I have written before about my growing appreciation for Twitter. It is possible to over-state the importance of the technology, but it has become an important communication tool. I would not go as far as to call it revolutionary, but there can be little doubt that it has changed the media landscape for those using it. I am constantly annoyed by how some people claim that the technology is not useful. Most of these critics have never tried to use it, and think that it is all about people following celebrities, or self-obsessed individuals telling everyone what they ate for breakfast. It is true that there are some self-obsessed and inane bores on Twitter (a trip down most trending topics gives one an insight into human stupidity). But the solution is simple, if you do not like someone’s tweets, don’t follow them!
There is one aspect of the technology that I would like to emphasise at the moment, and that is Twitter’s usefulness in conference settings. This was the main reason why I started using Twitter seriously in the first place, as I was won over by its potential during last year’s SCRIPTed conference in March. To me it has become a matter of whether you can afford not to have Twitter during conferences. Twitter fulfils several very important roles during a conference; it acts as a back channel where people can discuss the paper(s) presented; it works as a meeting space between attendees; a judicious use of Twitter can enhance the conference experience by serving as a public annotation tool, which allows people to link to related information. Perhaps more importantly, Twitter can also act as an advertising tool for a conference.
I will give a couple of examples from the excellent Counter 2010 conference in Manchester (#counter2010). During two keynotes, the Twitter conference feed became awash with extremely interesting information and conjectures about the papers presented. People commented on some seemingly bad ideas coming from speakers, and added links to where other readers could find more information about the topic. This clearly enhances the conference-going experience as it allows attendees to have more interaction.
The other remarkable thing that happened at the conference took place during the three-strikes session. This was a parallel session held in a very small, hot and crowded room with no more than 20 attendees. The panel included several twitterers, and the audience was clearly following what promised to be an interesting discussion. The end result pretty much exemplified to me why Twitter has become a must-have at conferences. As this was an emotionally-charged topic, the tweets emanating from the room were soon picked up by various other users, so much so that at some point we had journalists and even a Member of Parliament making comments about what was being said. What transpired in the little room spawned claims and counter-claims elsewhere, and even led to the MP asking questions via Twitter.
I might be guilty of overstating the importance of the technology, but I truly think that there is something important happening with social media. Opening discussion to the wider public is not a bad thing.
Having said that, the use of Twitter at conferences is not always good. Back channels can descend into bullying and piling on abuse about speakers, just as it happened when Danah Boyd got heckled (or tweckled) on Twitter during a presentation last December. It is also possible that Twitter streams are actually decreasing the level of comments and engagement during the event, as most of the questions have already been asked on Twitter. Nonetheless, if the audience is engaged and behaves, the potential is enormous.
I hope the Twitter stream at BILETA next week will be a good one.