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 (http://www.kongregate.com/games/IcyLime/multitask) 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! http://www.kongregate.com/games/IcyLime/multitask 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 . . .