Writings On The Wall

Who's afraid of the twitterwall?

Walls have been used for making signs and symbols visible for audiences for many millennia – from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to the billboards and the concrete and brick walls scattered with graffiti of modern times.

And now there’s the twitterwall, the latest metamorphosis of murals. No doubt, they have changed quite a lot during their evolution. The decreasing sustainability (Lascaux: 17,000 years vs. a tweet with its considerably shorter visibility) being just one of the differences.

Currently, tweets obviously have much more impact than the prehistoric works of art. Most of our readers will have attended (un)conferences, presentations or any other type of event where feedback from and interaction with the audience was enabled by a twitterwall. And many will have had the task or chance to integrate twitterwalls as tool of communication.

Action, Reaction, Distraction

Twitter is like a catapult continuously firing bits of data into a virtual landscape. Some of those bits are useful, e.g. when they help perforate the wall of one’s own ignorance; some are simply fun or provide fresh points of view; others may be criticising, caustic or outright offensive.

Whoever got hit by one of those malicious little tweets knows that even 140 characters (or less) can hurt. This was quite obvious at the World Blogging Forum 2010 (13 November), when a couple of uncivilized tweets, making “fun” of the physical appearances of one of the speakers, were published on a twitterwall and caused quite an uproar within the blogger community (see e.g. “Stirb, Twitterwall, stirb!” [in German] ).

Whenever humans communicate, there will be some who don’t know how to behave. It would be dead wrong, though, to ban twitterwalls, as has been suggested by some.

Don’t blame it on the twitterwall

A twitterwall is a tool, nothing else. Don’t blame the twitterwall for all the stupid things that might appear on it. Used prudently, twitterwalls can add a lot of value to your event, conference etc. And it’s not exactly rocket science to do it right. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Tweet happens. There’s no way to prevent (a constantly growing number of) participants to live tweet from an event. At least none that I’d recommend. Even if you don’t provide Wifi at the conference venue yourself there’s still the internet connection via smartphones. You’d have to use a jamming device to disable mobile phones, but you’d have to say goodbye to your reputation the same moment.
    We’ll have to accept the fact, that there will be people in all of our events who not only listen (and believe me, they do listen!) and think, but also – and at the same time – interact with what they have heard and seen, react and reply, get involved.
    If this level of communication cannot be avoided, why not use it proactively?
  2. Tell your speakers. Especially if they are not familiar with bloggers, twitter users or any other type of conference attendants who rather look at the screens of their mobile devices than at PowerBore slides, you better tell them what they’ll be up to. And tell them that it is (probably) nothing personal, if parts of the audience seem to react strangely, giggle or even laugh. Modern audiences no longer consist of passive listeners, they want to take an active part; and they have the means to plug into parallel channels of communication.
    You can’t prevent people from using twitter, but you can – and you should – leave it to your speakers and presenter to decide if they want to share the stage with a twitterwall or not.
  3. Support your speakers. Not all of them are multitaskers. In fact a great majority of them would be overly stressed if they had to present and follow the rapid fire of tweets on a twitterwall (and to be honest, I’m not very good at multitasking myself). It’s advisable to have somebody else follow the twitterstream and deliver a filtered and compact excerpt of tweet contents to the speaker whenever it is feasible.
    For the few multitasking speakers you’ll have to put the twitterwall (i.e. a laptop or monitor) in front of them, so that they can react to the tweets whenever they see fit.
  4. Let the audience decide. That doesn’t mean that you should ask the audience if it wanted a twitterwall or not. But it doesn’t make much sense to go the extra mile to set up a twitterwall for a room filled with CEOs or media tycoons. On the other hand you shouldn’t do without one if you expect a bunch of geeks at you venue.
  5. A twitterwall without moderation is like playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded revolver. It is your right (and duty) to keep anything off your twitterwall that isn’t on topic. That’s not censorship, and it shouldn’t be. Don’t censor the twitterwall. You should always be aware that the full twitterstream is at the audience’s disposal, so any attempt to censor tweets will be detected immediately. As you can imagine, that’s something you wouldn’t want to experience.
  6. Inform your audience. Tell them right away how you are going to use the twitterwall and how you’d like the audience to use it. Suggest a little “twitter policy”, like: it will be moderated, keep your tweets on topic, avoid insults etc. Or simply: Tweet wisely.
  7. The hashtag is yours. Even if you don’t plan to use a twitterwall you should choose a hashtag (i.e. basically a search term with a preceding hash) and communicate it properly. If you don’t, your audience will. You can save a lot of time searching the twitterstream for tweets that deal with your event (your topics, brands etc.). And you wouldn’t do without monitoring, would you?

Integrating a twitterwall into the communication activities isn’t really complicated. Using one’s brain it will inspire dialogue and get people involved, even those who don’t have the chance to participate directly but over their twitter network.

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14 Replies to “Writings On The Wall

  1. Great post !

    And I agree with most of the points.

    Yes, you should annonced the official hashtag to be sure that attendees (and non attendees) use it !

    Yes, you have to choose carefully where you use your wall in the room and choose the correct visualization depending of the event type. Sometimes you need a soft display, sometimes you want something more funny and dynamic.

    Moderation is the key for important events. Automatic or manual moderation should allow to filter some bad words or bad people to prevent … surprise !

    But twitter walls are more and more used. They give a real added value by proposing to the attendees to “participate” and give their opinion live. They could also create a real buzz because number of tweets will be greater then without a wall. People want to be on the wall and will talk about the event to all their followers !

    Yes, it’s working.

  2. Markus,

    I recently attended a “powerbore” lecture by powerpoint guru Cliff Atkinson who explained why pressentation tool can be ineffective because people use it ineffectively. This is becausethey have wrong assumptions about how communication works. The wrong assumptions are grounded in the now famous “injection” model: information moves from sender to receiver (from powerpoint slides to the receiver) in a straight line. Of course it doesn’t happen this way.

    A summary of Atkinson’s analysis below will demonstrate that an extra channel of communication in the lecture hall/conference venue may result in less and not more meaningful learning.

    There are three possible outcomes in an pressentation situation (your lectures too, Toni =:-)). 1. No learning, 2. Fragmented learning — through wrong use of powerpoint and, ultimately what all lecturers aspire to 3. Meaningful learning.

    But the reception process has three types of memory: 1) Sensory, 2. Long term and 3) Working memory. The ability to pay attention in the working memory is limited to 3-5 chunks of information from the active sensors og participants in a a lecture hall — audio, visual, immediate environment and mind chatter.

    Add to this a twitter wall and you risk overwhelming the audience’s ability to meaningfully process the information being presented.

    I am not totally against twitts — they may be useful in the question and answer session at the end of a presentation where those not at the venue can also participate.

  3. Markus, how effective do you think it is for non-participants’ tweets to appear on a (un)conference twitterwall, given that their understanding of the topic may be quite limited?

    The other trend I’m seeing that I don’t like (and this is a bit off-topic) is how some people on Twitter are co-opting a conference hashtag for their own means, often including spamming something (unrelated) OR adding in an organizational hashtag (for example, a PR association) that isn’t really relevant or directly involved with the conference. I find both of these practices disingenuous.

    (Scheduled Twitter chats, which make use of a dedicated hashtag, are also increasingly getting Twitter spammed, particularly as the chat grows in number of participants and profile.)

    And I echo what Toni Muzi Falconi said–I’m so glad your tremendously busy work schedule has cleared up enough so that you were able to contribute this post. May there be many more, down the road.

    1. that’s an interesting point. I suppose the moderator could segment the wall into a column of attendees and non attendees if list work had been done prior or at event signup and such an action would help networking at the event itself.

      It does depend a little on the app perhaps they are using for the event and (twitterfall.com is pretty flexible).

      Hashtag spam is a really awkward one.

    2. If the tweets from the attendants of an event are of good quality, the contribution by non-participants may add interesting aspects (or at least questions). There’s no way to prevent non-participants to use the hash tag or to reply/retweet, but you can filter that out if it isn’t improving the quality of the conference.

      Hash tag spam is a real PITA. If you search for any trending topic on twitter you’ll get myriads of spam tweets (often sent by bots). That’s another reason why moderating the twitterwall is so important.

  4. I disagree with nº2, it’s for the organisers to organise and decide on it. Either the twitterwall is there for everyone during their presentation (ill advisable) or not at all. To have some presenters included with the wall and others not seems even worse.

    I’ve seen the twitterwalls go up in between speakers’ presentations, and turned off during the presentations – which is about right in my mind for everyone.

    1. In the end it’s the organisers’ decision, but a twitterwall can totally ruin a presentation if a speaker doesn’t know how to deal with it or doesn’t have enough experience. If you know that, why would you put your event at risk? On the other hand, if you have a twitter-savvy presenter why would you want to deprive him/her of the chance to get direct feedback from the floor and from the net?

      I’m not so sure if a twitterwall used as interval material is really efficient; I’ve seen this occasionally and found it only mildly inspiring.

  5. Just plain bad manners and rudeness. And Lord knows there’s enough of that in TwitterWorld.

    But it would be fun to have a speaker who could multitask and interact with the Twitterers. Like, “I can can tell you dweebs don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about, so I’ll drill down a little deeper and try to give you a 140-character explanation.”

    1. We shouldn’t confuse twitter with a twitterwall. Context makes a big difference. On twitter it depends on who you follow (and who’s follwing you) if you are confronted with bad manners etc. or not. In my twitter timeline I hardly ever experience any uncivilized behaviour, but your mileage may vary, of course.
      I’ve seen a couple of speakers who not only had no problem with the twitterwall but was able to integrate it perfectly into his presentation and the subsequent lively discussion.

  6. Hey Markus!

    Would you suggest that rather than distracting the entire audience of an event with a huge twitterwall that all can see and are distracted by while others are presenting, the organizers host an area for twitter maniacs with a small twitterwall for their eyes only?

    Obviously not in a secluded ghetto but for example in one part of the floor.

    Of course, if as you suggest everything is announced and explained in public even before the event, the non twitterers who are not annoyed by the ongoing tweets may also sit in that part of the conference hall.

    The moderation issue is always a problem. I agree that moderation is not necessarily censure, but it needs much caution for it not to look like it, as the audience of course does not know what was left out by the moderator.

    Your view? Any way to get around this?

    Finally, I smiled at you powerbore definition and was reminded of a very critical and bright student who got an A from me for having overtly criticized the ultimate boredom of my power points in class.

    When I asked her, but would you help me change them? She agreed and taught me one little secret (at least for me):

    what appears behind your back when you speak needs to be only evocative of the concept you are trying to convey, but mostly needs to stimulate a (visual more than verbal) association between your content and other ideas that are more familiar to the class.

    It’s the idea of power points as a bridge between the lecturer and the students.

    Cheers, let’s have more posts from you….

    1. Separating the twitterati from the rest of crowd hardly is worth the organisational effort this would require. You’d have to mark them with a scarlet T (if they let you) ;-))

      Instead of an answer I’d like to give an example: The organisers of the World PR Forum 2010 in Stockholm, which you surely remember, did a really good job with their twitterwall integration. I never had the feeling that the audience thought the twitterstream was intrusive or distracting, and they made very good use of it. (Okay, those were PR people, so you have to expect that they know how to communicate).

      If you want to keep the conference hall distraction-free you can always set up a twitterwall in other areas, where people can follow the tweets during coffee or lunch breaks. But it really depends on the theme of the conference, on the audience, and the infrastructure how to make best use of twitterwalls.

      I fully agree that you have to be very cautious moderating tweets. This job should be attributed to a knowledgeable, twitter-savvy person. In fact, the audience WILL know what’s been left out; they can (and some of them will for certain) follow the twitter stream on their mobile devices. So you better be really very very careful.

  7. I agree, hash tags should be announced a couple of days in advance or–even better–when you first start communicating your event.

  8. Thanks Markus – re hash tags, could I suggest these should be published in advance so those interested who cannot attend can follow. Sometimes hash tags are so obscure you’d never work them out for yourself.

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