Twitter on screen at conferences: Good or Bad?

Do you think that having the Twitter stream on a screen at conferences adds to the experience or participants and speakers or detracts from it?

The Advanced Learning Institute have asked my advice about whether they should have a second screen at all sessions of their upcoming Social Media for Government Conference to display the twitter stream throughout the conference. (Disclosure: I’ll be chairing the conference and presenting a workshop.)

I’ve seen this work well at tech conferences. At some conferences, a large number of participants are heavily engaged in twittering their conference experience – sharing points they think are important and then engaging in active discussion with other conference attendees as well as people joining in from outside the conference. For these people, the conference experience is greatly enriched. They can ask questions, consider alternatives and dig deeper through discussion with others. All in real time while the ideas are being discussed by the speaker.

Twitter stream from Third Tuesday

How about the speaker, you ask? In my experience, a growing number of speakers embrace conference Twittering. Some follow the Twitter stream for questions. Others actually participate in it (This works especially well for panels.) After the conference, the speaker can gain valuable feedback on their presentation by reviewing the conference hashtag in the Twitter stream. And they don’t need to stop there. Savvy speakers can continue the conversation with conference tweeters after the conference.

However, I don’t think that Twitter is right for most conferences – yet. I think that may be overkill if your mix of attendees is not technically savvy. And that seems to be most attendees at standard business conferences. Just as important, some speakers are likely to object to it.

But that doesn’t mean that I’d leave Twitter out of a conference. In fact, having the Twitter stream on screen for select sessions demonstrates its potential to everyone. Having it up all the time may irritate those who are not on Twitter.

So, for the time being, I think that conference organizers should introduce Twitter at key points in the conference, but not have it present all the time.

What do you think?

Do you think that having the Twitter stream on a screen at conferences adds to the experience or participants and speakers or detracts from it? Am I underestimating the average conference attendee?

Other views on Conferences and Twitter

Ira Basen doesn’t like it

I do it

Dr. Shock suggests ways to use Twitter to get more out of lectures

David Berkowitz thinks conference blogging policies need updating

  • I love the twitter wall, but agree it’s only appropriate at certain conferences and/or sessions, particularly when are social media-related or most attendees know about it (or are there to learn about it)

  • It depends on the conference, really, and the ALI Social Media for Gov’t conference is a tricky one. I gave a half-day session at the conference in May, and while some people were definitely tweeting away during the session, others were interested in a demonstration of twitter to see what it does.

    At most technology conferences, having twitter projected could help encourage people to tweet about the conference, which could raise the event’s online profile. It depends on the audience mix.

    Having the twitter stream projected could also make it easier for speakers to answer questions during their presentation if they’re already running a presentation.

  • I thought it worked well at the workshop at Vancouver Joe and I wasn’t distracted from the panel.

    What I would say is panel/speakers need to be freed up from having to operate/update technology so that they can fully engage with the room so having a person with that specific role is key – as well as the role keeping an eye on some of the comments coming in from Twitter and reporting back to the panel/room if need be – almost like a demi-panel member who chimes in when appropriate!!

    I tweeted back key points from CPRS during breaks rather than during talks, so a slight time delay. My team at work loved being able to follow the conference in this way – so certainly good to tweet key conference talks etc

    Hope this helps!

  • Helen, you make an excellent point. I too believe that an active Twitter stream helps conference organizers to publicize that they have put together a good event. With Third Tuesdays, I’ve met many people who tell me they were prompted to attend their first Third Tuesday as a result of having seen the Twitter stream from a previous session.

  • Joe;

    I’ll be presenting at the same conference and was asked what I thought as well. I said I was easy either way and though the agenda is set I suggested maybe a ‘working lunch’ panel discussion about the pros and cons and maybe even the ‘who cares’ of live twittering and blogging.
    I noticed you said you’ve seen it “work well at tech conferences”. Are you a bit blinkered because what exactly is a tech conference to you? There was recently a very lively debate about Twittering and even blogging at biotech conferences and I’m guessing that isn’t what you were talking about whne you said ‘tech’. At those conferences there was a great deal of concern about preliminary findings be ‘re-broadcast’ out of context and I don’t care how savvy you are , you can’t give adequate context in a series of 140 character posts. At a recent conference on forestry it was absolutely forbidden to do live social media even though the conference was open. The concern was as much about IP as it was about anything else. (oddly though media could attend )
    So while the discussion can and should take place it absolutely has to move beyond the rather insular walls of social media and PR. Those steeped in social media seem to forget that there is a whole world out there that are not PR practictioners and would never call themselves social media experts yet they too are having the same discussion and doing the same things.
    And while the discussion is about live twittering, let’s be really honest. Everyone has their e-mail and browsers open as well.
    For those attending my session be forewarned. I like to make eye contact, ask questions and because you laid your money down to attend, see to it you leave the event with some new things to consider. That won’t likely happen if you are twittering, e-mailing, and checking links.


  • Helen Chown,
    For context, the Vancouver Conference you are talking about was the CPRS conference that featured a set of students live blogging using Cover It Live. I also tweeted from my position on a panel – and the students added me to the Cover It Live feed.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion of a person being designated to help the speaker/panelists by keeping an eye on the twitter stream and drawing their attention to it. This eliminates the need for the speaker to divide her attention between the room and the twitter stream, while still bringing the full value of the Twitter commentary into the session.

  • Mike Spears,
    “At a recent conference on forestry it was absolutely forbidden to do live social media…” I think that anyone who tells me that I cannot do something greatly overestimates their ability to control things. I think that we will figure out a common sense approach through discussion. And the only approach that will work is one we agree upon, not one that someone tries to impose by fiat.

    I’m looking forward to your session. And you can be assured that when my head is down, I’ll be paying great attention to you. I find that tweeting at a conference causes me to be more focused on the speaker as I try to identify the key points and as I consider their significance.

  • Joe, you raise some excellent points and I thought I’d weigh in as a recent convert to live-tweeting and also since I noticed my mug in your post.

    I do think there’s great value in having a live Twitter stream open at meetings/conferences in that it provides a living chronicle of the sessions both for those who attend and those who don’t. It adds new ideas and perspectives and opens up a discussion to folks who may not be there in person but want to participate (and can).

    That said, I agree live tweeting isn’t for every meeting – yet. And when it’s available I think it’s important that the participants are told about it in advance and are comfortable and familiar with the technology. Then, of course, it’s up to them to decide if they want to join in.

    And yes there is an attention span trade off. But I look at it the same way as taking notes – the only difference is, everyone’s notes are instantly sharable (in fact, I’ve done a couple of blog posts with Twitter note highlights).

  • Dear Joe,

    As you may be well aware, I navigate both worlds (academia and social media). I have to say that my involvement in the social media community has made it almost a reflex for me to tweet about what the speaker is saying.

    As someone who has presented at numerous academic conferences in the environmental politics field, I know for a fact that people get easily distracted. Heck, I do. If the speaker isn’t engaging me, I tend to day-dream. I try to make my presentations lively to make sure that people don’t fall asleep there.

    But the thing is, social media is here to stay. I’ve given lots of talks where people are live-tweeting what I say, and for me it is really helpful, because I know that, as they are live-tweeting, people are indeed paying attention to what I’m saying. And most of the time, I’m smart enough to have a TwitterFall or Summize search programmed into my laptop so that I can take the questions or address the concerns people pose on Twitter.

    So, would I mind having people live-blog me or live-tweet me in any of the two worlds (academia or social media). Not. At. All. The best way to change is to EMBRACE change.

    My 2 cents.

  • Joe I did think the no live social media thing was a bit over-the-top and it certainly wasn’t a decision I would have ever made or put my hands up for.
    But I think you are still fogetting there are people who are not PR people, never attend social media conferences and simply are not into that area of communication.
    The organizing committee for that conference DID agree on the decision. Or are you suggesting that every science, biotech, and academic conference have a group vote or some protracted discussion among all attendees or presenters first ????
    Further some of the presenters at some science conferences do request that for their session at least that it not be released into the wild. That should be their choice.
    Since when does not embracing social media mean there is something wrong with people? Is the basic suggestion then that damn what presenters or conference organizers ask and that everyone flip up the laptop and beaver away on the keyboard? Is this what social media is all about now?

    I personally don’t care if anyone tweets or blogs during my session. However just because we can do it does not always mean we should.

    Joe, I’m sure you will be paying attention as I’ve seen the tweets so you must be. Bet you’ll be checking your e-mails and surfing on over to any websites mentioned as well though. At some point paying attention to a speaker, tweeting, checking e-mails, and surfing the web has to mean that no one is getting undivided attention.


  • Mike,
    I like social media because our ability to have this type of conversation across 2,000 miles distance keeps me learning and mindful that I must not allow myself to listen only to people who agree with me. Your points are good and they will temper my own ideas. 🙂

  • Good issue to bring up Joe.
    In the few experiences I’ve had with either a real-time twitter feed, on a big screen or on everyone’s little screens, the resulting Twitter conversation tends to be dominated by a few tech-savvy, yakky, opinionated types (umm, one of which would inevitably be me). I think conference organizers or participants sometimes mistakenly assume that the resulting real-time Twitter feed is representative of the views of all conference participants. It may be but I would caution that it may only be the opinion of few a-type personalities at the conference. Twitter at conferences and elsewhere is still “beta” for most people and while it’s great for intelligence and feedback, it should not, at this stage, supplant other, more traditional forms of dialogue with a conference audience like good old-fashioned e-mail or even a show of hands at the end of the day.
    In fact, for those who plan to live-tweet their next conference presentation — ask for a show of hands first for those who plan to Tweet. My guess: A surprisingly small but vocal number will put their hand in the air.

  • Special questions relating to twittering of scientific and medical conferences:

    Twitter blows a black hole into the ancient “Ingelfinger rule” (New England J Med about 30 years ago) that content previously published in some other medium would not be accepted in that journal. It makes a mockery of barring journalists from conferences–but who knows what a journalist is these days, anyway?

    Scientists and doctors are very concerned about the validity of non-peer-reviewed content. Is Twitter the future of peer review? In the context of a specialized biomedical topic, how can you decide (and who decides) whether a tweeter is actually qualified to comment?

  • Leave it up to the listener whether they want to multi-task, hitting Twitter during the talk. I think on-screen comments are distracting and a little detrimental to both the speaker and the audience.

    But Twitter displays in break-out spaces are a great idea, and one we’re encouraging. They’re like a mini tweet-up, and more accessible since those who aren’t familiar with Twitter can get help from those who are.