Twitter ye not

Brian Kelly raises the delicate issue of conference wifi etiquette by highlighting complaints made to a live blogger at a recent event with respect to his ‘distracting‘ typing. Kelly supports the use of wifi and laptops, but for ‘purposes relevant to the session’ without suggesting how participants might be policed to ensure that their laptop use is indeed for relevant purposes (or who defines what is ‘relevant’). The notion of strutting, Sally Bowles-like around the conference venue flicking off switches with a riding crop whenever inappropriate use is discovered has a rather alarming appeal, but might not be the best approach to managing the issue.

There’s definitely been a signficant increase in laptop use at events in the time since I joined CETIS, although inevitably there was always a core of laptop users tapping away even in the earliest days. Wifi provision is a significant issue when considering venues, particularly for our annual conference, and people often seem disappointed, or even a bit nonplussed, when we can’t provide it. But why do we set so much store by it? Is that email really so urgent? Will your IRC channel collapse without you there? However did we network before CrowdStatus?

Kelly, Clow and those they cite comment on the value of live blogging, and the invaluable service it provides to people who can’t be at an event. But does it? I’ve followed, and thoroughly enjoyed, Twitter updates on events, but more for the subjective, qualitative impression they give of the event rather than for their information content. Live blogs are useful narratives, but out of context from the event they describe and lacking reflection in the light of the day as a whole and subsequent consideration, how much value do they actually provide beyond slidecasts and podcasts? If everyone’s live blogging and twittering to the world, who’s going to read the blogs – and who’s going to listen to the speakers?

It’s kind of ironic that I learned about Kelly’s post in the backchannel of this year’s Eduserv Foundation Symposium, as I found the live chat system wildly distracting itself. It didn’t help that, owing to a combination of non-Eduserv related factors, I could barely hear what was being said in the live streaming, but I found the activity in the backchannel so ‘loud’ that it completely drowned out what the speakers were trying to say. I’ve found this in the past in – of all things – training webinars where there were no sound problems at all, just a chatbox buzzing with babble and an increasingly demoralised sounding speaker struggling in vain to make his points. Yes, there can be useful information there – such as the alert to Kelly’s post – but it can itself be buried under the rest of the chatter.

Focusing on the technology, however, diverts attention away from the real issue, which is perceptions of courtesy towards presenters and delegates. Only a few people feel it’s appropriate to speak to each other during presentations (and even Paddington’s hardest stare won’t stop the truly dedicated disrupter), yet many people seem to feel that the same standards don’t apply to unspoken communications. Is this because there’s something inherent to these technologies that make their use somehow acceptable, or just because they’re so new that accepted standards of behaviour around their use simply haven’t emerged yet?

10 thoughts on “Twitter ye not

  1. The blogs are read by the technologically literate people who write them – a social network extending the experience of attending a conference. Try it some time.

  2. As I said, I have tried it, and for me it doesn’t extend the experience of the conference, it disrupts it and reduces the benefits of participation. As Kelly says, we really need to find approaches that accommodate everybody, and ensure that everybody’s experience is as good as it can be and, especially, that one group of participants’ ways of getting the most out of an event don’t actively undermine other people’s experience.

  3. Hi Rowin

    This has really made me think about my own practice. I have started twitter etc at conferences and I have to say that on a personal level I’ve found it very useful for keeping me focussed on what is happening. I’m afraid I can be a bit like Paddington and my mind does tend to wander at times and think of marmalade sandwiches etc. Previously I would have probably just doodled but now at least I have a (sort of) coherent record of where I’ve been and what happened.

    It’s also interested to see other people’s impressions of events/talks too. Maybe I’m just a technology optimist, but I’m all for people having laptops at conferences. Also as Andy Powell noted from their recent symposium, you can get more questions from online participants, than those in the room. We’ve all been in that horrible situation when someone asks “any questions” and there is a lot of shuffling, paper rustling etc but no questions:-) To counter the noise from typing maybe we just need to remind people that they don’t need to hit their keyboards with the force of a hammer:-)

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  5. As a contributor to the event both in the live and back channel I found the experience both challenging and exciting. Too many times you give a talk to an audience that you can’t see (because the lights are out so that they can see your Powerpoint slides) and who when the lights go back on are then looking at their papers to see who the next presenter will be and certainly not wanting to ask questions! That’s of course if you’ve got your timing right to allow questions in your allotted time.

    Asking questions at events is in itself not for the weak and seems to decrease event by event as often you wonder whether you’re going to be made to feel just a couple of feet tall by the answer you receive to the question you ask.

    So, to know that there’s a channel of communication going on that you can engage with when you return to your seat (as a presenter) or contribute to yourself when the questions are streaming was I felt the sort of thing that all presenters ought to be excited about – it puts them on their mettle and places them into possible zones of discomfort that can only improve the quality of the overall event.

    The one rider to all of this is that it does mean the slides have to be provided in advance of the event so that all participants – present and remote – can better take part.

    Thanks for your post however; it provides a different perspective to mine on the same event, which is to be found at

  6. @AJ Cann – that was a little un-called-for- they don’t get much more technologically literate than Rowin. Try reading the post properly before responding.

    @Rowin – gosh you write well! Very engaging and thoughtful post. I think you’re right about the etiquette of technology in F2F circumstances still evolving (and this is happening in a society where many folk seem to think all basic public courtesies are eroding).

    I am one of those who gets initially annoyed if a meeting venue doesn’t have wireless. However, these days I let it go and relax into it: it gives me an excuse to be behind in my work!

    However, many sessions only require half my attention to pick up the useful stuff though. You can bet that if there is a presentation or discussion that needs my full attention, it will get it. That doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the presentations requiring only half my attention- I am still getting benefit and it is not always a reflection on the presenter or the topic. I saw a good presentation at an ALT-C in recent years where someone (from the OU I think) quoted another teacher who openly said to people at the start of a session: if you need to be online during this, that’s fine. End of story. That’s the reality of technology and what it lets us do these days. If I can multi-task by working and listening to a speaker or discussion, that’s great.

    Re your point about the live blogging / twittering etc. though: I think some folk get carried away with gadgets and things- and that is another fact of our times and technology. I feel for the speaker or facilitator having to deal with the rudeness of people holding, basically, side conversations in full view of everyone. However, I’ve never actually experienced this, I am reacting to yours and Sheila’s posts! I don’t get out as much as I used to :-)

  7. Hi Rowin

    I attended the event virtually too, and fortunately the sound worked for me. I really enjoyed the backchannel options, in fact it was probably this element that kept me nipping back to listen to the presentations. Getting confirmation of views from others attending virtually and those at the event made it feel like you weren’t missing out. On the etiquette front, it was interesting/surprising (?) to see some quite pointed comments being made regarding one particular presentation while it was underway, but perhaps that just makes the audience think about it all the more…

    I posted my thoughts on the event ( not as erudite as yours, I’m afraid!

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  9. @SarahCurrier It’s not a question of being technologically literate, it’s a question of having experienced a conference backchannel by having participated in one, which the post (which I read or would not have commented on) implied that the author had not. So I say again to both of you – try it sometime.

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