Using the Twitter backchannel at an event

Attending a conference or other event used to be a passive one-way experience: the presenter
presented; the audience listened. Nowadays, however, the use of Twitter (as well as other backchannel tools) has meant that attending a conference can be a participatory experience – and in fact you don’t actually need to be present to participate in a conference any longer.

On this page we look at the use of the backchannel from both the perspective of the audience and the presenter.

The audience and the backchannel

  • Live tweeting – Many participants now tweet their ideas and thoughts live, not just to their followers but also to other participants at or interested in the event using the event hashtag.
  • Hashtags – Conference organisers (and/or presenters themselves) issue a hashtag (ie the # symbol before a keyword) to be used within a tweet in order to keep event-related tweets together.  For instance the hashtag for the 2012 Learning Technologies conference in London will be #LT12uk.

The backchannel provides a number of benefits for the audience. This article – The good news about Tweetstreams – provides 3 good reasons for conference hashtags

  • build a collective mind.
  • be in two places at the same time

This posting –  The Two-Day Twitter Immersion: Using Twitter for Social Learning  – by Gillian Martin Mehers, commented on the use of Twitter at Online Educa in December 2010, and comes up with the following reasons why it
was useful.

  1. Twitter helped make more purposeful the Law of Two Feet.
  2. Speakers were using Twitter to publicise their sessions in advance, share their websites and papers. …even announce changes to rooms
  3. Twitter helped people gain visibility in a large conference>
  4. Participants were using Twitter to gather people together
  5. People were giving real feedback to speakers and organizers on Twitter
  6. Panel Chairs could use Twitter to gather questions from the audience.
  7. People were using Twitter to be a part of the larger conversation
  8. Twitter acts as an archive of content through Tweets

Event participants might use Twitter to write notes of the sessions they attend, and then share these with others using the event/session hashtag.

Twitter (and other similar tools) are clearly useful tools for participants, so on the next pages we will look at how both presenters (and also lecturers and other academics) can make use of Twitter in the lecture or classroom.

Downside of the backchannel

The conference backchannel is very powerful and can have devastating effects on a presenter.  Danah Boyd’s posting of her bad conference experience in November 2009,  spectacle at Web 2.0 Exp … from my perspective, makes some interesting points:

“The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself.”

There is therefore a strong argument for the backchannel becoming the front channel, although there are obvious implications for presenters (see below Presenters and the back channel)

“Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me”

The following posting by Olivia Mitchell gives some good advice on tweeting during a presentation:  How to tweet during a presentation.

Playing the backchannel game

A game that is popular at conferences is Backchatter – a game about Twitter trend spotting. You pick words that you think people will tweet about, and then you get points when those words are used in tweets about the conference.

Presenters and the back channel

For presenters, the backchannel has probably already been set up by the organisers, and even if it hasn’t participants can quickly set up their own using a Twitter hashtag, or simply tweet to their colleagues about it; so conference tweeting is not going to go away!

Olivia Mitchell, in How to present while people are twittering,  writes about the benefits of the backchannel for the audience but also the advantages for the speaker (especially when faced with a sea of PCs and smart phones rather than just faces)

  • The typing means you’re provoking interest
  • Your colleagues can answer questions for you
  • You’ll get immediate feedback
  • They won’t fall asleep

Olivia states that when presenting with the backchannel, presenters will need to monitor it and “be prepared to change course and adapt“.

In a further article, Three stages of presenting with Twitter, Olivia  Mitchell suggests that presenters should:

  1. Prepare for the presentation This includes double-checking the presentation for likely items that might provoke comment, e.g. “substandard content”, slide design etc
  2. Get others to help monitor the TwitterstreamThis might be panel chairs, etc) who can feed this back to the presenter, or for the presenter to take breaks from the presentation and look at the Twitterstream him/herself.This also means deciding how to deal with real-time feedback, e.g. both positive and negative contributions, professional and personal comments.
  3. Consider engaging the audience directly by incorporating theb ack channel into the presentation.  This is the topic of the next page of this Guide

Further reading

The Backchannel: How audiences are using Twitter and social media and changing presentations forever (via

Encouraging a conference backchannel on Twitter, ProfHacker, Chronicle of Higher Ed, 10 February 2011

Ten tips for successful conference tweeting, Jeff Hurt, 25 April 2011

3 new ways to use Twitter at live events, Jay Baer, Social media Examiner, 21 June 2010

How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists, Jay Rosen, PressThink, 17 March 2010

5 ways to use Twitter to avoid a Backchannel disaster, Cliff Atkinson, Mashable, 7 March 2010

How to present with Twitter and other backchannels,(PDF) Olivia Mitchell, 20 November 2009

How people are using Twitter during conferences, Wolfgang Reinhardt, Martin Ebner,Gunter Beham, Cristina Costa, Originally published in: Creativity and Innovation Competencies on the Web, Hornung-Prähauser, V., Luckmann, M. (Ed.) Proceeding of 5. EduMedia conference, p. 145-156, Salzburg. June 2009