The bias of the backchannel

06 Feb
February 6, 2014

Social media tools are increasingly being used to support backchannels for a number of conferences and events.  Conferences will issue ‘formal’ Twitter hashtags in advance – such as #MyConference – so that tweets can be rapidly searched, collated and shared.  But what if the tweets are not representative of the conference content – surely then the immediate value of the backchannel would be lost?  This post explores a real-world example and suggests some strategies and learning for all of us so that we can develop better backchannels for the future.


Last week, one of the most prodigious learning events took place in the UK.  Learning Technologies has become the foremost conference and exhibition for anyone in the learning and development spaces.  Although originally focussed on the ‘tech’ side of things, recent conferences have expanded the breadth and depth of sessions and exhibitors to include the entire L&D environment.

In advance of the conference, the hashtag was confirmed – #LT14UK – a well-known tag which only differs from previous years with the change of date – 14 for this year, 13 for last year and so on.

The conference has a strong following of thought leaders, practitioners and vendors all keen to share learning, research and, ideally, business.  And this is where my learning started and hence some lessons I’d like to share.

As you’ll know from reading my blog, I’m exceptionally passionate about business and ensuring that L&D links with and for business as often as possible.  For the past few years I’ve used various analytical tools to look at the tweets – as these form the backbone of the backchannel and are a valuable ‘take’ on the issues that people are seeing as important – and I’ve looked for how often business words are used.

For a few years now, the most popular words contained within tweets have included fewer and fewer business words – such as business, strategy, value, benefit, implementation and so on.  It’s not a perfect list, nor intended to be used in isolation. However, it is possible to see key business words if they are there.

Year on year the position of the top business words has fallen until this year.  This year in the top 20 mentioned words, not one could be associated with business.  So I tweeted this to some followers and the conference at large and so began a rapid journey of learning.  Here’s what we discovered in our virtual conversation and I later verified via research:

  • If you were at the conference then business topics were spread throughout the day.  Sessions had links to business benefits and vendors were talking about tackling real business issues – great stuff!
  • Just because it’s on the agenda doesn’t mean it’s getting mentioned in tweets
  • Just because it’s mentioned in a session doesn’t mean it’s getting mentioned in tweets
  • There are some key influencers – so what they tweet tends to get retweeted more and skews the data

The tweets change as the conference goes on, driving different focuses for keywords

  • Early AM tweets are mainly about ‘looking forward’ or ‘can’t wait’ or ‘on my way’
  • AM tweets are often about conference sessions AND vendors shouting out as though in a technological marketplace – this is why the word ‘stand’ is so prevalent e.g. come and see us on stand ABC or Win an iPad on stand XYZ etc.
  • Lunchtime tweets are about ‘meeting up’ or ‘great to see’
  • PM tweets closely mirror AM tweets with conference content and ‘shouting vendors’ – I have nothing against ‘shouting vendors’ although their tweets do become overwhelming at times
  • Late PM tweets are ‘thank you’s’, ‘wonderful’, ‘good to meet’ and ‘on my way home’
  • Day two of the conference very much follows day one
  • As the conference hashtag started trending so the spammers piled in – which corrupts the backchannel
  • And sadly some people used #LTUK14 as the hashtag which messed up many a conversation!

So what’s the learning?

There’s no doubt that backchannels are a wonderful source of information and learning, but as I discovered there can be massive variations in the value of the backchannel depending on when you view it.  This may make following a conference in real-time a potential nightmare – but all is not lost.  In addition, people will tweet what they feel about the sessions, not necessarily what was said.  Retweeting links from key influencers is easier than synthesising your own thoughts on the fly.  I wondered therefore how easy – or difficult – it is to tweet reality.

In my search I came across a wonderful post on Mr P. Tucker’s Education Blog and would like to share elements of this verbatim as it wonderfully illustrates the issues of listening and tweeting:

“There are several things the human brain does not do well. It doesn’t have a good intuitive understanding of probability; it has difficulty evaluating competing inductive arguments; and it is not a good multitasker (this is not an exhaustive list of limitations). A tweeting backchannel while listening to a presentation requires multitasking or quick-shifting. While multitasking or the new, slightly re-conceptualized quick shifting, are supposed to be a hallmark of our students today, it is largely untrue or if true, still detrimental. When you multitask, you divide your cognitive functions between activities. As this does nothing to add to your general ability to think, your power of thinking is divided among the various activities; thus, each one receives less of your focus than if done in sequence. This means that they are not done as well as they could have been if done consecutively. If you don’t believe me, go here ( and prove it to yourself (notice how the easiest activity, the one you have the most practice at, is the one that you lose on).

With tweeting while listening to a presentation, your attention level osculates between tweeting and active listening and reduces the mean level of attention for each. As a result, you get less out of the presentation than if it was your only activity. You also get less out of the conversation on Twitter than you would. Tweeting a conversation is more engaging than note-taking – this translates to more distracting in this context. While it may help you process parts of the lecture, you miss parts which will also affect your ability to encode an understanding – it is at best a zero sum gain.”

Thank you, Mr P. Tucker – just brilliant!

So what’s the solution?

There’s no one solution – there rarely is. However, my suggestions would be as follows:

  • Do keep an eye on the immediate backchannel to see what’s actually happening.
  • Put your faith in the resources that are issued after the conference as these are more likely to be reflective, considered and accurate.
  • Be aware of the time of day and the social etiquette – ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ etc. which will skew and mask the true nature of what’s happening.
  • Try to connect with people who were at the event. Is what you’re seeing indicative of what happened?
  • Debate, discuss and have conversations.  As Don Taylor, Chair of Learning Technologies said in a recent blog “It is in conversation, after all, that we put what we have learnt to the test, often re-considering and re-shaping it in the light of others’ understanding. Done well, conversation acts as a sort of accelerated reflection.
  • And of course remember that not everyone tweets so we can only hear – and be influenced by – those that do.


The backchannel is here to stay but there’s still some way to go before the Twitter feed actually represents the reality of a conference.  And perhaps I’ve been unfair – perhaps you can’t judge the content of a conference by its Twitter feed – but it would be better if you could.

I’ve learned a great deal in just a few days, which goes to show just what can be accomplished if you put your mind to it!  Oh, and here’s to business! #CouldNotResist

Call to action

If you didn’t try the example mentioned in Mr Tucker’s Educational Blog then please do! I thought I was doing well until I had two simultaneous tasks to deal with!

Your views welcomed

And finally please share your views.  Have I got this totally wrong or is there more learning to do?  What would make for an ideal backchannel? Let’s start a great discussion . .  .

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6 replies
  1. Kate Graham says:

    Hi Jonathan, as the co-ordinator of the Learning Technologies backchannel, I obviously felt compelled to reply to this post 🙂 Your findings are really interesting and many of the points are very fair. In fact, whenever I tweet from events someone nearly always says to me ‘I don’t know how you can do two things at once’. Even more interestingly, I tried the multi-tasking exercise on the link above and was useless at it!

    But my take on tweeting is not that I’m doing two things at once. Taking a look around the keynote session on day two last week, anyone who didn’t have a phone, laptop or tablet in their hands had a good old fashioned pen and paper instead. Very, very few people out of the hundreds present were just sitting and listening. For me, Twitter is my notebook (by the way, I’m very attached to my Moleskine and still do take notes on all sorts of things with pen and ink).

    18 months ago, a member of my PLN went to a learning conference in the States and the backchannel there wasn’t organised at all. The tweets coming out were very much a ‘stream of consciousness’ with lots of quotes from the speaker and not much context. Therefore those of us following from afar were struggling to make sense of the keynote. When my friend asked for advice on how to improve the quality of the information coming through I responded that I just use Twitter to take notes and write down useful snippets, thoughts, questions and references so I can go back to them later and find them meaningful. I know she took this on board and said it helped.

    To say we can’t multi-task is to say we shouldn’t therefore take notes at conferences. I know everyone has a different approach to the way they contribute to the backchannel and your point about people with more followers skewing the message is undoubtedly true. But for me, I try and tell a bit of a story of the session, always top and tail with initial information and links to the speaker etc, and finish with final thoughts or takeaways. Now that, I admittedly woudn’t do with a pen and paper, but I know people are following and my aim is to provide some structure within what could be a vortex of chaos otherwise.

    Ultimately, 140 characters is never going to provide deep insight, but it can provide those who can’t attend with insights that tell them if the session or speaker is of more interest. And if a backchanneler sees themselves as something of a curator (yes the word is over-used but I think it’s valid here) then they can provide references to useful websites, books, authors and so on. Last year we ended up with a separate hashtag just for book references!

    Don and I are already in discussion about facilitating a post-conference backchannel for ongoing reflection as I feel strongly that you’re right about this and it’s something we have been thinking about for a while. The backchannel structure and organisation is fairly unique to Learning Technologies – too many conferences still shun social media and seem to hope it will go away – so Mark, Ian and Donn are to be applauded for embracing it I think. Ideally, we’d all make better use of the Learning and Skills Group site for sharing before the event and reflecting afterwards. It shouldn’t just be about the event itself and there is clearly an appetite for growing what the backchannel does.

    When I first saw your tweets after the event I started writing a blog post about the backchannel so I must go and finish that! But at the end of the day it’s all about sharing and collaboration and conversations such as this can only improve how we do that.

    Thanks again

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Kate,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I’ve replied to the comments that Martin made so I’ll try to add to the conversation rather than repeating it.

      As with my comments to Martin, I do understand that you – and others – are working exceptionally hard at creating a valued backchannel for Learning Technologies and I really appreciate the effort and dedication that this takes. I’ve not been able to attend LT for a couple of years and so the backchannel is a great way to tray and stay in touch – albeit at a distance.

      Like Martin, I would class you as ‘professional tweeter’ and therefore more able to assess meaning and insights from the sessions. I also appreciate that many people will take notes, or scribble a web address or keyword so the chance of 100% of the people concentrating 100% of the time may be limited but may not affect the overall quality of the backchannel.

      The thrust of my original Twitter conversation and post was that I – and others – were reflecting on the fact that we couldn’t easily align the backchannel with the reality of the day. Let me expand. . .

      I was – as ever – keen to see how often business-related words and phrases were used within the backchannel and my analysis showed that this was less then in previous years, despite the increased focus on the link between business and learning and the fact that conference delegates could verify that these issues were being discussed at sessions. I was therefore interested in why – when there was such clear messages – these do not come across in analysis of the ‘live backchannel’.

      I am always keen to learn and what struck me was that the ‘live backchannel’ was full of ‘noise’ and ‘shouts’ etc., whereas the backchannel emerging just a few days after the sessions contains reflection, analysis, synthesis and challenge.

      So what I and many others have learned is that the backchannel is a fabulous ‘quagmire’ of thoughts and that the diamonds will emerge over time. As long as we accept that the backchannel will change and mature over time then we have a better chance of making sense of it all.

      I do think that there’s also some wonderful data to be gleaned from the backchannel. I also appreciate that my analysis was a bit ‘quick and dirty’ and certainly open to rebuke however here’s some ‘factoids’ that I discovered:

      * Over 50% of tweets came from a desktop – quite a high percentage for a conference but which may reflect the extent to which the backchannel was being followed
      * In broad terms tweets originated from men (70%) and women (30%)
      * 41% of tweets were original. 11% retweets and 48% replies
      * 1pm on 31st January was the peak time for tweets
      * The reach of the tweets was almost 600,000 people
      * There was an average (very roughly) of 2.5 tweets per user

      I appreciate that in some quarters the original comments and conversations have been seen as critical in nature but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I was keen to explore the validity of the backchannel and as such I believe we have all been challenged and as a result have learned. This can only be a good thing.

      I’ll always ‘put my money where my mouth is’ so if there is any help I can provide to you, Don or others in getting the best out of the backchannel then I’ll be the first to raise my hand.

      Thanks again for your comments and insights.


  2. Martin Couzins says:

    Hi Jonathan, enjoyed your post. You raise interesting issues which over time we will overcome. Making sesnse of the Twitter stream is in many ways a data mining job and the sophistication of tools to do this is increasing, as are our digital skills as curators. As a journalist and as someone who is paid to tweet (not for LT, I hasten to add) I completely disagree with the idea that tweeting a conference session means you will lose information and that, to quote, ‘you miss parts which will also affect your ability to encode an understanding’. I have to concentrate incredibly hard to follow a session, to process what is being said and then to tweet it. There are issues of verification that journalists have to grapple with here but because I am actively listening (and sharing and engaging with the Twittersphere) I am probably taking in a lot more than passive conference delegates. I also like the fact that I will get pulled up by people if I tweet something that soemone disagrees with or thinks is wrong. Coming back to my first point, if we pick over the links and images that were shared via Twitter we see a huge and valuable resource. Getting people to that is an issue I think. The issue of bias is interesting in a crowd/conversation dynamic. If there is open discussion then maybe some of the biases could be surfaced and challenged? Personally, I don’t mind all the social stuff that is tweeted – this is social tech so it is what we do, but I think we need better skills for getting to the useful info. Vendors also have a lot to learn to engage on Twitter – simply saying ‘Come and visit us on stand xxx’ just doesn’t cut it.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Martin,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate that there are a range of tweeters at any conference – from the professional (you) through to the blatant imitator who will merely retweet anything with an appropriate hashtag. The comment I referred to (which you quoted) was from Mr. P. Tucker’s Educational Blog I would agree with your challenge for someone such as yourself i.e. a professional interpreter of words and meanings that there is a high degree of concentration and synthesis within your tweets but for the less well versed I do believe that there is a strong opportunity to miss valuable information with each tweet.

      A recent study
      has revealed that both Twitter and Facebook can reduce the amount of reflective time applied to problems. The researches, Dr Rahwan, who is based at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, said: ‘We think people are unwilling to reflect more because it takes time and effort and in daily life we don’t have the luxury of time to verify everything.’

      He also said that while we have long learned from others, there is a danger that the rise of information-sharing websites such as Twitter and Facebook will make us rely more and more on the opinion of others.’ It’s interesting that without any change, certain ‘key people’ had their tweets retweeted verbatim, without any visible synthesis or reflection. I saw this in the research where Laura Overton’s session “Future Proofing your Learning Strategy” was tweeted then retweeted twice (and has since been retweeted by a number of people). This gave ‘strategy’ a minor placing within the keywords for the day – as long as you time bound the analysis – but little other visibility. Many of the comments tweeted related to ‘excellent session’, ‘excellent slideshow or ‘insightful’. Perhaps I’m being unfair in picking Laura’s session but as it included ‘strategy’ in the title one would perhaps have hoped to see this term contained in a wider context within the tweets.

      Of course I totally applaud Learning Technologies for making the tremendous effort – over a number of years – to drive an appropriate backchannel and my comments were in no way critical of this fact. My focus on LT is based on my passion for linking learning with business outcomes as as a past presenter I feel I have a very good understanding of the issues and audience.

      The issue I was exploring – and am still exploring – is that an analysis of the tweets through both Tweet Archivist and Keyhole failed to mirror the key messages that were being discussed during the sessions – and this was the basis of the extended Twitter conversation.

      Within any twitter stream there is certainly a ‘noise level’ that needs dealing with and as you rightly say this can cloud the overall picture, but rather like a music producer, in order to tune out noise and arrive at a ‘pure’ reflection of reality we obviously need to know the tune that’s being played and personally that wasn’t always possible to do. That said, the twitter backchannel does contain some real nuggets – if we know what we’re looking for – and we know where to search, which of course the uninitiated user won’t know.

      What I’d hoped to do with this post – and if the tweets this morning were anything to go by – have achieved, is to get people to think more about what they read and why they are reading it rather than to blindly accept tweets as ‘facts’.

      The vendor issue is of course another challenge entirely. Personally I can totally understand the need to promote wares – after all, I also run a business – and I understand that vendors create a virtual presence and potential expertise through their tweets. It’s hardly surprising then that – during opening times – the words ‘learning’ and ‘stand’ were always at the top of the most frequently mentioned words.

      The learning for me Martin has been to ‘sift’ the backchannel very carefully and to place more emphasis and value on post-event resources where reflection and synthesis have taken place. It’s also been apparent that just because certain words or phrases don’t appear in the backchannel doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Perhaps like parliament, we need our own version of Hansard reporters if we are ever to perfectly reflect reality.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment and keeping this debate alive.


  3. Ryan Tracey says:

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post, Jonathan. Better backchanneling is something that we both seek. I am an avid tweeter at conferences myself, so I hope my feedback here offers some additional value.

    The early AM tweets about “looking forward” or “can’t wait” can indeed be rather annoying. I especially despise the Foursquare check-ins at the airport, as if we all live in the 1950’s when no one except movie stars has travelled on an aeroplane before. However, there is sometimes an ulterior motive to these eager beaver tweets: it informs others you will be there, and thus cultivates networking. I also like to Foursquare my location at the venue with the title of the conference and the official hashtag – to inform those on my twitterfeed when the event isn’t as famous as Learning Technologies (ie always).

    The shouting vendors are also annoying. I too realise they are subsidising the event for the rest of us and, hey, we all need to put food on the table, so I am similarly forgiving. However, I would advise vendor reps to participate *substantively* in the backchannel. Tweet your insightful observations during the sessions so that the other attendees realise that you really “get it” and so they just must visit your stand. In contrast, “Win an iPad at the XYZ stand” won’t work because I have no incentive to do so – and no, the iPad is not an incentive because I don’t want you bugging me in the future on sales calls for a tablet that I either already own or don’t want, and won’t win anyway.

    On the subject of substantive tweets, this is where I think my fellow attendees could improve. I endeavour to add the context to my own tweets; I realise how useless the backchannel is without it. Yet too many of us post statements such as “Jim is sharing some really cool secrets on how to successfully implement an LMS” or “Mary is being so hilarious right now”. Oh really? So what are the secrets? What’s the joke? And don’t get me started on the listicles that couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone outside of the room, yet they are the most re-tweeted!

    I have participated both as an amateur tweeter and as a pro tweeter at conferences, and I emphasise they are different animals. As the former, I’m not interested in relaying a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings. Instead, I am using Twitter as a medium for my own note taking, while concurrently sharing gems that I think my followers will appreciate. (Since they follow me, they must be somewhat interested in my take on the world.) Sometimes I’ll simply repeat something the presenter said, or I’ll add a personal twist by challenging it or wondering aloud how it might relate to something else. Is all this biased? Damn straight it is, and unashamedly so.

    I disagree with Mr Tucker’s view on multitasking. I’m not suggesting that humans are particularly good at it, but question whether it comes into play here. At a conference, I’m not frenetically tweeting every few seconds. Instead, I’m processing what the presenter is saying and formulating a conclusion in my mind. This conclusion is often tweaked by what the presenter says subsequently, and when I feel I’m ready to tweet it I’ll do so. It’s not the mad scramble that one might imagine.

    I’m also wondering about the use of specific business terms. I can’t speak for other tweeters, but I suspect they feel as I do that many of our peers are allergic to business terms. Rightly or wrongly (and I think the latter, for the record) they roll their eyes at apparent buzzwords and jargon – start a conversation about ROI to see what I mean. So I shy away from terms like this. Does that mean my tweets have no business value or alignment to strategy? Certainly not. I’m merely relying on the intelligence of my followers to join the dots.

    Oh, and on the key influencers being retweeted disproportionately, I see this a lot in tweet chats. I think it’s human nature to reach out to the celebrity in a bid to be noticed, or to associate oneself with their renown. A bit sycophantic if you ask me, but who am I to judge?

    Anyway, I very much agree with your suggested solutions. Your research on the daily trend of the backchannel is useful for making the most out of it, and I adore the idea of the reflective backchannel – if only the conversation would continue. (Although I think it does, but via blogs instead.)

    Finally you ask what would make for an ideal backchannel. I think the answer is the best of both worlds: pro tweeters relaying the proceedings in real time, complemented by the attendees adding value rather than simply doing the same, supplemented by reflective social activity after the event.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks so much for you detailed and thoughtful response!

      You echo so many comments I’ve received from this blog and my Twitter feed. Almost everyone has agreed that the ‘shouting’ of a few can drown out the views of the many,

      Also, you have highlighted the way that tweeters – professional or otherwise – can distort the core messages of any session. Oh, and almost nobody agrees with the views of Mr Tucker – you’re all clearly too professional 😉

      I thought your comments regarding ‘business words allergy’ was exceptionally insightful and certainly something I’ll watch out for as I analyse various backchannels.

      So, where next . . . Well I hope you’ll like my next post which analyses – in some detail – the anatomy of a backchannel, looking at who’s tweeting and who’s not. There are some surprising findings and I’d really value your thought on the conclusions.

      Thanks again for the support, challenge and insight.



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