UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

(TwitterFall) You’re My Wonder Wall

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 20 April 2009

This year’s Museums and the Web conference (MW2009) marked the first occasion I have attended an event during which the Twitter back channel has been embraced by the conference organisers and by many conference participants and not just the usual early adopters.

At last year’s event (MW2008) we saw many developers making use of Twitter, with a display of the tweets about the conference (i.e. tagged with #mw2008) being shown near the registration area. And as a demonstration of the willingness of the conference organisers (David Bearman and Jennifer Trant) to embrace innovation at the conference a live display of the tweets, which were being aggregated by Mike Ellis’s Onetag software, were shown during Clifford Lynch’s closing talk at the conference. I have to admit, though, that there were concerns about this live, unmoderated display of Twitter posts during a talk: what if personal banter were displayed (“anyone fancy going for a drink later?”); critical comments about the speakers (“this is a boring talk”) or bad language or even spam from people who weren’t at the conference.

Twitterwall Display of MW2009 TweetsBut whilst such concerns may be legitimate, David and Jennifer showed that they were willing to take a risk and “just do it”. So when the conference delegates arrived at the auditorium for the conference welcome and opening talk we found two computer displays: one of the speaker’s slides and the other a display of Twitter posts tagged with the #mw2009 tag, using the Twitterfall software,

And judging by comments made on the conference blog, many people found that this live display of tweets in the opening session provided a valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active participation which continued throughout the conference, with many newcomers subscribing to Twitter, following the more well-established Twitter users and engaging with the discussions themselves.   In fact use of Twitter at the conference was so popular that, during the opening talk, there was a message displayed showing the the #mw2009 tag was ‘trending’ – and was one of the top ten tags used during the day.

Pantygirl Twitter ImageWhich is not to say that everyone found the Twitterfall display useful: some participants, for example, did find the display distracting. And once the tag was included in the top tags of the day it, perhaps inevitably, attracted the attention of Twitter spammers, with a tweet from ‘PantyGirl’ - and an associated image being included in the live Twitterfall display.

But despite such concerns, others identified some perhaps unexpected benefits of such displays of live tweets. After I published a tweet one person in the audience, with whom I had worked with a few years ago but hadn’t spoke to since, spotted my image in the display and sent me a direct message suggesting that we should meet up. The ability for participants at a large conference to make their presence known in this way is a benefit which I hadn’t previously considered.

Someone else, who hadn’t used Twitter prior to the conference, reflected that in plenary talks people often lose concentration, even if the talks are interesting (as the opening plenary talk at MW 2009 was). Having additional channels, in which other participants can share their thoughts and provide perhaps different views can help to provide richer insights into the talks.

But what of the dangers that people might make inappropriate comments. Well at MW2009, apart from the PantyGirl spam (which I suspect most people found inoffensive) I feel that the Twittering participants were aware of the issues and avoided tweets which others might have felt inoffensive or inappropriate.

The benefits of the conference Twitter back channel were also officially recognised in the firanl session at the conference when Jon Pratty provided prizes for the MW2009 Backchannel Stars for Saturday. And I was pleased to be the first in the list of prize-winners for my two tweets:

briankelly Due to lack of unions in museums sector @jtrant& David Bearman have got us working at #mw2009 on a Saturday. Capitalist oppressors.

briankelly: @bsletten is right – photo at http://tinyurl.com/3aessg (expand) could be me. Waiting for groupies to arrive at #mw2009

But what of next year? Clearly many participants found the Twitter wall display useful, with one participant commenting thatbased on how well tweets were working @ mw2009 I set up a twitter account for our staff intranet. Public site next? #mw2009“. But this wasn’t true for everyone. Should this be managed by better use of the physical space, I wonder – perhaps suggesting that those who don’t wish to be distributed by the visual intrusion should sit on one side of the lecture theatre? Or perhaps, with the growing popularity of iPhones and iPod Touches participants should simply view the communal wall on their own mobile device?


Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

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20 Responses to “(TwitterFall) You’re My Wonder Wall”

  1. mariekeguy said

    Hi Brian,

    Quite a timely post after the The Telegraph’s wobbly experiment with Twitter and the budget (as reported in the Guardian). It made me chuckle anyway! ;-)

    As regards the distraction element it reminds me of when they first introduced moving adverts into football. There was a big fuss then people just got so used to it they almost blank it out – that said I don’t watch football so have no idea of the current situation! This may well mean that after time TwitterFall becomes moving wallpaper.

    I certainly can see the benefits (and discussed this a blog post a while back – Back in the Playground: Bitching on Twitter) but personally I still like to shut my laptop and concentrate on the speaker when I’m at a conference. Maybe I’m just not that good at multi-tasking? Or maybe it’s some sort of manners thing that’s been drilled into me from a young age?

    Anyway it will be interesting to see what conferences try out in the future.

    Marieke

  2. Bruce said

    The concept is great – we’ve used the similar brightkite wall a few times for museum events and it’s been a regular addition to a few other technology meetups that I attend.

    The brightkite wall is worth taking a quick look at – http://brightkite.com/wall which would have looked like http://is.gd/tx8r for #mw2009 (obviously meant to be projected).

  3. Jeremy Speller said

    Watching the TwitterFall from MW2009 remotely gave me a distinct “you are there” feeling so no matter what one thinks about distraction or otherwise it’s a further channel for inclusion at a distance. Personally I would prefer the fall on the big screen rather than on my phone. As someone who likes to write blog entries live at conferences the idea of being able to watch the speaker and the fall at once would enhance my experience. Besides I might be too busy blogging on my iPhone to watch the fall on it!!

  4. Mia said

    You know I’m a convert to Twitter at conferences after trying it out last year, but I tweet less when I know they’ll be projected larger than life. It doesn’t suit the (perhaps faux) intimacy of the medium – I tweet because I want to communicate, not to stand out. Maybe if pictures weren’t attached I’d be more comfortable…

  5. Frank Norman said

    What is the effect on the conference speakers of having the Twitter wall visible? I imagine it could be disconcerting.

    I also wonder whether it would work if ALL delegates were tweeting away furiously? Does it only work because there’s relatively few people tweeting? If hundreds of delegates are tweeting, does it resemble a room full of people speaking at once?

  6. @Frank Norman

    I suspect some did find it disconcerting – but I didn’t. In fact because the display was slightly too far away, I watched some of it on my iPod Touch.

    Also note that the display rate is controllable – so even if everyone was twittering, the rate of updates can be managed. It therefore isn’t as if everyone is talking at once.

  7. LornaOB said

    another remote twitterfall viewer and i liked it! gave me a real sense of the buzz which was great. Following from a distance is a different animal to twitter in the conference itself though. It’s certainly testing the adaptability of traditional presentation methods and just how much real time info/feedback/whatever we can all cope with and want to participate in.

    Did you or any other of the presenters work the real time input into your presentations? How doable is that?

  8. @LornaOB
    The live Twitterfall display only happened during the welcome, opening plenary and closing session, as far as I am aware. So Maxwell Anderson was the only invited speaker who had to put up with the challene of the live display of tweets while speaking. And if you view the video of his talk, you can see his comments on the process.

    A while ago I wrote a number of briefing documents on use of Web 2.0 at events and back in 2005 wrote a paper on Using Networked Technologies To Support Conferences.

    This is an area I plan to revisit. There will be challenges for the speaker, who could easily feel intimidated by hundreds of users Twittering away, Googling responses to arguments made in the speaker’s talk, poking fun, etc. But this can also enrich the experience, both for the speaker and for the audience, who can be active participants rather than passive consumers.

    Note that the first slide of my PowerPoint presentations (e.g. see my paper at MW 2009) gives my Acceptable Use Policy, in which I normally explicitly allow the audience to broadcast / record my talks and to engage in networked discussions with others.

    I have also made use of SKype to allow remote users to participate in some of my sessions.

  9. Jonathan Grimes said

    Enjoyed reading this post Brian – I think it is definitely a feature which will become more widespread in conferences as the technology evolves and becomes more mainstream. I attended a conference last year where a bunch of us were tweeting the precedings, and I felt I took away far more from each of the sessions than I would have had I just sat there and listened passively.

    I like the idea of being able to moderate the comments in real-time (to cut out the unwanted spam and the tweets which some delegates might regret sending soon after!). My experience with live blogging tools such as Scribble make this very easy to do. Of course, you do have to find people who are willing to moderate, but that should not be too difficult with enough participants.

  10. Nicole Harris said

    I’m not sure that I really like the idea of twitter feeds being displayed live on screen at a conference. After being initially uncertain about twitter I have definitely embraced it for use at events etc, but I think I prefer ‘back’ channels to remain at the back and not be so prominently displayed in public. I think there needs to be a distinction between the formal presentation and the informal discussion around that presentation. If I want to follow a twitter feed during an event, I would rather do it from my laptop – and gain a lot from this (I learnt what a ‘triple’ was this way at UKSG and was able to follow links from other tweets that definitely enhanced the presentations). I’d rather it remained an informal route though and an ‘opt-in by following on your laptop / phone / other device’ rather than being so in your face. Also runs the risk of creating formal channels and informal channels about events as people become concerned about what they say. I think tweet responses to talks actually offer a really good way of evaluating events that are more informative than traditional channels…but this will only work if people are being open and honest. Of course, good twitiquette should always be followed!

  11. Sarah Fazenbaker said

    I found the twitterfall distracting during the plenary…no matter how hard I tried to not pay attention to it, the movement of the fall would always pull my eyes away.

    On the other hand, I’m very glad it was there otherwise I would have never discovered how Twitter could actually be useful. I signed up for the first time during that plenary. I didn’t tweet anything myself during the conference, but I found it very valuable to watch while in the sessions…it almost made it possible to be in two places at once. Several people in other rooms posted links or PDFs that really added to the discussion – or let me know I should sneak out and attend a different session!

    So, I’m torn. I agree that it’s not really a back channel when it’s front and center like that, but at the same time it exposed a lot of people like me to a technology they’ve heard a lot about but have never really used – or understood – before.

  12. Owen Stephens said

    Coming late to this but a couple of points

    I’ve argued before that displaying the tweets on a big screen will encourage appropriate behaviour by tweeters – you are much less likely to say ‘this is boring’ if you know this will immediately be displayed for everyone, including the speaker, to see.

    I hadn’t really considered the downside of exposing the backchannel. I’m not completely convinced, as I think Mia is right when she suggests that Twitter has a false feeling of intimacy – unless you protect your tweets you are doing this stuff in public – the speaker might leave the stage and immediately see you saying how dull they were – so I still think on balance exposing this back channel is a good idea.

  13. Mia said

    Just to clarify – I have a private twitter account and a public one I use for events, and I know that my tweets from either account are effectively public, particularly if I’m using an event hashtag. I’m just disconcerted when my picture is projected larger than life onto a screen – it might be fair enough if I was the speaker, but I’m just a random person in the audience. The effect is disproportionate to the tweet, if that makes sense.

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  15. [...] to allow participants to say hello to each other if they are not sat in adjacent seats, an approach I felt worked well at the Museums and the Web 2009 [...]

  16. [...] twitter on a large screen can enrich the conference experience. Here’s a report from the Museums and the Web conference 09: So when the conference delegates arrived at the auditorium for the conference welcome and opening [...]

  17. [...] Twitter on a large screen can enrich the conference experience. Here’s a report from the Museums and the Web conference 09: So when the conference delegates arrived at the auditorium for the conference welcome and opening [...]

  18. [...] Museums and the Web conference 09: a display of Twitter posts tagged with the #mw2009 tag, using the Twitterfall software … provided a valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active participation which continued throughout the conference, with many newcomers subscribing to Twitter, following the more well-established Twitter users and engaging with the discussions themselves. [...]

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    Before the end of the conference we were also shown a word-cloud of #dhcshef tweets up to that point, done with the new Textal app.

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