“Tweet Responsibly”

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.

Twitter Shirt

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.

Photo Credits: Niall Kennedy on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.



I really miss the IRC back channels, although regarding the AGI conference, I doubt that it ever had one. Twitter seems to be the wrong medium for talking about conferences in real time, good for meta discussions, but it fails for making those sarcastic jokes which are all about the timing.

Paul Clarke

I don’t really know the context in which “Tweet responsibly” was proposed – but I will put forward a defence for such a sentiment in certain settings. I’ve certainly used a similar phrase verbally, when facilitating, where – without going into detail for obvious reasons – an official was waxing lyrical about what a particular politician would do in the future about a particular topic.

In the context of the room, the comments made sense – but they were given with a twinkle in the eye – and in a way that, reduced to blunt 140 character snippets, would very likely create difficult headlines the next day. That wasn’t in the spirit of what the politician, the official or indeed anyone at the event was trying to achieve.

So I stopped the flow of discussion very briefly and asked (without patronising, I hope) that tweeters just give a little thought to what a verbatim treatment might look like, and tweet responsibly. As a way of addressing what could have been an unnecessarily difficult situation it received unanimous support in the room, and on the back channel.

Let’s remember that these tools and our use of them are still evolving, and there may well be a place from time to time to give some form of sense check. As ever, the tone and the context in which the warning was given in your case might have had a lot to do with the subsequent flurry, but I wouldn’t be so ready to write off the whole idea of good facilitation or indeed moderation of behaviours at times. It can be very valuable in making things flow, well, responsibly.



A lot of this is interesting and pertinent. That said I’m concerned that this train of events is based on my logistics overview at the beginning of #geocom when I covered lunches, WiFi, party times and many other things?

If so my points were aimed at the responsible usage of available network resources. Why? We wanted to avoid the outages in parts of the network we experienced in 2009. Something the chairman for that year was very mindful of too. Resources this year were better, but not endless and the network engineer had told me that some bandwidth was being taken up by devices that didn’t really need to be on there and by a plethora of idle sessions. We’d invested in giving delegates a free and useful resource and it made sense to use it in a balanced way for the benefit of all.

Furthermore a minority can lack ‘self-awareness’ when it comes to hammering the keyboard through sessions as well as having texts bleeping on arrival and/or generally fidgeting around with an armoury of tech. I recall that I didn’t say ‘don’t do it’ rather ‘think about those around you’. Thus the call wasn’t for censorship, (which seems to have become the issue here), rather think of others who may be concentrating on speakers.

As for treating people like children, I agree the majority can use these tools to produce lively, fun and informative content. Nonetheless if we want to think about the pros and cons, it cannot be disputed that a minority even in our own community can use abusive language and fire off rapidly crafted views about others and their work. In doing so it can also play to prejudices of those not even present in person and set off a train of subjective views based on the shakiest of foundations. It stands to reason that it’s not necessarily what you say but how you say it.

In conference sessions it is very easy to dash out a few lines of opinion before those speakers being commented on have finished their presentation. This can have some unforseen and misleading outcomes.

Thus to reiterate, my own call was intended to best husband network resources and also to ensure the use of tech didn’t create an intrusion for others at the event.


Hey that reminds me. Thinking of older methods for the backchannel, I did pass a rapidly scrawled note along in a session … It said “Andy who has the wireless mic?”


Chris … thanks for taking the time to read, and more importantly to respond. I don’t think anyone can complain at the wifi network at this year’s GeoCom … it was a marked improvement over the previous year and, to my experience at least, it failed only twice over the course of the two days. That’s significantly better than other tech conferences I’ve been to of recent.

The points about managing use of the (finite) network resources needed to be said; a lot of us carry more than one wifi-capable device.

I think what got to people wasn’t use (or misuse) of the network, it was the interpretation of “Tweet responsibly” … I certainly read it as “be careful what you say and how you say it” and I think that was how others in the audience took it as well, judging by comments (on Twitter aptly enough) and by blog posts as well.

But when all is said and done, this was but one part (one minor part) of the overall proceedings, which were thoroughly enjoyable and built on the success of GeoCom 2009.

Thanks for putting your views across … they’re a valuable part of the conversation and, after all, that’s what it’s all about.


Gary – at previous events there have been a few rather derogatory comments posted with the #geocom hashtag. I’m not going to go in to the weeds of this here. I’m all for criticism and critique but I don’t dig snide comments or cyber-bullying which, in extremis is what poor use of digital messaging can be perceived as.

Most people took the steer in the spirit it was intended – some people look to take offence at anything…. if there wasn’t a mumble and grumble about tweeting it would have been “the sandwiches were too small”, “the apples are a wrong shade of green” or similar.

Thanks for you support during the event and I am sure @jeremy_morley would love to hear from you on how to evolve things going forward.


Simon – as with Chris, thanks for reading and replying.

I guess my beef with the “steer” was that there’s always been a back-channel in conferences, the medium just changes over the years. As such, there’ll always be “snide comments” or “cyber-bullying” from a few idiots. Reminders to “tweet responsibly” will have absolutely no effect on those idiots. They’re going to be snide and bullying regardless of whether there’s Twitter, SMS or even if they’re locked up in a Faraday Cage of a room with no network connectivity whatsoever. They’ll find a way to be snide. They’re like that. Ignore them, it’s all they merit.

But the people who contribute to the conversation in a (vaguely) responsible manner will also continue to make their views and comments felt. I’m one of the people (I hope) who isn’t a snide-comment-making idiot, who felt the “steer” was probably unnecessary, slightly nannying and was worth comment. Hence my Tweets at the time and my post.

But lets’ not get away from the fact that GeoCom was a great conference and an significant improvement over last year. The wifi worked. The coffee didn’t run out (much). Not too sure about the apples or the sandwiches mind you as I didn’t see them.

I’m also looking forward to GeoCom 2011 and will be more than happy to contribute as much or as little as the committee will have me!

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