Many conferences are now encouraging the use of Twitter to provide delegates with a backchannel for communication, which the organisers can then monitor, respond to and analyse post-event. The organiser announces their hash tag of choice so delegates can gather around it as a kind of virtual meeting place for conversation, or as a location for their soap box. The added bonus of this approach is that the event organiser can then legitimately claim to be making their event accessible to people all over the world, as there is no geographical barrier to participation in these Twitter conversations. Absentees from across the globe can effectively join in with the conferring part of the conference without a ticket, and the event organiser can now call their event “amplified”, “open”, “green”, “accessible”, “hybrid” or any of a number of other popular buzz terms.
But is an event hash tag enough?
Whilst a hash tag is great for gathering together Twitter users with a common interest to stimulate a recordable conversation, it does not necessarily enable the event organiser to ensure that any purely online participants are getting a full and informative picture of the event upon which to comment. The online participant has to make a complex range of judgements about the reliability of the updates they read together with a range of assumptions as to the context of those updates, before they can easily participate in the conversation beyond re-tweeting interesting soundbites, unless they are already very closely involved with the community at the event via Twitter. There is no way of knowing how many silent online observers may be watching your event’s hash tag, but unless there has been some level of structured thought about how the event looks from the outside when viewed through the lens of Twitter, the online audience is effectively left picking up the crumbs from your event.
To consider this, it is worth looking at the ways in which people can consume updates about a conference via Twitter, each of which presents its own issues in terms of the quantity, quality and trust:
1. Someone they know is attending and their comments appear in the online participant’s normal Twitter stream
We can assume this is a trusted source to the online participant, otherwise they would not be following them. However, depending on the extent of the online participant’s network, they may only be hearing one voice from the event, so that is one view point, picking up only what is interesting to them or relevant to their followers. This will not give the online participant a full picture of the event, although it may filter the event by relevance very effectively for them. They are likely to interact in conversation around the event topics only with the individual they are following, and this interaction is likely to be out of time sync with the event itself. There is no imperative to initiate conversation in real time since the relationship lasts beyond the event there is a context by which to continue discussions on the theme, rather than directly linked to the event identity.
This leads us on to…
2. The online participant chooses to follow the event hash tag
It may be that the online participant chooses to find out more after seeing a tagged tweet from one of their followees, or that they have become aware of the event hash tag through the event marketing. They may follow the hash tag either within their own Twitter client of choice, or via a stream provided on the event website.
A conversation around an event hash tag demands a more timely response, as participants can rapidly abandon a hash tag after the event is completed (as demonstrated by Brian Kelly’s graph of #iwmw2009 tagged tweets in this post).
From the perspective of the online participant, the hash tagged updates are less trustworthy, as there is no pre-existing relationship upon which to base trust in each source. Some online participants may appreciate this as an opportunity to find fresh perspectives, identify new people to follow and get a wider range of opinions. However, they also have to filter the content much more actively in order to identify the information of interest to you – particularly with a larger tweeting audience, as you end up with what I would term a “hash tag soup” containing a mixture of reportage, comment, phatic discussion and multiple repeating of certain messages. Updates are also open to misinterpretation, as participants are tweeting to their own followers and others who are physically present at the event and therefore more likely to know the nuances of their humour and understand implied references better. The speaker’s own humour may also be poorly translated into 140 characters, so reported quotes may lose their context. The result is that the online participant monitoring the event hash tag can get lost in this soup of opinion, comment and occasional misrepresentation, and has to work hard to piece together a complete picture of the actual conference content.
Aside from this, there is also the more technical problem that the various Twitter clients are not always reliable at pulling in 100% of tagged comments, and Twitter itself admits that not all updates will be indexed by their search API, so some valuable contributions to the hash tag discussion may be lost.
There is a third option which few event organisers seem to be doing, but actually addresses some of the issues above…
3. The organisers provide and promote an official Twitter account, which the online participant chooses to follow
This gives the choice of a trusted, official resource that does not offer an opinion, just a commentary. It is important that this done from a clearly identifiable, official account to generate the necessary level of authority and trust, rather than designating a twitterer to comment from their own account under their own persona, as this can give rise to confusion for the online participant, who still has to separate out reportage from comment. An official account gives the online participant a choice and a trusted source of reportage from the event, which they can either follow in isolation or use for to provide contextual reference when following the hash tag soup.
I have performed this role at a number of events, including last year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop 2009, where we first trialled the technique. I provided live commentary from the designated @iwmwlive account, which only tweeted factual reports about the presentations and remote audience support tweets.
As well as aiding the online participants in their understanding of the content of the event and their navigation through the discourse surrounding the hash tag, the follower statistics for this account gave us a slightly better idea of how many people were following the event updates via Twitter, who might have been invisible unless they had chosen to comment. At this year’s event, we also used the additional hash tag #remote to help online participants to identify themselves, and to help me to direct specific information at this audience, which again, gave us a slightly clearer idea of the size of the online audience using Twitter to view the event.
Without an official Twitter commentator, I would argue that you lack the reference points to help contextualise the mixture of reportage, comment and phatic talk that can congregate around an event hash tag. In fact, the bigger the twittering audience, the stronger the case for an authoritative voice to provide both choice and trustworthy reference points for the online participant. We do need more research to support this – in particular, analysing the proportion of natural tweeting around an event that constitute reportage compared with the amount of comment or social discussion to help determine more scientifically when an official Twitter commentator is required to effectively manage the hash tag if that hash tag is to be useful to those who are not actually in attendance or closely involved with the event community.
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