Back in the Playground: Bitching on Twitter

I’ve really got into Twitter this year and can see how it can become quite addictive. However, one aspect of it I just can’t get my head round it the bitching.

Social networks unite people but they can also do a good job of being elitist and alienating people. For some reason Twitter seems to be the right application in which to be clique and have a dig at people.

This revelation has been a long time coming. I’ve watched Twitter back channels at events for some time now and have on occasions felt quite uncomfortable reading some of the personal comments made. It’s almost as if people think that because it’s being said using a social networking tool (rather than in the ear of the person next to them) it’s OK. Quite the opposite. I’m sure there is many a presenter who has put themselves through hell reading the unkind comments written about them.

Last week I read a really interesting article recently on How to Present While People are Twittering. I’d recommend it. Olivia Mitchell offers tips on how to manage the back channel telling us that when presenting we need to embrace this new feedback method by monitoring the channel and being prepared to change course and adapt.  Mitchell reminds us of an occasion at the SXSW Interactive Festival 2008 when Sarah Lacy was interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. She explains: “Audience unhappiness with the direction of the interview spread through the back channel and ended up with the audience taking over the interview.”  In Jeremiah Owyang’s account of the event he explains that Sarah Lacy’s reputation has been marred as an interviewer by the extensive coverage of blogs and even mainstream media.

It seems to me that we now expect people to be like the Internet – fast, immediate, know the answer to everything, always on the ball. If they don’t deliver (straight away) than it’s OK to have a dig. I’m just not sure about this. What ever happened to giving people a chance? And being polite?

I’m all for positive and constructive criticism and tweeting at events can be a really useful activity for everyone but people need to remember what you say is out there for everyone to see. Some of the comments I’ve seen could even be construed as cyberbullying. I think events that have a Twitter back channel need to make sure they are upfront on Twitter etiquette and include something in an acceptable use policy. I intend to do this for the  Institutional Web Management Workshop event I co-chair.

We are all grown up now. Let’s not go back to the school playground…

14 thoughts on “Back in the Playground: Bitching on Twitter

  1. Interesting post Mareke, at the moment I can’t really see any real advantages to Twittering live at events during presentations. Obviously people can’t be prevented from using it during talks, but I really think it is distracting and maybe even disrespectful to the speaker.

    To me it feels a lot like passing notes in class when the teacher is talking!

    I’m a late adopter of Twitter, and the one thing I dislike is the horribly self-important and egocentric way someone can come across on it. Not sure I’ve managed to avoid that in my own tweets, but I’m trying!

  2. I think that Twitter and other backchannels can add a lot to presentations. However, I agree that some contributions can leave something to be desired.

    This report (http://librarygarden.blogspot.com/2009/02/twitiquette-short-but-helpful-guide-to.html) of ‘inappropriate’ tweeting from an ALA meeting is a good example of where people overstep the bounds.

    I think that embracing the backchannel is one way to actually modify behaviour. Until recently Twitter has been a relatively small back water of activity in reality, and saying something on Twitter could be regarded as whispering it quietly to a colleague or two. As takeup of backchannels increases it becomes more like standing up and shouting it to the room. Throwing the backchannel up on a screen makes this transition extremely clear – if you know what you say is going to appear on a screen the moment you say it, it becomes explicit that you are interacting in a public forum, and so behave as such. There is a fine line here – I may take issue with what someone says, but I need to do this in such a way as is professional and doesn’t become personal.

    When I’ve taken part in backchannels I often find myself framing my disagreement as a question rather than a straight contradiction – this gives the speaker (or others) an invitation to respond and debate.

  3. Hi Marieke.

    I think whether to embrace the backchannel by adapting a presentation on-the-hoof will have to be an individual choice – for some people, and types of presentation, it may work, but for many it won’t. Presenters have generally taken far more trouble to prepare a presentation than a few immature, smart-alec tweeters will give them credit for; even in Shakespeare, things sometimes sag in the middle but come right in the end!

    But, more straightforwardly, perhaps to the usual 5-mins-for-questions-and-feedback at the end, we could start adding (or substituting) 5-mins-for-Tweets-and-Tweetback. I.e., switch the display to show, via Twitter Search/Twemes/whatever, all the tagged or otherwise identifiable tweets about the presentation on the big screen, and ask the presenter to comment and/or audience to discuss further? I think this would be both interesting and fair, encouraging constructive tweets and hopefully discouraging less wholesome twittering by those unprepared to stand up and be counted.

    Why not try smthg like this out at IWMW?

  4. Thanks for the link to the ‘How to present while…’ article. That’s changed my views about this issue. I had been (vaguely) thinking that it would be off-putting and uncomfortable to be presenting while there’s an ongoing commentary happening in the audience, but the points made in that article are all good ones. Having people tapping away at their keyboards while someone is talking always struck me as rather rude before. But now if that happens, speakers can pretend to themselves that the typists in the audience are actually fully engaged with what they’re saying and are sharing it with their Twitter colleagues, rather than assuming that they’re answering their email instead.

    I like Richard’s suggestion about putting up the tweets at the end of the talk – seems a bit less stressful than having them appear during a presentation. Though might be embarrassing if there weren’t any…

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  6. I’ve read the ‘how to present while..’ thing too, and I’m still not convinced! Not sure why, but my instinct is that Twittering during talks is, on balance, negative. Unusual as I’m usually defending the use of Web 2.0 technologies.

    I just think in this case people should put down their laptops and actually experience the presentation fully.

  7. @Ian I regularly blog presentations I go to, and feel it both adds to my experience of the presentation (in that I take more away from it) and also allows me to both have a record of the presentation and shares it with a wider audience. However, certain presentations defeat my attempts to blog – when a speaker engages me like this I do put down my laptop.

    I’m not sure why you feel that twittering during talks is negative on balance – I have to admit my experience of being involved in twitter while presentations are on has been generally positive – and I think the open nature of the channel contributes to this (I’ve seen other, less public, back channels be more juvenile in a ‘back row of the classroom’ type way)

  8. Following up on the Q&A&T approach – at yesterday’s RSP do in Manchester, we had the #rspsoft09 Twitter stream projected over the end-of-day Q&A. Only the last page of Tweets was shown, which weren’t particularly illuminating (not a reflection on the event, or earlier tweets, BTW). Anyway, by then I was following the parallel #archives2.0 stream from down the road – what a crazy quantum world!

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