Last night was the fourth Social Media Club Sydney event; excellent presentations by David Meerman Scott and Steven Noble on understanding social personas were followed by a lively debate touching on the topical issues of fake personas, public relations versus media relations and that hoary old chestnut, authenticity.

I think it was certainly the best event yet, but one issue that arose – and has been cited time and again in conferences, panel discussions and social media events – is the practice and etiquette around using and displaying the Twitter backchannel.

The ability to post ‘as it happens’ reportage is one of the main reasons Twitter is so wonderful; it gives people who aren’t present at a conference insight into the discussion, content and a sense of the room, and adds a conversational dimension to a space which, if well managed, can only enrich it.

Fixing the Twittersteam for conferencing is not the knotty problem that some people seem to think – here are my thoughts on how to solve it simply and without bloodshed…

First, block the spammers.  Any trending topic is immediately leapt upon by the army of bots who seize upon the hashtag in question with alacrity in the (surely) forlorn hope that someone will accidentally click their link. It’s annoying, it’s disruptive and drowns out event coverage from humans. Use Tweetdeck to create a group that registrants must apply to join in advance – this immediately cuts out the spamtards and potentially adds a sense of responsibility, diminishing the ability of people to lurk and post anonymously.  Then assign all API calls to that group to enable real time streaming.

Preventing people giving real time feedback and thoughts on a debate as it unfolds is not the answer, but rather, simply creating a better set-up: having a Twitterstream displayed behind a panel would not be a problem, were the panel also involved in what’s going on.

Having tweets unfurl across a screen behind the subjects of those tweets is a little akin to slapping a ‘kick me’ sign on someone’s back; it encourages irreverence and perhaps a lack of respect, resulting in a schoolyard dynamic.  Placing a monitor in front of the panelists neatly removes the ‘us and them’  barrier, becomes conversational, informative and engaging, giving panelists a barometer for the room’s atmosphere to potentially shape the direction of the debate.  It’s ok to make jokes; it’s acceptable to engage in banter – we’re social creatures in a social space after all – but spraying a kind of disrespectful virtual graffiti at the expense of people who aren’t able to respond is obviously poor form.

The other issue, of course, is that if you can’t rely on your wifi connection to provide real time tweets, then perhaps you shouldn’t use it at all – scrolling tweets that refer to events that occurred even minutes ago is disruptive, irrelevant and creates a disconnect between audience and panel.

It’s not the medium, it’s the mode.

Steven Noble, David Meerman Scott and Tim Burrowes onstage at SMCSyd IV

Steven Noble, David Meerman Scott and Tim Burrowes onstage at SMCSyd IV in front of the offending screen

21 thoughts on “taming the twitterstream: online etiquette

  1. Points well made.

    I was on the feed from beginning to end and found it useful, however feeds are no different to a panel, they need to be moderated.

    From what I read on the feed, and the DM’s I’ve since received, it seems there’s room for SMC Sydney to improve how it runs their events.

    The last one I attended was so noisy. Only I was near the front, I’d have missed most of the discussion.

  2. I’d suggest registration would be open to all, but registering in advance would prevent hashtag highjack.

  3. yeah, that works. There’ll always be an element of combativeness, given the industry and the issues under discussion, but this does seem a good compromise.

  4. Catherine — this being our fourth outing, i think we’re slowly getting the hang of running these events.

    after last night’s event, which featured the return of the twitter feed, we discussed what to do to improve it next time, the same way we discussed how we could improve the venue, the acoustics, the format afgter the last three events.

    there’s always room for improvement, that goes without saying, but i’m sure you can appreciate that the people who put the time, effort and resources into producing these events — Doug, Tip, myself and Cathie here — find it increasingly frustrating that [some of] the people who attend these events will always, no matter what, find something wrong. the format, the feed, the organisation, the content. Cathie’s post here is a just an example of how we look at each event and figure out what we can do the next time around to make things better.

    we really do strive to get this to a point where things run smoothly, but i think it’s worth pointing out that we spend a lot of time outside our day jobs planning SMCSYD events because we believe in the discussion it generates and the community it supports. just something to consider before our “organisational skills” are put at fault for something most people would class as growing pains.


  5. It strikes me that half the battle is won with the relatively simple addition of a monitor for the presenters.

    Where it did get awkward a couple of times last night was when they were making a point and a tweet drew a laugh from the audience half way through. As they couldn’t see it, it must have felt to the presenters like they were perhaps the subject of the joke, which they weren’t.

    But part of the point of this sort of event is for people to be able to join in the debate, and banter, so ditching the stream isn’t the answer.

    Finding a way to only show tweets from those present or pre-registered would seem to be the answer to the trending spam issue. If there’s an app that allows for that, preumably Twitter profiles could be logged at the same time someone reserves their place.

    To answer Barry’s point, that would potentially mean that those not there would still be able to folllow proceedings, but external tweets would not show on the screen in the room.


    Tim – Mumbrella

  6. That could be a good approach, Tim. In my experience the twitterstream gets a bit feisty because the questions aren’t being answered or acknowledged – a screen for the host could be useful.

    Something else that might be worth considering is leaving the live twitterstream until the question time? That way the focus is on discussion; having the live tweets during the presentations is inevitably distracting.

    It could also be useful to have 2 hosts – one on stage and one managing the Twitter stream from the SMCSYD account – annotating presentations, posting links to useful background information, retweeting useful questions, answering simple questions and giving the discussion a bit of structure.

  7. Hi Heather

    Nobody disputes the efforts organizers have invested in putting on Social Media Club Sydney.

    My point is when I attended last time, the noise at the back of the room made it very difficult to hear even from the front. I was only meters from the speakers.

    For the record, I think these events are fantastic, and said as such at a recent chapter meeting of the National Speakers Association.

    If I were not in the throes of packing my apartment for my three month stint in NYC, I’d have been there last night.

    Let me know if I can be of service Heather

    BTW – I covered last nights from a twead vantage point in my blog at http://www.catherinewhite.wordpress.com

  8. I was at last night’s event. Twitter for me is one of the connection points and I don’t have an issue with non-attendees following or commenting. That is important. Yes, there is humour in some of the posts, but that is the spirit of the evening. I agree, the panelists should see the feed in front, not behind. Depending on numbers, they could also look at a couple of screens, as it was difficult to see it last night (from where I was standing).

  9. Hi Catherine — JEALOUS of your stint in NYC 🙂

    but just to note you would have noticed, had you attended last, a substantial difference in the venue we help it in last night. much better for acoustics, mingling and drink prices — and i did my rounds of the room last night and the noise levels were far better.

    i know all too well about the problems at the one you attended — i was the moderator. we were the first to admit there were issues with the sound there, but there was also issues with adults coming to an event and then acting like children. last night was a vast improvement on that one and, like i said, hopefully we’ll have all the kinks ironed out in the next few times around.

    i appreciate your positive view of SMCSYD and your saying so in a public forum. i just felt that some comments/criticisms of the event were a little caustic. apologise for the mild defense of an event we put alot of ourselves into 🙂


  10. Finding a tone and approach that works is always hard, and when you have a room full of social media fans and lots of booze, it’s even harder. Kudos to you all for even attempting to manage such an unruly crowd!

    (possible thought – leave less time for people to get drunk before you start the presentations?)

  11. I’m a big fan of twitter and believe the back channel has a great deal to add at events like this (which are evolving quite nicely!). But, I think we need some balance – if we’re all there in person to share, then let’s take advantage of the opportunity to have “live” conversations.
    I’d be in favour of centre stage devoted solely to the presenters (and NO tweet stream – organizers can monitor it, but don’t make it viewable to the audience) for the presenting portion and then opening up the stream at question time and making it accessible to the presenters.
    We need to respect the effort expended by the presenters and give them our attention. Aren’t they a big reason why we are there in the first place?

  12. Having a screen behind presenters is always hard to manage. It promotes spammers as the hashtag trends and general unruly drunk tweeting (that would probably go on anyway, but becomes much more destructive to the crowd dynamic when displayed publically) and can be a confusing/concerning tool for speakers who are unfamiliar with the formats use in such a way.

    I’m surprised there isn’t software already designed to display the twitter backchannel that provides a whitelist of people it will only display that people can register for before/during an event. This certainly avoids the problem with spammers targeting a trending hashtag.

    The other issues raised are unfortunately part of the territory, you create a public utility, and a minority will use it in unintended and possibly unhelpful ways. Overall though I consider it a net positive service to SMCSYD.

  13. when i was hosting panels during This Is Not Art we used to try and schedule them straight after a meal, as food tended to bed down the drunken behaviour.

    The people attending SMCSYD have probably come straight from work and are drinking on an empty stomach. Maybe invest in some crackers for the crowd? Or jugs of water around the venue?

  14. From my time spent working with SMX, one of the take aways was that there is no need to display the tweetstream publically in order to get a decent level of interaction on the backchannel.

    The difference between SMX and SMCSYD venues is important as the lack of space to accommodate proper seating and a crowd full of laptops alters behaviour. Monitoring the backchannel on a mobile phone is significantly harder than having a search open in tweetdeck constantly.

  15. Thanks for attending and supporting the embryo that is SMCSYD. The great thing about SMC is that you are never in doubt about how well the evening went. From looking at the posts last night and today I think there is an overwhelming vote for the new venue. Big thank you to Leia for finding this for us. Now on to some fine tuning and we really appreciate the great points made on Cathie’s blog and in the stream. We will look at all of them. Later this week we will be asking for some volunteers with very specific experience to run the events going forward as we look to grow SMCSYD in some other areas. If you are interested please DM me @realdougchapman .

  16. I think there’s a case to be made for using Twitter selectively in events – i.e. allowing a continual stream but only actively encouraging it (& projecting it & referring to it) at certain points.

    There’s something around making people accountable for their Tweets. Even picking on people who get snarky to identify themselves.

    The comments about a Tweetdeck spamswotter & a monitor for speakers are well worth stealing…

  17. What they said.
    Fab evening, very engaging. Well done to Heather, Catie, Tip and Doug as always.
    Yes I know us critics are bloody annoying, but hey, as long as we are constructive and help making the world a better place, who else is going to do it???
    I need to find these blogs which are critical (in a non-constructive way), cos, as a critic, they’re the one which annoy and frustrate and need bringing into line.

  18. Thanks for bringing this to my attention….I have recently experienced the power of social networking when efforts by myself and others on Facebook and WordPress brought about payment for a quilter in the US who had not been paid due to the takeover through bankruptcy of the publishing company which had published her quilt on its cover.

    I even received an email from the publisher herself…a huge corporation…. telling me she had actually enjoyed reading the online debates about the issue. And she thanked me for my help. This was a case of using social networking responsibly, unfortunately others did not and made threats against the publishing corporation!

    It sounds like the meetings are really interesting and I just wish this had all happened in my youth when I could still hear things in bars and meetings…now the usual middle aged problems with hearing would make the meetings problematic for me.

    Well done all involved and I love to read constructive criticism when it is presented well …. but it is often hard for people who put so much of themselves into an event to hear it. You are to be commended on your efforts.

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