A Tale of Two Twitters

By Tom Peters |

It was the best of Twitter, it was the worst of Twitter, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

Okay, that’s 140 characters.  While I used to be ambivalent about the value of Twitter, now, based on a whole bunch of tweeting that I observed during a recent online conference, I have become strongly ambivalent about Twitter.  Twitter is a good tool for some things, but in some ways, I find it deeply troubling.

Twitter is a multi-faceted thing. This blog post is limited to the use of Twitter as a back channel for conversations among attendees and wannabe attendees at a professional conference.  I usually don’t spend much time monitoring hashtagged clusters of conference conversations at in-person conferences, but I did recently during a webconferencing-based online conference.  Having and announcing a conference via hashtag is au courant

During the opening minutes of the conference, which involved paying registrants, hundreds of folks were unable to log into the webconferencing system.  They used Twitter as a back channel to share information about the access problems, workarounds and updates.  The tone of the tweets ranged from encouraging to griping, but overall it provided a glimpse of group communication and self-organizing behavior at its finest.  Several people pointed out that, without the existence of Twitter as a back channel, the scope of the problem and potential solutions would have been unknown to those experiencing them, or at the very least they would have taken much longer to disseminate.  This experience at least gave me many other attendees a look at the best of Twitter.

Success breeds pornography, evidently.  So many people were using the conference hashtag to report, communicate, and solve the access problems that lurking tweeting pornographers took notice and started to use the conference hashtag, too.  I lead such a sheltered existence that I wasn’t even aware that pornography had seeped into Twitter.  What do they call a racy tweet, a twxxxt?

Twxxxts, however, are not the worst of Twitter.  What really troubled me is what some of the conference tweeters wrote about the presenters.  They would comment about how dry a presenter was, or how silly some statements were, or how too much time was being spent on a topic of little interest to them.  In the days of yore, when all conferences were in-person and there were no take-along devices like laptops or cell phones, these types of comments would be oft-thought, but rarely expressed, or at most only murmured to a colleague sitting in one's immediate vicinity rather than to thousands of others as fast as  140 characters can be typed.

Truth to tell, perhaps conference tweeting has merely revealed how attendees feel about and respond to each moment of a conference.  It’s akin to those opinion poll services that gauge the approval or disapproval ratings of a group of voters based on each word uttered by a politician giving a speech. I refer to Twitter as a back channel during conferences because unlike the side channels during online conferences, like a text chatting function during webconferences or the many tools available during conferences in virtual worlds, the communication is more removed from the principal action. 

I was one of the presenters at that online conference.  After watching how the morning presenters had been roughed about by some of the tweeters, I decided to avoid looking at the tweet-roll while I spoke.  When I went back later and read them, I was shocked and dismayed to learn how many tweeters seemed to have misunderstood my main points.  Had I been too obtuse?  Had their attention been too divided between all the tweeting and other multitasking activities to fully understand and mull over what I was saying? 

I don’t mind healthy disagreements and debates about the key opportunities and issues facing librarianship—I actually welcome them.  What dismayed me, and continues to trouble me, is that so many of the tweeters seemed to misunderstand what I was saying.  What we had there was a failure to communicate.  I partly blame myself, and I partly blame the tweeters.  I should have been more direct in what I was saying, and it seems like they should have been paying more attention. 

Tweeting in this vein seems like some sort of middle school Greek chorus.  In ancient Greek drama, the chorus stood off to the side of the stage and commented on the action, but never took action itself.  To me, there seemed to be a Middle School impishness about Tweeting as a new form of Greek chorus for the digital networked era. 

I once wrote a college paper about how various English poets of the Enlightenment had used the notion and images of an unruly mob to infuse fear and trembling into readers of their poems at various key junctures.  I guess I fear that, if this type of what I call “middle school Greek chorus” tweeting continues to develop and evolve, it could affect detrimentally the generally good and useful communication that occurs at professional conferences.