Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tweeting at Conferences: Etiquette vs. Impact

I had an epiphany during this week’s #lrnchat. Participating in these discussions has been tremendously helpful in my quest to understand the value social media tools provide for learning.

This week’s chat started off with questions about how media sharing tools (such as Youtube) and collaborative content creation tools (such as wikis) are impacting corporate learning. As this discussion ran its course, the next question that appeared in the chat scroll was about the role of social media at in-person conferences. In response to this question, one of the chat participants made the suggestion that we should “bring the backchannel forward” in conferences. He stated that, "social media does not have to be a post-event activity; instead it should be an attendee."

After reading his post, I pictured a speaker in front of a room full of people with Blackberries in hand, eyes down and thumbs flying as they twittered messages back to the members of their respective online communities. The next image that came to mind was of my teenage children pulling out their cell phones to respond to text messages from their friends at inappropriate times. Being a relatively new social media user (I started blogging and tweeting in August) I viewed these two situations as much the same, so I naively typed in this question in response to his post: “Isn’t it rude to tweet during conference events?”

My question garnered some interesting responses, such as: “Not at a good one,” “It’s engagement,” “These days it seems like an insult not to,” “It extends the conversation,” and “Is it rude to take notes?”

Reading these responses made me realize that I need to change my frame of reference. My “pre-social media” point-of-view was that it would be disrespectful and disruptive to do anything other than give the speaker my full attention. But as I thought about it some more, I thought, “Of course the speaker would want people to share his or her message beyond the conference-goers.” Then, I began to calculate the impact:

Imagine a conference presenter speaking to an audience of 100 people. Let’s say half of them are social media users. And out of that half, half of them were interested enough to tweet the speaker’s message back to their online communities. That would be 25 people extending the message beyond the in-person audience. Now let’s say that each of those 25 people had 100 followers on twitter. The speaker’s message has now potentially reached 2500 people. Even if only a small percentage of those 2500 people retweet the message it still extends the impact even further. And these are very conservative estimates. I currently have 88 followers and I have only been a twitter user since August. Factor in long time users who have huge followings and the numbers grow exponentially.

As a result of this, I have revised my mental model of social media activity at conferences.  Far from being rude, it is actually complimentary to tweet during presentations.  And never mind about about it being disruptive, it actually helps the speaker be more productive. So, next time you are at a conference, don’t be surprised to see me in the audience at with my mobile device in hand. I promise it won’t be because I am texting home to find out if we are having meatloaf or chicken for dinner.


  1. I guess at 52 years old and frequently asked to be a guest speaker at events to promote new businesses; I see your mathmatical theory but I still believe it is rude to the speaker. Save the compliments and the tweeting until the end if you thought it had value. While you are texting you are missing the next things being said no matter how good you are in listening and texting. I can handle a lot of things at once but when you add in the human voice most people cannot compute that accurately with other activities. You may be right but if we studied this in the lab we would both walk away with data to support our different beliefs I'm sure. I personally ask everyone to wait until it's over to text message unless it's an emergency because it distracts me, the speaker. It sends me a message that what I have to say isn't important and that can effect my presentation. So is that my fault or theirs? If they chose leaving the room would be a better solution for me. When in the college setting I ask that all cell phones are turned off and explain it. In the corporate world where I find myself most of the time I can't give the orders to my audience to turn them off but I'm starting to share how interruptive it is to me as the speaker who notices everything going on in the room. I just ask if it's important they leave and return after the crisis is over. Then I know they are interested in my topic and what I have to say. No thinking about it later. :)

    We all work and think differently, but everyone can find a way to handle the things that can cause them not to be the best they can be.

    You came up with a way to see it as a positive. I have to put it to a stop in order to be the best I can be for what I was asked to do. :)

    Good luck and keep the positives goings. Sorry for any typos I juggle too much email and internet topic. My fingers and eyesight don't work as great as they did at 32!


  2. Theresa,

    Thanks for adding your comments. There are certainly two schools of thought on this. I think it is going to take a while to sort out the protocols for social media at speaking events.

    If I am ever in your audience, I promise to keep my mobile device in my pocket until after your presentation.


  3. I generally blog about a session only after the fact when I've had time to digest a little, but with Twitter it seems to be socially acceptable, even encouraged, during the session.

    I don't like to do it, though, because it does take my attention away from the speaker in a way that note-taking doesn't. I'm not sure why that would be, but it is. Of course, I'm ancient, so maybe it's just all those years of doing things one way that make it more difficult for me. Then again, the more I do it, the easier it gets. Is that a good thing??

  4. Sue,

    I am new to blogging and tweeting myself and I guess I could be considered "old school." My automatic reaction to any behavior other than giving a speaker one's full attention is that it is being rude. But the dynamics are changing. More people are viewing this activity as a way to engage more deeply in the topic by having a real time dialog about it with their followers.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion.


  5. As a regular speaker and avid user of Social Media, I actually see it as a compliment when people Tweet during my sessions. Not only does it demonstrate audience engagement, but allows for deeper insight into your session.

    Typically, blogs and tweets that come after a session capture the themes and/or WOW moments. But within a “good” presentation there are many informative data points. People who Tweet well at conferences go after these data points because they understand these are the value nuggets that should be shared with their followers (or the publics in general).

    I know it seems like a distraction when your audience is constantly heads down with their mobile devices, but you have to think that if they are Tweeting they are digesting the message once, internalizing it, then making it available to their audience. This is a level of engagement that far exceeds to typical one way communication channel (Speaker  Audience) that was once the standard. I am personally honored if I receive this type of enthusiasm to share my insights.

  6. Matt,

    Thanks for weighing in with an opinion on the other side. I think your point that this creates "a level of engagement that far exceeds the typical one way communication channel (Speaker - Audience) that was once the standard" is noteworthy. It speaks to the value gained by trading off what has up til now been considered polite behavior for a new set of norms that are still evolving.


  7. Thanks for your blog post.
    IMHO Notetaking is not a distraction but tweeting it is. Tweeter is a tool and I sue it all the times. As such it is supposed to enhance communication, not take away from it.

    The notion that tweeter makes face to face non-listening acceptable should make us reflect how much as a society we are unclear/unprepared on the use of social media.

    Has the time come to stop and reflect how those technologies can develop our capacities to communicate as humans rather than impair it?

  8. Adriano,

    Your question: "Has the time come to stop and reflect how those technologies can develop our capacities to communicate as humans rather than impair it?" is a good one. I started using twitter a few months ago, and I am amazed at the powerful communication that takes place in "140 characters or less" through this medium. But we are in a world where some have adopted this and others have not (yet). We have two groups operating with two sets of behavioral norms so there are certainly going to be some clashes.

    Thanks for your comment.