Conference Tweeting A Distraction and Waste of Time, or Not?

Since the 2008 Zuckerberg interview, SXSW has to be one of the largest scale laboratories for using Twitter while at a conference.  Many saw how that particular “interview” rapidly took a nosedive, spurred by backchannel twitter chatter live during the event.

So… is Twitter helpful or hurtful when it comes to conference participation? For the speaker? For the attendee? For colleagues not there? There are many points of view being shared. It’s either the biggest waste of time and expressly forbidden (as was my experience in how CTAM directed its conference recently in DC, or it is fully embraced and publicly lauded as in SXSW. Kate Neiderhoffer recently explored same ideas in a recent post in her blog Social Abacus. Some comments to Peter Kim’s post summing-up SXSW lament the intensity of its use.

I don’t know the answer. But my colleagues and I are trying to dive into some analysis in our spare time to see what actual use is like and what we can learn from that. We’re not done by any stretch–but take a look and share your POV.

SXSW Charlene Li “The Future of Social Networks”: 686 Twitter Feeds

Armano TwitPic post at Li presentation

Armano TwitPic post at Li presentation





So far, we’ve loaded 686 tweets during the Charlene Li “Future of Social Networking” presentation at SXSW. The tweets included the #sxswfsn or cited her name AND were published within the start/stop timeline of the live panel so as to narrow our inquiry to live use of Twitter during the presentation.  Of course, Charlene started hers introducing the # and a backchannel–so we’re talking a case in which the speaker encouraged use of Twitter from the beginning.

Individual Use — Very Little RT

First, it’s clear most of the activity was original tweeting (91.4%)–only 8.6% were re-tweets of others’ ideas or comments. It seems the interchange online and/or the speed of review of ideas being shared live create a context of people offering their ideas and not spending a lot of time spreading the verbatim ideas of others.  

This doesn’t mean there wasn’t direct exchange and interaction.  Nearly 10% of the tweets during the live presentation included direct references to others Twitter IDs as the source of a quote, object of a reply or debate, or a person of interest to the tweeter. 

So… point one is Twitter during a live panel is predominantly my “megaphone” or my “note-taking device”.  Most of the listening, reviewing, reading and/or sharing what is tweeted by others seems to comes later.  Hmmm… good or bad?

Dominant Content = Quotes, Ideas, Discussion

To the naysayers who claim only garbage flows by those tweeting during a live speaker presentation or panel, the stats show differently.  In reality, 75% of the 686 tweets were directly quoting the speaker/commenter/questioner OR commenting on the topic/issue OR passing along added value links for relevant content.  In other words, most of the chatter was directly germane to the topic being discussed live in the moment.

The next largest block of tweets were for “alerting others where I’m at” (13.6%) and/or arranging how to connect, meetup, or discuss ideas in person (6%).  I explore this a bit later.  

Five percent (5.1%) of tweets were brown-nosing suck-ups or genuinely impressed people sharing their praise for Charlene Li and her commentary.

And–get this–only 4.4% were tweets random, or seemingly random, off-topic comments not directly contributing to the debate.  But–even this is debatable as one of the tweets coded in this bucket does contribute to the “feel” of the room in a funny way:

     Lots of trust issues in this crowd, come see me for a hug. #sxswfsn 

Another was quite functional… I wonder if those sunglasses were ever reunited with an owner?

     I just found a pair of sun glasses in Ballroom A where @charleneli spoke. If you know who’s missing them let me know. #sxsw #sxswfsn 

So… point two, so far, is Twitter activity live to the event seems mostly to facilitate distribution of ideas directly tied to the topic.  We’ll find out by comparing with other sessions we’re pulling whether this is due to the high-interest nature of the topic and content being shared.  But, most of the chatter is on-topic and seemingly furthering the debate.

Constructive Uses — Maybe???

Digging deeper into specific tweets you can see some a number of uses with, potentially, real value. Some seem to be more useful after the fact. Others, however, are only relevant due to the live nature of their delivery. What do you think?

Sound Bites.  The obvious is sharing compelling ideas, quotes, thoughts whether you agree or disagree with them.  This seems either to be to spur thought or a sort of note-taking for you and/or others in your network. This is also most likely to be RT of the relatively few that are.

     “they dont think of this as a social strategy. they think of it as a corporate strategy and they will need help”– charlene li #sxswfsn

     What will get everyone to open up and work together? Money, money, money #sxswfsn

     RT @faris: distribution not destination #sxswfsn (So you can never leave or arrive again…)

Play-by-Play.  Several take the form of almost a narrative setting up the event, some with pictures (see Armano picture I posted up top, loaded live during the session, that had 890 views — but, of what???). These feel like play-by-play commentary offering their own John Madden spin.  

     Going to live broadcast the first 30 of charlene li, the future of social networks” follow me for URL. #sxsw

     Liking the idea of putting the customer into the org chart. this is getting better :) #sxswfsn 

     so, heres precisely my issue with FBC, no standardization…social web needs to be based on standards..a standardized data web #sxswfsn 

     already getting bored…not to sound like a douche, but none of this is new to me re: portable graphs, social touchpoints #sxswfsn

The play-by-play can also be entertainment of sorts.

     favorite intro ever – question from “low persuasion marketer” #sxswfsn 

     Finally got the required crazy rambling conference questioner that never made a point. #sxsw #sxswfsn

     Ballroom A wifi is pretty sucky, at least for me. #sxswfsn 

     #sxswi #sxsw Technical diffs plague even the most commanding speakers ike Charlene Li. Makes me feel better bou t my own ppt foibles.

Yeah, right!  Another use is to challenge what is being said. Some offer their own insight. Others just like to attack.

     too bad @charleneli didn’t touch on the potential of “social networks as air” (aka the social web) is to realize VRM #sxswfsn 

     I disagree with Charlene Li. If I’m a fan of something I don’t mind my pic appearing with an ad. If I like it, I like it. #sxswfsn

Sometimes this is an attempt to call someone on violating protocol.

     Totally, ask a question not an adv. RT @bud_caddell “Hashrocket and potlabs… False advertising. #sxswfsn”

Connections / Associations.  Among the most useful tweets I see are those that associate an idea with another–although not likely used until after the event.  Many even add direct links for additional content, including the slides being shared live by Li on the stage. No doubt some of these are going to be self-serving for “my content” or “my product”.  In this case, many seem to genuinely point to useful material toward the topic.

     Reminds me of John Pickering’s High Performing Organization model. Google HPO and University of Virginia for more info #sxswfsn 

     For a look at what a local government is doing is social media, go to #sxswfsn 

     Media6 looks very interesting for site owners #sxswfsn 

Requests.  Several tweets suggest topics they either would like to have discussed or they are anticipating will be discussed in the session.  Of course, for these to be useful there must be some mechanism for sharing with the speaker delivering content in a manageable way.

     At the @charleneli #sxsw presentation about the Future of Social Networks – hoping to hear more about Activity Stream innovation #sxswfsn

Follow-Ups.  A particular useful tweet practice are those pointing to things that should be followed up on based on what was heard or discussed. 

     love the idea of social algorithm making privacy and permissions easier to manage #sxswfsn

     @rnadworny spoke briefly with Charlene Li after her presentation. Will e-mail her tonight to find out more for next steps. 

Musings.   Debatable as to how useful these are, but some tweets are individual musings on what is being said with varying degrees of insight and/or entertainment.

     #sxswfsn Interesting that folks talk about the death of email in the face of social networks, but think about how you login to each – email!

Logistics Coordination.  The most practical or functional use are those who simply used tweets to connect with colleagues or with new people they met or would like to meet as a direct tie-in to the content being discussed at the panel.

     So many people I follow from twitter at this Charlene Li talk. Would be nice to find them and meet them. #sxsw

     @amyrsward meeting up with @carribugbee after session in front of room, audience-left. RIght by video camera. #sxswfsn 

     @cvelis hey – are you in the #sxswfsn panel? me too! i’m on the right side, half way back

These next two were actually in response to each other… a connection apparently made.

     Li: Talking about gov’t and social media. Again, if people have ideas about this and want to talk, please get in touch. #sxswfsn 

     @AndrewPWilson I, too, want to talk about soc media for govt. Let’s meet in ctr of room b/w 1st & 2nd sections after panel #sxswfsn #gov20

So, What?

This is just one look into a hot-topic issue at a Twitter-heavy conference event. Twitter is a distraction, especially if you don’t use it or don’t see any real value in those who are–so in that way, it’s clearly distracting to others in attendance. But, to those patched into it, the tool seemed to be predominantly used in this situation as furthering discussion and, therefore, committing to memory (as Kate references in her musings on the topic) the ideas being discussed.

Beyond that, there seems to be a lasting benefit beyond the moment of capturing spur of the moment thoughts and additional content to be referenced later… but, is it referenced later?  Or is is only entered in the moment and never referred back to in the future?  Can we provide some mechanism for assisting the access to these insights later when there is more time to think, ponder, and review?

A huge win in terms of Twitter relevance in the moment has to be the connection in real life based upon ideas being shared in the moment via an online platform.  How else can you break down the social protocols and impossibility of direct interaction with a large number of those in attendance to filter through whether that person has something of interest to you? Pre-Twitter you could do that via the person sitting next to you, the person asking questions, or you could be a crazed biz card socialite and query almost everyone in the crowd. A few tweets create much more precise serendipitous encounters!

Finally, however we look at this, it seems clear this question must be considered differently from the perspective of all parties in attendance in the moment:  the speaker, twitterers, non-twitterers, and observers from afar.

What do you think? Twitter use valuable or waste of time at a conference? What does this analysis tell you?

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04 2009

11 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    Thanks for this GREAT analysis. As the speaker, I went through the session tweets so that I could understand what the audience was thinking, which definitely helps me develop future research, content, and speeches. It’s an isolating experience being on stage, disconnected from the flow, so the Twitter “archive” is an excellent way for me to go back in time to experience the speech from the audience’s perspective.

    And I know from personal experience that it’s helpful to get real time feedback at a conference on what’s going on. Before I take to the stage, I usually check what people are tweeting in general, especially if I haven’t been present for most of the conference. It’s invaluable for giving me a pulse of what’s going on.

  2. Bart #

    Interesting! I specifically value the conversations that come from the “re” tweeted ideas from a conference. For this I believe Friendfeed is better suited, but at this points lacks the audience.

    Also liked your reference to Kate’s musings on the topic – “…the tool seemed to be predominantly used in this situation as furthering discussion and, therefore, committing to memory (as Kate references in her musings on the topic) the ideas being discussed.”

  3. Maury #

    Charlene — your feedback is much appreciated being the presenter in this specific case. The post-session opportunity to analyze the tweets seems a very real benefit to not just the presenter, but also to the participant–although the presenter, it would seem, has more real-world incentive to go back and check, whereas the participant may be overloaded with multiple sessions and might not get back to the content.

    I’m also very interested in how the dynamic of being the presenter watching, seeing, or just feeling/anticipating the Twitter flow while you’re up on stage delivering. How distracting? I’ve taught at various universities in recent years as a guest lecturer and the feel is very different with students having laptops in front of them open the whole time, etc. I’m curious what it felt like in this particular delivery on a topic with obviously a lot of interest.

    Again, thanks. Maury

  4. Maury #

    Bart — not being real experienced with Friendfeed other than WOM from others, what, in particular, do you find better suited in that platform in terms of conference live feedback/streams/etc.?

  5. Richard Petersen #

    This is a fascinating analysis, and the categories you identify are very logical. In a couple of conferences I attended last year the Twitter traffic was noticeably different. At the Web 2.0 Summit, the vast majority of the tweets were outbound posts about who was on stage and what they were saying. The tweets seemed to be from bloggers who were “live blogging by microblog”. There was very little discussion among the attendees themselves. To be fair, much of what was said onstage at that event was actually “news” in the sense that the traditional industry press picked it up and printed it. At other conferences, the “news factor” was substantially lower and the speakers and attendees could be described as members of a Community of Practice. At those conferences, the mix is a more balanced mix of “discussion within the room,” “outbound reporting” and “making connections.” One last question – should conference organizers provide a private chat service anymore, or is Twitter sufficient for everybody now?

  6. 6

    Great analysis! I attended the ARF conference in NY a couple of weeks ago and used Twitter during the speaker presentations. Mine were outbound regarding the topic of the speaker. There were some people from our company who didn’t attend so they kept in the loop through my tweets. I also went back after the conference to review my tweets and add to my notes. Also after the conference I checked #Rethink2009 to check the view points of other people regarding the same presentations (we were not all getting the same message)! Personally, I enjoyed and learned the most after the conference when I read about other people’s opinions/thoughts!

  7. Maury #

    Richard — interesting thought of splitting utility of conferences: News-Making vs. Issue Exploration among a Community of Practice. Clearly different objectives would drive different uses… we’ll have to look at that, too. Maybe we can sort through a session at Web 2.0 — any particular sessions you found especially powerful in the News Making side?

  8. 8


    Interesting post; thanks for sharing this research. One thing that occurred to me was that it might also be useful for speakers to track retweets and discussion that occurs after the event is over. As you note, during the event many audience members foucs on pulling soundbites from the talk. The degree to which these quotes get resent by users in the attendees’ networks might be a good indication of which ideas are of broader interest to the community and might benefit from more in-depth exploration in another venue.

  9. Bart #

    Friendfeed features threaded discussions and does not have a 140 char limit.
    In short you do not have to try to glue together all the tweets in an effort to follow a conversation / discussion. Being able to express yourself with more characters often provides more meaning…
    Besides this it has wonderful search and grouping features (eliminating the need for # codes) that could be leveraged during conferences.
    I predict it will take a little longer before we are frustrated enough with Twitter to invest the time to get to know friendfeed. In the mean time Friendfeed will work on simplifying things to make it easier to understand for all.

  10. 10

    Thanks to all for the great comments and feedback. We are looking at this same analysis at a handful of additional venues. Look out for more on this in the coming weeks. Bart–now you’ve got me thinking about folding in Friendfeed and how/where it goes in this equation of the this type of social interaction at conferences.

    Much more to come.

  11. Bart #


    Here is a nice example of micro blogging at a conference via a Friendfeed room.

    Notice how easy and engaging it is to follow the conversation / discussion.
    Everybody that participates could choose to “tweet” out their comments via twitter as well. (no double work)
    Also a participant could choose not to add his or her microblog entries to the friendfeed conference room without leaving friendfeed. (and just as I indicated above could choose to simultaneously broadcast via twitter).

    I believe actually there are opportunities for the speakers to drive their main points even further by initiating the conversation. What I mean by this is that the speaker could have their presentation scribed as they speak. This could be done by having an assistant do this (via the speakers account) and perhaps even with prepared microblog entries that are “launched” at the moment the speaker discusses the topic.
    This would help limit double posting same content and keep moving the conversation.
    In the end the speaker can then even respond to the discussions at a later point OR distribute the whole discussion, with the presentation.

    Charlene always distributes her presentations via slideshare (even with sound) and the distribution of the conversation that sprung from presentation would just drive her points even further.
    (Friendfeed advanced search is very powerful to filter just what you want before distributing the discussion)

    Charlene would be the first to recognize the potential of this type of groundswell effort. (hope she is still following this conversation)



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