For almost as long as there’s been conferences there’s been conference back-channels. The precise medium which forms the back-channel has morphed over time, from quickly scrawled notes passed amongst delegates, to SMS messages, to IRC (Internet Relay Chat for those of you old enough to remember what this is). With IRC, the back-channel became a conversation, recognisable amongst conference goers. Witty, informative, scathing, irreverent, the back-channel provides near real time information on how the conference is going and on how the current speaker’s presentation is being received.
Which brings me to Twitter. These days Twitter has all but supplanted almost every other form of back-channel communication. Not every conference venue and conference organiser likes this. I was recently at a conference which provided no network connectivity in the conference hall at all. When questioned, the excuse was that “using laptops distract from what the speaker is saying“. Ignoring the fact that 3G data dongles and smart phones are pretty much ubiquitous these days, it does make live demos and live blogging just a tad challenging. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some conferences actively encourage the Twitter back-channel, going so far as to publicise the official hashtag to be used and providing large screens running Twitterfall to provide immediate feedback to speaker and audience alike.
For the vast majority of conferences, use of Twitter is accepted and welcomed, somewhere in between the two extremes in the previous paragraph, but despite this I was a bit taken aback to be reminded in the opening proceedings to “Tweet responsibly“; judging by the instant flurry of Tweets on this topic, I wasn’t the only one. Granted, the Twitter back-channel isn’t always complimentary and can be harsh but then again, not every talk at a conference is excellent either, with barely disguised sales pitches masquerading as informed industry insight and frequent death-by-Powerpoint slides with the speaker insisting on reading out every single one of the damned bullet points.
Thankfully, the vast majority of the audience took the concept of responsible Tweeting and ignored it, providing the usual lively back-channel. Some of the audience, like myself, felt strongly enough about it to blog about it after the event. Telling an audience, most of whom have paid good money to be there (either personally or through their employer) to Tweet responsibly isn’t a good thing, smacks of a mother telling her child off (for something the child might do) and underestimates the audience’s intelligence. I think the best way to take this is to view it as well meaning but ultimately ill worded. Tweeting responsibly was a first in my experience. Hopefully it’ll be a last as well.