Tweeting behind your back

December 3, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

ShadowChiefTech alerted me to this.  I should preface what I’m going to rant about by saying this – a couple of years ago, I decided not to speak at conferences or run as many workshops for conference companies. A couple of reasons dictated this decision. Firstly, I was getting cranky with how conference companies think they’re doing YOU a favour, getting you to speak for free. And an overseas conference I spoke at earlier this year – well, they expected me to cough up taxis fares to and from the airport (a considerable expense) without being compensated. And I was also tiring of the usual suspects on the conference circuit, including myself.

But it seems there’s something far more serious to worry about with conferences these days. Forget the parasite conference companies or whether you’re recycling your presentation for the hundredth time. Now….you have to factor in an angry, critical or plain nasty audience.

This seems to be what happened to Danah Boyd.  Danah is a US academic and social media researcher. She’s written some great stuff on social media, so make sure you check out her articles. She recently spoke at Web2.0 Expo in the US.

Danah presented a 20-minute session entitled “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media”. What should have been a fairly pleasant 20 minutes engaging with an audience turned into a nightmare. You can read Danah’s description of what happened here but briefly it seems:

  • she couldn’t have her laptop on stage with her;
  • the lectern she had to use was not angled, which meant her papers had to lie flat and would be harder to refer to;
  • dazzingly bright lights were used so she couldn’t really see the audience and was pretty well blinded by the lights; 
  • there was a live unfiltered Twitter stream on screen behind her, which she couldn’t see; and
  • all of this drama forced her to read the paper, rather than relax.

A speaker puts a lot into a conference session. There’s preparation, rehearsing, timing, voice modulation blah blah. I am pretty particular about the set-up. I like to use a lapel mike and I don’t like the lectern business, which makes you look stiff and uncomfortable. I like low lighting but I want to see my audience so I can gauge the nodding or shaking of heads. I’m a naturally fast speaker, so I like to pick up cues from my audience that help me to pace myself.

Can you imagine poor Danah’s predicament? She ended up blaming herself. In her words:

“Unfortunately, my presentation at Web2.0 Expo sucked. The physical setup was hard and there was a live stream behind me. I knew something was wrong because folks started laughing in the audience. Unable to see anything (the audience, the stream), I found myself closing down. And so I collapsed and read the whole thing, feeling mega low on energy and barely delivering my points. Le sigh. I feel like I failed the audience so, if you were in the audience, I’m sorry. But hopefully you’ll get more out of reading the presentation than I got out of giving it.”

I have no idea why Danah is saying sorry. The conference organisers IMHO should be doing the apologising. But it brings to light the dark side of social media doesn’t it.  There’s a fragility about conference presenting. You are up there on stage, for all to see, for all to cast judgement on your presentation, how you deliver it and how you look. Even the most naturally confident person can suffer from stomach butterflies.

But if there’s also a Twitter stream cascading on some giant screen behind the speaker, then what do you think the audience is going to focus on? Danah couldn’t see the stream and even if she could, how on earth do you read fast-paced 140 character Tweets and at the same time concentrate on what you have to say?

You can’t. And it seems that just because Danah was a tad nervous (due to the horrid set-up) some Twecklers in the audience turned nasty and spewed a flow of criticism and there was even some laughter going on. This is just disrespect. Conference speakers usually are not paid and present because they have something they wish to convey and like to engage with an audience (at least this is my motivation). We don’t expect to be humiliated by a Twitter back-channel or mob mentality with idiots vying for the wittiest or most razor-sharp tweet.

I’m not sure what was going on in that audience. Danah is a scholar so perhaps she was presenting to a bunch of troglodtyes who considered her an outsider. She is probably the most outstanding researcher and thinker in the social media field, so maybe the audience was not at her intelligence level. I note from her talk (read the paper here) that she covered power issues – maybe a few turkeys in the audience decided to demonstrate power by engaging in a nasty Twitter stream. I don’t know.

What I do know is that conference organisers should not allow this sort of thing to happen. Why wasn’t the Twitterstream filtered by the organisers? Why wasn’t Danah fully briefed about the stage set-up, lighting and the presence of the Twitterstream behind her? Why didn’t the conference organisers put in the conference pack some guidance on Twitter etiquette?  Why didn’t those who weren’t behaving badly try to moderate the Twitterstream by tweeting “shut up and listen to Danah”.

Personally, I think conference organisers need to do a whole lot of thinking about conferences. I hardly go to any these days because the format is tired and dated: usually 40 minutes or 1 hour of presentation after presentation, with the occasional panel discussion, debate or interactive exercise thrown in. For conference organisers to think that by throwing in an unfiltered Twitterstream is somehow hip and groovy is nonsense. Not when it leads to humiliation and tweet-slapping.

End of rant.


Entry filed under: Conferences, Social media. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marc  |  December 3, 2009 at 8:08 am

    I’ve seen videos of Danah in action in nicer, friendlier setups, and she’s a really interesting and engaging speaker. Smart, empathetic and with lots of valuable, original, insightful stuff to say too.

    I read the transcript of this talk and it’s cool stuff. I’m really into Csikszentmihalyi’s flow stuff, and she starts there and takes it off on a lovely techie riff.

    Their loss for not being present in the moment (and for being dipsticks). No sympathy for that. But lots of sympathy for Danah for a sad and unfortunate experience, that actually could have been quite scary I think.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  December 3, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Marc I give her 10 out of 10 also for continuing her talk whilst all this was going on. She didn’t know about the Twitterstream behind her but she did hear laughing or sniggering I believe. I would have lost my cool, stopped and asked what the **** is going on! So good for her also for being gracious in the face of mob stupidity.


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