Join the Conversation

by Rob Poulter

I started writing the draft for this post back in December after attending a conference called Switching Tracks, which seemed to focus a lot on gamification and flipped learning approaches to education. As is usual at conferences these days part of the keynote introduction was what Twitter hashtag to use for the back channel conversation.

I'm not sure what this sort of conversation is like at other events, since I mostly attend education-themed stuff, but it usually runs something like this:

  1. Someone posts the equivalent of a Twitter selfie along the lines of:
    "At Using iPads as Snowshoes session with @BarelyUsedTwitterAccount #EduConf2015"
  2. Someone else (but more likely the original person) posts a picture of a PowerPoint/Keynote screen which you can barely read.
  3. If you're lucky someone might post a link to a useful web service.

Now for small stuff, I guess I can kind of see why the Twitter chatter works out this way, the percentage of teachers who use the service is relatively small and so conversation just doesn't happen because there's no critical mass. However there are a fair few things that I go to that have at least a few hundred people attending, so you'd think that even the multiples of ten Twitter users could get something useful happening.

Sadly it tends to just turn out to be a collection of vanity posts or reports of which sessions are being attended (in the style of the "this is what I'm having for lunch" tweet but without the food porn appeal).

I wonder what the actual problem is:

  • Lack of a critical mass of users
  • The attention cost of splitting time between Twitter and a presentation
  • Twitter as a tool for discussion and engagement

The first point is definitely a factor as previously mentioned. Apart from keynotes, there are typically less than 20 people in a workshop session. If only 2-3 of those are tweeting it's rough trying to get a conversation going that has any purpose, plus you tend to feel like a bit of an idiot being the one with your nose buried in your phone while everyone else looks like they're paying attention, even if you're doing a damned fine job of multitasking thankyou very much.

As a tool, Twitter and the various clients have had conversation views for a while, but as something that happens in real time, I feel that it just isn't really up to the task. There has been significant discussion about upping the character limit in some way recently, which might at least let people express more than a basic idea in a single tweet, but I don't think that's more than part of the issue.

It strikes me that with the ascendance of tools like Slack (or even its ancestor IRC) it might be better to try and organise conversations in something else that is more coherent. The downside of this is that it's harder for organisers to, after the event, point people at a hashtag and say "see what went on in the background during our thing!", but it might be a lot more useful for those who actually attend.

From a purely selfish perspective, it would also mean that there would be one less thing for me to use the muffle feature of my Twitter client on, since, as most discussion is useless for non-attendees anyway, conference chatter just amounts to spam in my timeline.

Now excuse me while I post a link of this to Twitter...