common courtesy, like holding a door or saying “Thank you.” That said, I agree with the notion that technology is a way to broadcast the conference themes far and wide – and this certainly benefits well-planned conferences and well-prepared speakers. The streaming tweets as backdrop, however, are more appropriate during transitions between speakers than during presentations.

  7. If I were presenting at a conference, I’d find it downright insulting to have a Twitter feed projected behind me while I was talking. It isn’t considered appropriate for audience members to ask questions in the middle of the talk, let alone interrupt the speaker to share an opinion. _Any_ interference with the stage is inappropriate–you don’t change lights, more equipment around, put up a sign, or play background music, unless it’s part of the presentation. Why should it be any different for the screen behind the presenter? It really doesn’t matter what Twitter is, how much of the audience is using it, or how audience members want to divide their attention. It’s just rude.

  8. I found the Tweets distracting from watching Chris in the video as well.
    Maybe it’s just me… but the audience was there to listen to him speak & it would seem that it’s common courtesy to NOT play with your laptop or mobile device.
    As a relative “newbie” to the social media community I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be proper etiquette to give someone you communicate or follow in the online world your full attention when your finally in their presence in the real world.
    Yes the live stream screen is a cool idea when you first think about it… but it appears to have mixed results. Perhaps having the screen run the twitter stream before the speaker talks & people are waiting along with screens in the lounge, lobbies, break areas, & bars would be better.
    Maybe one day people who constantly play with their mobile devices during a talk or meeting will be come to known as “Twits” lol.

  9. I agree with you, Mitch. I’m not sure how the trend of having tweets scroll behind the speaker came from. Perhaps it was a need for the conference organizers to appear hip and cool, or perhaps it was meant as a way to make the back channel chat public and (hopefully) more innocuous.
    But, as Maggie Fox recently noted, having the tweets run behind the speaker does not necessarily make the audience any less vicious: http://socialmediagroup.com/2009/11/18/just-because-its-a-crowd-doesnt-make-it-wise/ – and even if it were to make the commentary less harsh, those who are “too cool for school” will find a way to create a more secret back channel someplace else.
    I’d rather see this trend die.
    I also agree with some of the previous commenters, that Twitter can be incorporated in other ways at conferences. I have previously had the task for clients of summarizing sessions via Twitter, taking in questions for the speaker from those watching a livestreaming video feed, and consolidating all the content being generated in the various places using a tool such as ScribbleLive. That was a useful way to expand the audience that could participate and gain benefit from an event.
    There is a time and place for everything.

  10. Your piece brings up an essential point, which, for me, seems to define the dark side of always-on e-connections — an unwillingness to turn off the zeroes and ones, and so, an inability to tune in to what’s happening in the flesh-and-blood moment.
    Which leads to my number-one question for folks embedded in the Twittersphere: what does intimacy look like in a culture of e-communication?

  11. I am quite young (24), but I guess my position on this is pretty old school.
    To me, a conference is a huge event. I consider it with the same respect as a lecture in University. I consider the teacher AND the speaker to be an authority on a matter, a person from which I can learn. I am essentially on site (classroom or conference) to learn and I pay hundreds/thousands of dollars to do this. I do NOT want to see tweets in the back of this person. I want to focus on the speaker and keep my eyes on him and occasionnally right notes.
    Using devices during lectures is frowned upon in universities. We all know some students do it, but surprisingly perhaps most students don’t. I think we know that if we get distracted, we will miss something important. OR the teacher will remember us for being distracted all the time and give us a bad grade.
    Having a screen in the back probably encourages people to tweet who wouldn’t normally tweet. It’s almost a steal the show kind of thing. I attended a TED event at my university where mostly students attended. They were NOT on their phone/laptop/bberry.
    I like the idea of showing tweets on screens during break time IN and OUTSIDE the conference room. I also like the idea of keeping the tweets related to the conference in an archive.

  12. Putting up unkind tweets is not a nice thing to do when you know they are being shown to all. While we often have to endure people who are not kind, conference organizers don’t have to make it so easy for those unkind people to showcase their meanness. It’s unfortunate that bad behavior would have to spoil a good thing, but that is often the case.

  13. Mitch,
    In an ideal world, people speaking at conferences would get the undivided attention of people in the audience. The problem is conference attendees demand Wi-Fi, which means that if they can connect to the Internet, most of them will be multi-tasking, including the use of Twitter and blogs.
    The challenge is keeping people engaged so they don’t Twitter or blog at all, or feel less of a need to do so. In many respects, it comes down to great content and great speakers. If the content is interesting and offers new perspective, you have a better chance of capturing attendees’ attention.
    That said, you’re never going to get everyone to pay attention. We live in a world in which the digitally-engaged feel the need to constantly report on what they’re doing, seeing and thinking. It is what it is.

  14. I think it’s fine to demand wi-fi or have mobile connectivity. I also think it’s fine if people do want to tweet, Blog, snap photos, whatever. What I am questioning in this Blog post is that conference organizers are removing my personal choice here.
    If I want to use Twitter – I can. If I want to be “live in the moment” I can. But when conference organizers put that Twitter screen up behind the speaker, they’re removing what makes Twitter so amazing in the first place: the ability to choose who you follow and when you follow them. That was the main point of my Blog post.
    Suddenly, I am distracted (and it’s hard not to be) and suddenly I’m following a bunch of people I never agreed to follow. It is something to think about.

  15. I tend to agree with Vanessa’s comments re showing tweets on screen at breaks and interludes. It promotes less distraction and one still gets the value of seeing reactions/comments etc.
    Seeing a great speaker is an experience in and of itself and if someone is great I want to focus on them – not tweet about what I am seeing and hearing. It seems to me that if someone is a compelling speaker that I do not get to see often or have never heard before, more value is derived from listening and watching them (not reading tweets).
    Mitch, I enjoyed your podcast chat with the ever-amusing Julien Smith on this issue. Thanks.

  16. The question is why are these people attending a conference? For many, the conference itself is just a means to an end. I have attended several conferences in the past only to gain the benefits of networking with certain people. This was very effective in the case where we installed a new system and wanted to talk with other customers to share experiences. What was being presented was bonus information. I would attend those that were compelling and it was information that I would want to share.
    The world has indeed changed and this real-time digital communication is just another step along that path.

  17. hey Mitch,
    I see the tweet roll as an opportunity to do some fun things and enjoy watching people commenting on the talk. The best example I can give regarding “opportunity” was at Web 2.0 where Gentry Underwood (the Thursday morning keynote) either had someone tweeting from his account or set a timer to tweet “takeaway tweets” that matched each one of his slides and the beauty of it was that he never mentioned it. I tweeted about it because I was paying attention to his talk and the screen and found the idea fascinating.
    I don’t disagree with you completely on this but I do appreciate seeing in real time what connects with folks and out of what connects actually spreads and the tweet roll allows me to see that.
    Saul Colt
    Lead Evangelist and all around nice guy.

  18. I love twitter, BUT! If I was speaking at a conference, and they started rolling a twit stream behind me as I was talking, I would walk off stage. I could not compete with the great unwashed. I would not spend days putting together a presentation just to have it derailed by competing random media.
    This concept is so rude that it confounds all attempts at declaration of outrage. It’s like heckling on autopilot, with spam selected for approximate topicality.
    What these jerks don’t get is that an hour of presentation is several days of work to put together and polish, for a really great, cohesive talk – even on something you know like the back of your hand. To have spent that time just to have your audience distracted by some flickering random crap on the screen behind you would be insulting, and would tell me that they didn’t really want to hear what I had to say, they just wanted to watch their blinkenlights.

  19. I kind of wonder if Danah had been a researcher for Apple and not Microsoft if the crowd would have been more forgiving.
    As someone who was there, I felt like there were a few (and I emphasize FEW) situations where the live wall could actually augment the conversation, especially in the case of the guy from IDEO, who had an AppleScript that automagically tweeted when he advanced his slides (I thought that was freaking cool). But for the most part, all people were doing was either repeating stuff the speaker already said (which is helpful to those people who aren’t attending…not so much to those in the audience) or just being snarky (as in Danah’s case).
    I think that until a better way of managing the feed can be developed, I agree that an on-screen feed doesn’t really help anyone in the audience and particularly not the speaker.

  20. I think this fad with beaming twitter feed behind the speaker will pass much sooner than we think. Without question it’s annoying and it’s only a matter of time before some well-known speaker refuses to go on stage unless it gets turned off. It’s just like the pop-up ads back in the day – everyone was doing it because everyone else was doing it not taking into consideration the fact that it was counterproductive. Hardly anyone does pop-up ads anymore (at least on the sites that I frequent)Twitter is still a new tool and we’re bound to experience more experiments like this. Inevitably some of these experiments will fail but I think that is a better outcome than not experimenting at all.
    Lucas Wilk

  21. Some want to be part of the conversation so much, they will put their head down and share what they are learning in near real time. I did this at SOBCon last year for many of the speakers, to share the main ideas I learned. I enjoyed it, and it resonated with many as my follower count went up measurably because of this time.
    Now, I’m rethinking that, and I, like you Mitch, would rather be in the moment and pay attention to the speaker, take some notes and really EXPERIENCE the speaker. I’d do that if I were watching any once in a lifetime speaker share their story.
    But the in between (and I’m not saying Hugh or you are in between) entertainer is the one going to get nudged into obscurity and have nobody paying attention. The one who doesn’t make the audience a natural part of the conversation is going to get squeezed and feel like nobody is watching, nobody cares about what they have to say.
    How to get over this? Become a better entertainer. Find ways to engage the audience, to make them part of the show, and make it so they won’t WANT to Tweet.
    And realize some people are just different, head down, and would rather share what they are learning in real time, and that’s how they enjoy the experience.

  22. The same “possibility” came around 7 years ago with broadcasting SMS’s on big screens during events and it never took off for the same reasons people have voiced in this thread.
    Living in the moment in a conference is always about listening to the person on stage or a colleague who is voicing their opinion.

  23. As with many who have commented here, I also believe in the “old school” ideal of showing a speaker and the rest of the audience some courtesy and not disrupt their experience. If it’s a bad speech there is nothing wrong with providing constructive criticism, but I consider heckling in general to be rude and disrespectful.
    That aside, the idea of having a live twitter stream during a speech is not wise in my opinion. Even if the tweets have nothing to do with the speech or speaker, competing for the audience’s attention defeats the purpose of having a keynote speaker to begin with. Would the event organizers consider playing a movie in the background instead? If that movie is not part of the presentation my guess is the answer would be “No”. Agree with Mr. Sterne’s suggestion of using Twitter to capture questions or comments as part of a Q&A session. Twitter is a fantastic way for attendees to share their experiences during an event, and allows those not actually attending in person to take part in some small way. But to me it is not effective if its presence is at the expense of the speaker’s ability to deliver their content to the audience members that want to receive it.

  24. Interesting.
    I was also at the Mesh Marketing Conference, and I observed first, and then participated in the Tweeting action (not to the large extent of some people). It was my first real social media conference, and I wasn’t sure what to think of the constant tweeting. But, as the type of person who has a really hard time sitting still in a meeting or listening to a speaker – for me it was really kind of comforting to know that I could stay connected (both on twitter and on my e-mail) without being considered rude.
    AND at that same conference I was in the session where you were a keynote, and then someone I follow on twitter, who I really wanted to meet, was tweeting about you, and through that tweet I was able to find him and introduce myself. So that was good.
    But, I also agree with your point – put the blackberry/iphone down and be present.
    Also, I don’t get the whole idea behind showing live tweets. If you are using a hashtag for the conference it’s really really easy to follow along without it being on screen. And, really annoying to watch it on screen. no?

  25. From reading the comments it sounds like it can be done correctly, if there is the right amount of preparation done. However, the way it was working at your conference seems more like a distraction that actually adding to the experience. For example I got a new android phone about a week ago. I had been reluctant to switch because I had been using a windows mobile phone for 4 years. However, after a week of use I wish I had switched earlier. I think we need to try new things and if they fail we either need to try another approach or just stop doing it. hopefully these and other conference organizers learn how to make the experience better and if twitter can be use to do that it’s a good idea. If it fails then they need to try again.

  26. OK, kids, it’s time to let someone else be the center of attention!
    You’re there at a conference to learn … not to blather yourself.
    It’s the ultimate in what’s worst about Twitter (and I am a member of the “twitterverse”): thinking that what you have to say trumps all else!

  27. I recognize both the benefits and pitfalls of conference Twittering. Being respectful is optimal and those who find it difficult to voice their thought or question verbally, this is an essential tool. Purdue University has come up with a conference hashtag application which may assist with some of that useless ‘backchannel banter’ and encourage interesting and discussion involking input. http://www.itap.purdue.edu/informatics/need4feed/about/

  28. Hi Mitch! The rise of the backchannel is forcing a tough renegotiation between audiences and presenters that will fundamentally change the way that events are organized and how live presentations work. We’re really at the bleeding edge at the moment because the backchannel is only now coming into its own with the rise of Twitter, and the conflicts are happening mostly at tech-related conferences. There will be more tumult to come as the backchannel becomes more mainstream, but ultimately the changes it introduces will create a more conversational form or presenting that creates a better experience for everyone involved.
    If you’ll send your mailing address, we’ll be glad to send a copy of my brand new book, “The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever.”

  29. Whether to display the screen or not should be a decision for each speaker to make. Displaying it at certain times in a presentation can be effective. For example, the speaker asks a question of the audience and asks them to respond via Twitter (or other backchannel tool such as TodaysMeet) and then displays the answering tweets on the screen and discusses them.

  30. I’ve followed discussions on the washup from the web2.0 conference with interest. I’ve been a speaker with a twitterfeed running behind me and it worked well BUT I was speaking to a relatively small room and I’d planned to use the twitterfeed as a way of encouraging two way communication – I was just presenting. I have also tried timing my own tweets to fire off whilst I speak. All these things were quite positive.
    However this post and others have made me rethink my views somewhat. With a large audience a flood of tweets appearing on a screen as the speaker speaks could be worse than slide after slide of text heavy PowerPoint slides. Not so much boring but certainly distracting and almost certainly overloading listeners ability to take in the speaker’s information. Basically we can’t read and listen at the same time AND take in both channels. So perhaps the term ‘backchannel’ is misleading. If the text of the tweets is on a screen next to the speaker it is being given the same level of importance to our senses as the speaker’s voice – it is a competing channel. The term ‘backchannel’ to me isn’t really about another communication channel running at the ‘back’ of the speaker but rather to a parallel but separate conversation by people about the presentation.
    So it seems to me that there are occasions where a live visible feed works (in fluid interactive sessions) and there are times when it probably doesn’t such as in more one-way presEntations.

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