Monday, April 08, 2013

Tweeting a Conference

Imagine that you are speaking at a conference. You spent a long time preparing your talk and you have wonderful slides to illustrate your most important points. Imagine that half your audience doesn't seem to be paying attention. Their heads are down and they seem to be messaging on their smart phones or tablets. How do you feel about that?

Now imagine that there's a second screen behind you. One of them shows your wonderful slides but the other shows a continuous stream of tweets about your talk. That's the situation that PZ Myers encountered at a recent meeting [Good ideas and bad ideas]. PZ thinks this is a good idea, he says ...
One particularly interesting technological development was that there were two screens at the front of the room: one big one for the presenter to use, and a smaller one on which a twitter wall was displayed — all the silent conversations using the “#skeptech” hashtag were continuously displayed, which meant there was a constant flow of commentary from the audience sharing the stage with the speaker. It was rather cool — I’d like to see more of it at more conferences. It certainly made that hashtag explode with content.
I think that's a very, very, bad idea. I'm not sure that I would agree to be a speaker if I knew that the audience was going to pay more attention to their own tweets than to anything I was saying.

I wonder if PZ will incorporate this technology into his course lectures?


  1. "I think that's a very, very, bad idea."

    So do I. It is similar to allowing students to use laptops in class, supposedly to allow them to follow the lecture. My experience is students use technology to do anything but pay attention to the lecture: email, tweet, play games.

    Cell phones are not permitted in my class room.

    Using technology inappropriately reminds me of going to visit friends who have the television on, so no conversation is possible. So rude.

  2. Yes, it is a very very bad idea. We never do that at ScienceOnline. Tweeting is fine, but twitterfall on the screen behind a speaker is a disaster waiting to happen (and has happened to people, e.g., danah boyd).

  3. I think it depends on the conference. Not all conferences are the same, serve the same purpose, or have the same goals. Trying to 'one-size fits all' anything following under the auspices of 'conference' seems short sighted.

    1. What a wimpy comment!!!

      Please give us some examples of scientific conferences where this would be a good idea. Then give us an example of another kind of conference where it could work.

      BTW, did you post a comment on Pharyngula objecting to his "one size fits all" position?

    2. I cannot think of a scientific conference where projecting tweets or other live social media would be a good idea. But that wasn't the question posed. The question was based on the premise 'Imagine that you are speaking at a conference.' There was no indication, to me, that this focused solely on scientific conferences.

      I can envision a conference where audience interaction and feedback was important that this would be relevant and useful. For example, a business conference where product marketing ideas are being discussed. That was where my one-sized fits all comment comes from, I assumed you were speaking from a perspective that scientific conferences are the only kind of conferences.

      and no, I gave up on commenting at Pharyngula several years ago.

    3. I actually been to one business conference. I find it difficult to imagine that you could have a productive twitter conversation while the Vice President of your company was speaking to you.

      But I take your point. I was mainly thinking of science conferences, teaching conferences, philosophy conferences, and skeptic/atheist/Sci-Fi conferences.

    4. Hi,
      As one of the SkepTech organizers, I can assure you that much thought was put into the tweet wall, and while it is a great idea for our conference (skeptic conference meant mostly for entertainment and information, rather than professional development) I am sure that it isn't appropriate for others.

  4. Showing the twitter conversation to the audience could have plusses and minuses - it's easy to imagine it being useful in workshops, panels, debates, etc that are not just about presenting results. I can see it being intimidating, especially to inexperienced speakers, but remember that many of the audience are following these feeds during talks anyway (large conferences such as ISMB have been broadcasting talk-specific feeds for years).

    But what's really awesome here is the option of showing the conversation to the _speaker_ (not necessarily to the audience, who have independent access to it anyway) - this has no downsides (at worst the speaker could ignore the feed, defaulting to the status quo). If this kind of real-time feedback became common practice, the quality of the average conference talk could double in the space of a few years.

    Even better would be to have a version that is anonymized and not accessible to the public. I for one would love to be able to tell some speakers, early in their talk and without anyone else seeing the comment, that their pace seems way too slow for the available time (it's surprising how often this is obvious to the audience but not the speaker), or that I'm lost and would like them to spend more time on the introductory material, or that they're spending too much time on introductory stuff I'm already familiar with, or that I wasn't convinced by a particular point, or whatever. Imagine how useful it would be for speakers to have this kind of information, aggregated over the whole audience. Inexperienced speakers could ignore it during the talk and look at it afterwards; experienced speakers could try to react to it during the talk. And just imagine how useful such a feedback mechanism would be for classroom use.

  5. As an audience member, if there was a separate screen for tweets put up at a scientific conference then I'd just head to the poster session. I have a tough enough time as it is following most 15 minute talks, so a "twitter screen" would just make the talk even more distracting. And to be honest I find most tweets, even the scientific ones from conferences, to be mostly useless.

    1. Hi,
      Just to let you know, SkepTech was not *that-type* conference, but was rather a skeptic conference meant mostly for entertainment and information, rather than professional development.
      We didn't have poster sessions, as we did are not a presentation of academic research.

  6. Larry, you old fuddy-duddy.

    The purpose of the twitter wall, which it fulfilled well, was to promote more audience interaction. In a more formal setting where the flow of information was more asymmetrically from speaker to audience, I'd agree with you -- it would be a distraction.

    But in a classroom...hmm, I actually would be tempted to try something like that. Some students will more readily participate if it's via their cellphone than raising their hands and speaking.

    1. It seems to me that the audience was interacting with themselves instead of listening to the speaker. I've seen live tweets from meetings I've been at and it looks an aweful lot like the conversations students are having with each other at the back of the classroom. When I stop the class and stare at them it often takes 10-15 secs before they even realize that something is wrong. That's not audience interaction - it's audience distraction!

      If you want audience participation then have a town hall style of meeting or a round table discussion where audience members (only) use their voices instead of their thumbs. If you have students who would rather use their cellphones than their voices then that's a problem that needs to be fixed. I don't think it's a good idea to accommodate such behavior.

  7. Jonathan Eisen twittered from a talk I gave a couple of years ago, live-blogging it. It was flattering to have him do it. But I wondered why that was necessary. It was not mostly for people in the room. So having him say "Now he's talking about X!" and "Now he's saying Y!" seemed unnecessary. It wasn't as if they could rush out and place bets on horses in a timely fashion because of his live-blogging, buy stocks before they went up.

    He could have just taken notes saying "First he said X. Then he said Y." The audience was hundreds to thousands of miles away and didn't need the account to be in real time. Then he could have just posted the completed account to his blog.