Twitter and the challenge of openness

I have posted on this blog about Twitter a number of times, and also written about it in one post at Digital Ministry. But as I foreshadowed there, there was one other aspect of Twitter that I intended to say more about – and that is the use of Twitter as a great tool for “open note taking”.  I have held off writing more about this, and I guess in some way I was looking for more to say about it. I have recently got the spark of inspiration that now prompts me to get back to the blog and get this all down…

First, back to the Digital Ministry article:

I like to record notes when I attend seminars.  For some time, I have been taking notes on a PDA rather than on paper, as the notes are then synchronised with my PC, and available for blogging or other reuse.  This is great for me.

But with Twitter, I can take notes in just the same way, and everyone “following” me on Twitter can choose to tune in if the topic is of interest.  The notes are necessarily brief, which helps to keep them focused.  Some of the feedback I have received from this has been overwhelmingly positive, with some stating that it is just like being there themselves.

The “tuning in” is done with the use of a “hashtag” – a word relevant to the title of the conference, preceded by a “#”, added to each tweet.  The attendees at the conference can immediately see each other’s tweets by searching for the hashtag, as can all of their followers not at the conference.  (It’s also a great way to connect with people with similar interests.) The Twitter stream provides a great summary after the conference for everyone. You can do this in Twitter search (which can be a bit slow and flaky), or through any of a number of other sites that access Twitter, such as #hashtags.

Since writing that, I have seen this practice grow. As there are more and more people using Twitter at conferences, the richness of the conversation has also grown. It has been great to see people unable to attend conferences actually joining in through Twitter. This is greatly facilitated by mobile Twitter interfaces or clients (dabr is my interface of choice). You can pick a Twitter-aware conference organiser when you see the hashtag put up on the screen at the beginning of the conference!  This saves any hassle in getting an agreed tag going.

Regular meetings may have different hashtags for different dates, or just re-use the same tag. For instance, at the monthly Melbourne KMLF meetings, we tend to stick to the same tag each month – #kmlf.  You can see some of our recent conversations (before, during and after the actual meetings) on #hashtags.

There’s more to be said about Twitter at conferences – but see Olivia Mitchell‘s blog posts How to Present While People are Twittering and  8 things I learnt about using twitter as a participation tool for a great insight into fairly serious Twitter use at presentations.  (By the way – if you want to put up a live Twitter display during your presentation, go to Visible Tweets and enter your hashtag.) 

There are three particular points I would like to make on this topic:

The question of etiquette

“So the next time you present at a conference, instead of being confronted by a sea of faces looking at you, you may be phased by a sea of heads looking down at their laptops.” – Olivia Mitchell

The use of Twitter at conferences may be problematic to some people. To the presenter, it may seem that people aren’t concentrating. (Of course, they may be tweeting on a smart phone rather than a laptop, but the issue is the same.) As Olivia points out, the speaker may need to adjust to the fact that this may indicate that the audience is far more engaged than if they were staring out the window!

However, as always it amazes me that people will confuse an action with the tool used to perform the action. (I wrote about this some time ago.) In what way will the audience’s concentration be different when tweeting, compared to taking hand-written notes? Conference venues still supply pens and notepaper for this purpose, and I am not aware of anyone ever having a problem with an audience taking notes.

I have experienced audience members considering tweeting by others during conferences to be rude, and in general my response to this is the same. However, we do need to choose our times even when taking notes – one shouldn’t be tweeting or note-taking during times of group discussion.

Peer-to-peer learning 

“Let go of the illusion that you might know more than the audience.” – Olivia Mitchell

Olivia makes this point exceptionally well. Monitoring Twitter during a presentation is a great addition to just attempting o read body language. Very few of us that deliver presentations will know more on every point than every member of the audience! This can be a great tool for enhancing what we are saying, as well as our audience learning from each other. I understand that recent research in learning emphasises the importance of peer-to-peer learning – we usually learn more this way than we do from non-interactive lectures.

The challenge 

So here is the interesting part. All of the above assumes that there is no reason not to share what we are hearing at a conference or seminar.  It appears that most savvy conference companies have embraced this (it’s good publicity). To the other extreme, there are few people that would inadvertently tweet company meetings that were discussing commercially sensitive issues.

What is of interest to me is the area between these two extremes. Are there conference companies that have totally failed to realise what is going on, and have allowed tweeting without realising the implications? And are there other groups that wish to have some form of secrecy that would want to prohibit tweeting? I would really see this as a retrograde step. Social Media is all about the recognition that we live in an age of abundance, not scarcity. It’s all about the recognition that we all learn and grow by sharing. We are not living in an age of secrecy and prohibition.

(Late addition – see Do Conference Bloggers and Tweeters Need to Follow Media Rules? on Eric Schnell’s blog: “The Medium is the Message” for a very detailed guide to when to tweet and when not to!)

I have never yet been at any form of conference or meeting where I have been told that tweeting is “not allowed”, yet I have heard about some meetings where apparently there has been talk after the meeting that tweeting was frowned upon (although apparently not mentioned at the time).

But as per my point about the confusion between the action and the tool above, if people take their own notes, and then talk to others about the meeting, does that not amount to the same thing? Are we saying that Twitter is in some way subversive? It may be a more immediate way to spread what we learn at conferences, but is doesn’t really differ in substance from any other way of sharing what we learn.

So maybe Twitter is in fact a revolutionary tool. A tool that is shining a new light into places that some thought were in the dark, behind closed doors.

Vive la révolution!


  1. Luke –

    Thanks. The video makes some interesting points about Twitter in the classroom. Particularly that Twitter is a way for students who may not be comfortable speaking out in public to still be able to share their thoughts. The same certainly goes for conferences, where there is usually less opportunity for verbal discussion.

     – Keith

  2. Great post, Keith. To Laurel’s point I can see the distractive effect Twitter could have if a certain ground breaking point made by the presenter sent all heads down and got fingers typing. I guess the note taking with a pen isn’t perceived as broadcasting in real time and as such less intimidating at this point in time.

    I remember back in the late nineties during meetings, I found the tapping sound of stylus on PDA screen to be quite distracting. What is socially acceptable and who makes the rules?

    As far as learning environments and Twitter I found the “Twitter Experiment” done by Dr. Rankin, professor of History at UT Dallas to be really interesting. It fits in well with your point about “shining a new light into places that some thought were in the dark”

  3. Laurel –

    Great case example – thanks! That does ring a bell, but I can’t find it in a quick Google. (How long before anybody says they were “Binging” for something on the web? Hmm – that doesn’t really work, does it?) Yep, the audience is listening. And the audience is a whole lot bigger than you think…

    – Keith.

  4. Do you remember the CEO (I forget the company name) who got up at a conference and complained that the market was against him and his product, that the press didn’t give him any attention, that the competitors were unfair and basically moaned?
    In the audience were Scoble and Kawasaki and others, and they started tweeting what a jerk this CEO was… his career and company were dead before he left the podium and he didn’t even know it.
    Real time, live blogging can make or break presenters. Scared now? 😛

  5. Lance –

    Twitter in church! Whatever will they think of next… 🙂

    I expect that people may feel a little more constrained – but to get all the relevant tweets on a display, you would need to be using a hashtag; so if you didn’t want your tweet on display, you would just not use the hashtag.

    – Keith

  6. Enrico –

    Thanks for that! I am of the opinion that just getting in and tweeting is a far better way of understanding the medium than all of the “how to tweet” guides put together…

    – Keith

  7. Tony –

    Thanks for your thoughts – a very real-time response!

    – Keith

  8. Enlightening essay, Keith. As someone relatively new to this app (now I’m *talking cock*), I am beginning to appreciate it through your tweets and re-tweets. I think that tweets enhance one’s competency in precis writing: brevity, succinctness and relevance.

    I have already linked your essay on my blog. Cheers.

  9. Fantastic post Keith and I have read Olivia’s comments before so it was great to get your perspective. I often “live tweet” at conferences and events and it only serves to heighten the experience – in terms of greater learning, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

    It is analagous to, as you say, the old practice of “note taking” and “talking about it later” with the major differences including the immediacy of the information and the extended reach of the conversation. For example, as I write this I am enjoying the feedback of attendees in a conference in Boston, USA, where an IBM executive is speaking about “social media in the marketing mix” –

    My point being I am able to participate in learning and collaboration thanks to this live-tweeting happening. I could never have imagined this being so easy to do, and its fantastic. It would not surprise me at all if event-organisers were unaware this is happening – hence the evidence you see of it being “frowned upon” – but I am sure this is simply due to the lack of understanding of this technology.


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