A Tale of Two Twitter Accounts

by | Mar 16, 2011

Yesterday saw me take on the mantle of two Twitter accounts: @JISCLive and @JISCLive2. I was engaged to provide a live commentary of the JISC11 conference in Liverpool, which brought together senior managers, academics, library professionals, teachers, policy makers and IT experts from across education in the UK and internationally to discuss a wide range of issues relating to the theme of ‘financial challenges, digital opportunities’. This was one of the most hybrid events JISC has ever undertaken and attracted a large online audience in addition to the physical audience within the room.

But why two Twitter accounts?

To understand this, I need to tell you a little story…

Once upon a time, I covered two events: the JISC Future of Research conference last October and the 5th International Digital Curation Conference (IDCC09) the year before. At both of these events I encountered a problem whilst commentating via Twitter. Both conferences were similar in that they had a packed programme of presentations, so I was tweeting almost constantly throughout the day, using the dedicated event Twitter accounts set up for the purpose. By about 2pm, after around 200 tweets, I noticed the problem:

My tweets were no longer showing up in the event hash tag search results.

Both were brand new Twitter accounts, set up a few days prior to their respective events. Up to the point of their disappearance from the search results, they had not issued a tweet without the event hash tag. I continued to tweet for a short while without the hash tag (thus maintaining the record of the event, if not the annotation of the hash tag), and then tried adding the hash tag again. No joy. I took a break for a period during the Q&A sessions (which are harder to commentate upon anyway) and then tried again. No joy. I tried tweeting from different clients, including Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and the Twitter website. No joy.

So I searched for help from Twitter…

The main Twitter website indicates the following:

Due to resource constraints, not every tweet can be indexed in Twitter Search. Our engineers are always working to index more updates, but we can’t force individual, missing Tweets into search. Rest assured that your followers will still see all your updates and @replies, and we’ll update on this page as we improve this issue.

(Extract from: Twitter Help Center)

I emailed Twitter to enquire further, explaining the circumstances to see if there was something I had done/could avoid doing in the future which would prevent the problem arising again. They gave the following response:

“Due to current resource constraints, not every Tweet can be indexed in Twitter Search at the moment. You can read more about this on our help page for this issue:

I’ve confirmed that your account is affected by our current resource constraints, and isn’t being filtered for any reason beyond this known issue. Our engineers are working hard to index more updates, and we hope to get your Tweets into the index soon.

While I’m not able to force your Tweets to appear in search, your followers should still receive all of your updates and we will still deliver your @replies to other users.”

(Correspondence with “dino”, Oct 26 2010, 01:27 pm)

Sound familiar?

There appeared to be no way around this problem. Leaving aside the implied risk that individual, random tweets may also fail to be indexed in the Twitter search, which could impact upon an event stream in other ways, it appears that entire accounts can fail to show, including your all important official event account.

But my tweets had appeared in the search consistently throughout the day up to that point. Well over a hundred of them. This leads me to a personal suspicion that, despite the stock answer from Twitter, I may well have fallen foul of this reason for exclusion:

You are being filtered out of search due to a quality issue: In order to provide the best search experience for users, Twitter automatically filters search results for quality. This Search Quality help page has information why accounts are filtered from search.

(Extract from Twitter Help Center).

One of the quality filters: hash tag spamming. When you think about it, my activities could be construed in this way, despite the value they add to the hash tag as a whole.

At most of my events there is usually a mixture of formats within the programme, which means that I do not normally have to provide really detailed Twitter coverage over the whole day and thus do not encounter this problem. However, when we came to plan JISC11 and the same all-day-tweeting scenario arose, so we had to consider possible strategies to circumvent this problem.

Our solution was two fold:

1. Create two accounts to share the load of the live commentary.

Rather than use one as a back up for the other (which would involve switching if/when the problem occurred) which opted for a clear, planned approach: @JISCLive would be used to cover the morning sessions, whilst @JISCLive2 would be used for the afternoon sessions, with a planned change over at lunch.

2. Separate out the commentary and hash tag search on live streaming page so that the commentary appears in a separate area with the feed taken straight from the account, rather than the search.

This means the commentary would continue to be visible, even if the account did not appear in the search, whilst additionally providing the online participant with a choice of how to view the Twitter activity. They could either watch the official commentary or they can watch the more fast-moving tag, featuring a wider range of voices.

This approach was publicised in the pre-event advice to online participants, so that they had the opportunity to follow these accounts, if they chose.

On the day, whilst the @JISCLive account performed perfectly, the afternoon’s @JISCLive2 account did not show in the search. Grrr! Unfortunately, our Twitter strategy involved someone else was monitoring the stream and providing support to online participants whilst I focussed solely on tweeting quotes, so I did not notice this until it was too late. It would also have been difficult to switch accounts midsession, due to the dedicated display area on the live streaming page. Whilst this feed was intended as a backstop for this very circumstance, in practice many people reported that they were viewing the live stream in a pop out window, rather than set within the context of the page, due to browser issues. They must therefore have been following the Twitter activity solely on the hash tag search within their own preferred client, as relatively few people had subscribed to follow the @JISCLive2 account directly. Delegates within the room were also have been following the tag, and without the live commentary appearing within this search, there was a risk of what Julius Solaris terms “twomiting”.

So why didn’t this account show up? Well, again, both were brand new accounts set up at the same time and, seemingly at random, @JISCLive2 suffered from this:

There are a few reasons why all your tweets might not be missing from public search:

3. Your account is new, or you recently changed your username: It can take a few days for new and updated accounts to be indexed by search.

(The full list of potential reasons is here)

So what can we learn from this experience?

I think one of the most vital things is to set up any new, dedicated event Twitter account at least a week before the event and produce some test tweets to ensure that it is working and being indexed correctly.

Had we done this, I believe the double account approach would have worked perfectly well, but in the event of a problem with one or other account, it is important to have a back up strategy to move between the two in an unscheduled way. For this reason, I think a display which incorporated both accounts would perhaps have been a better option. This would also have negated the need for viewers to refresh their browser at lunch to see the new feed and would have allowed a seamless transition between the accounts in the event of a failure, so that the commentary tweets remained in the current Twitter search.

The volume created by a live commentator using Twitter needs to be considered in the design of any amplification plan to ensure that proper strategies are employed to mitigate against some of the risks associated with using Twitter as a key communication channel. Whilst Twitter does not index everything, there will always be a risk involved in relying upon a hash tag, rather than building a following on a specific account, but with good precautions this risk can be reduced. I think the lessons learnt from this experimental strategy go a long way towards developing best practices in this area.
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