#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the past (part 1)

Last week, I enrolled on Edinburgh University’s Coursera MOOC called E-learning and Digital Cultures. I did this partly out of curiosity about MOOCs generally and partly because this particular course sounded like it might be interesting. There’s been a lot of debate on Twitter and elsewhere about the merits of this course – the organisation, the language used, the subjects up for discussion. But for the time being I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and exploring the content to see what I can take from it.

The first two weeks of the course explore how digital culture and digital education are often described as either utopian or dystopian, with week one focusing on past accounts. We’ve been given four short films to watch and think about, and some early examples of writing on e-learning. I haven’t yet read the suggested articles, but I’ve watched all of the films twice through now and spent some time thinking about some of the questions posed by the course.

Bendito Machine III

The story of technological development in this film is not particularly subtle: what is presented as a primitive community worships each new and more sophisticated technology unquestioningly, immediately throwing out whatever came before. Things don’t end well, and this is clearly a dystopian view of our approach to technology. An ecological impact of so readily abandoning existing technology when a new one appears is also suggested, with a landfill site piling up with rejected devices and machines. But I watched it again and thought about it more deeply, and some different aspects of the film stuck with me.

The key message seems to be about the extent to which each new technology pervades our lives. Initially, the characters are gathered around the cow/radio which remains static. Although they appear to worship it, the assumption is that they could walk away and do other things. Indeed, even while gathered around the radio, this is a group of individuals each doing something different, beyond simply listening: some are dancing, others playing musical instruments and so on. With the arrival of the TV, this changes. The TV is very different from the radio – it conveys picture as well as sound, it introduces colour into a fairly monotone landscape, and it moves itself around. It’s visually and audibly engaging, flipping through adverts and music and film clips, and so the characters’ heads are quickly turned. But while it’s engaging, the characters start to lose their individuality. We see them moving in groups as they follow the machine around, and respond to or imitate what they are seeing. At around the 2.20 mark, possibly just before, a voiceover on the TV can be heard saying ‘think up more yourself’, which I found ironic given that by now the characters seem to have stopped displaying any sign of thinking for themselves. Shortly before the next new technology arrives, the characters appear blurry-eyed, further highlighting the loss of individuality and independent thought.

There is also a suggestion that new technology can be dangerous in a more fundamental way than encouraging a more sedentary, less individualised lifestyle. The TV takes on a life of its own and starts harming some of the characters, with a menacing face appearing on screen with increasingly frequency. But more than this, there is a warning against allowing technology to distract you from other priorities. This is made fairly explicit when a couple of the characters are so focused on the TV that they are knocked over by a car. Despite the harm being caused directly and indirectly by the TV (and the subsequent technologies), they keep turning it back on and continue to follow it.

So this film presents a dystopian account of our relationship with technology, acknowledging the ease with which we have our heads turned by the new and engaging but warning against such ready and unquestioning acceptance of each new development. The warnings cover the ecological but more thoroughly the social implications of such fixation or obsession, suggesting that it leads to the loss of individuality, a less active lifestyle, and the dangerous potential for distraction from other priorities and goings-on.

Inbox

I really love this film, and I think it’s more open to different interpretations than Bendito Machine III.  For me, it’s a lightly cautionary tale – neither utopian nor dystopian. I think it reflects back reality in such a way that most viewers would recognise aspects of themselves or their experiences in it.

My first reflection, I think, was that this film conveys the ability of technology to help us forge new relationships. For me, this is one of the biggest plus points of something like Twitter. I have many professional relationships and even friendships which began on Twitter, based on nothing more than a photo, a name, a two-sentence bio and a couple of 140-character messages. Being towards the introverted end of the spectrum, I find it much easier to start chatting to people via tweets than I would at a party, for example. So I can sympathise when I see Karthi looking nervous and lacking in self-confidence as he enviously observes a happy couple in the department store. I can see why conversing with someone new via the medium of short messages appeals to him. His sudden desire to get dressed and check his reflection in the mirror is an indication that the emerging relationship (which we can all appreciate feels just as real and significant as an in-person relationship) is building up his confidence; this could also be a reference to the way in which we can choose how we present ourselves when communicating online, putting forward the best version of ourselves.

On the flip side, there is something here about the ease with which we enter into relationships – of any kind – online. Priya, the female character, reacts with visible discomfort when men in the department store smile at her or give her attention. She even appears reluctant to chat online with what are presumably existing male friends. Yet she very quickly and willingly interacts with the faceless stranger sending her messages via the new medium of the red bag. She agrees to meet him in person despite knowing very little – if anything – about him, and neither she nor Karthi have any hesitation about giving out their names (and I also wonder whether the receipts stand for additional personal data). While this story has a happy ending in this respect, the contrast between Priya’s response to male attention in person versus via ‘technology’ certainly raises questions about our willingness to trust online acquaintances, often based on very little.

The demands and fragility of online relationships are both referenced. Online experiences can become all-consuming, and digital communication is no exception. We see Priya, who started off out-and-about, lounging around her home once she has started talking to Karthi. In ‘real life’, if the person you were chatting to needed to leave for a while, you’d find something else to do; because the conversation is online, Priya doesn’t do anything else when Karthi disappears to get dressed. She just sends the odd impatient message asking where he is, and waits for his assumed return. When Karthi’s bag is damaged, the relationship – which moments ago felt so meaningful and full of promise – collapses: there is no back-up when the connection is lost.

Despite this, the story takes a happy turn when Priya and Karthi find each other in person, recognising the red bags they have in common. But as always there is another side to this: their reluctance to speak to or touch each other appears to be more than just nerves. It is as though they have become so reliant on the technology that mediated their relationship, that they now can’t do without it. Even standing inches apart from one another, they resort to the notes they’d previously been using to communicate. Anyone who has ever emailed someone they could see from their desk will recognise how easily this reliance on online communication develops – perhaps seeing it in this film in a different context just highlights how ridiculous that might be.

So I don’t think this is particularly dystopian or utopian in its presentation of technology and online communication and connections. I think it acknowledges the way in which technology can be a positive mediator, building and enhancing relationships, while at the same time gently warning against becoming too consumed by or reliant on it at the expense of face-to-face interaction, other communication methods and life in general.

Thursday

Whereas the first two films focus primarily on technology and people, this film brings in nature as well, with the bird motif appearing throughout. I’m not entirely sure I ‘got’ the nuances of message of this one, to be honest: the suggestion seems to be that technology has a damaging effect on the natural world, but it all felt a bit superficial to me with no real argument.

I suppose there are two ways in which machines and technology are shown to be impacting on and harming the natural world in the first minute of the video: the mother bird, searching for food for her hungry babies, finds a discarded sandwich only to have it swept away by a road cleaner; subsequently we hear her birdsong change to imitate first the beeping of the road cleaner and then the ring tone of a mobile phone. Obviously the first example is fairly straightforward: we all know the potential and real environmental impact of technological development. But the second example – of the bird changing her song in imitation of the sounds of modern life – is less clear to me. Maybe it’s just another, more artistic, way of showing that advances in technology are impinging on the natural world.

These ideas continue throughout the film, but there are also suggestions of the power and agency of nature. In her quest for food, the bird cuts through cables and disables an entire office block. At this point there are echoes of two risks highlighted in Inbox: the fragility of technology, and our reliance on it to the point that we don’t know what to do without it.

For me, this film feels quite superficial. But it’s equally likely that it’s actually rather cryptic and there’s more to it than I’ve seen! It gave me some pause for thought but I really couldn’t draw out any other messages than these. In terms of utopia versus dystopia, I suppose it falls more towards the dystopian end – but in a less sophisticated way than Bendito Machine III.

New Media

Watch the film here.

Again, this film didn’t do much for me compared to the first two. It’s very short, and visually it echoes many popular films that draw on the image of the deserted cityscape. This does interest me actually: I read a good article (years ago, so haven’t a hope of finding it now) about why this deserted cityscape idea is often more chilling and frightening than more explicitly ‘scary’ film concepts, and since then I’ve watched and read a number of films and books that draw on this (think 28 Days Later, Blindness and so on).

So this film takes up an idea that’s visually recognisable, but with the twist that this bleak urban landscape has been transformed through our own doing. In most other examples, it’s nature or the supernatural that causes the change but here it’s technology which we’ve created ourselves. As in Bendito Machine III, the technology seems to have taken on a life of its own, and there’s also a suggestion that the human inhabitants have accepted this without question or resistance.

It is a very short film, so perhaps there’s not any more to it than that. Or am I missing something?

Must-read information in the run-up to Learning Technologies

Whether you’re attending Learning Technologies next week or following what’s going on from afar, make sure you take a few minutes to read this invaluable blog post from Kate Graham.

In it, she’s shared a heap of useful information about the backchannel to help everyone get the most out of it – including some blog and website links you might need beforehand and a heads-up about the right people to follow on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss out.

Kate will be adding more information about hashtags, speakers and practical advice over the next few days, so follow her on Twitter and visit her blog regularly (or sign up to the LSG site where she’ll also be posting).

Assumptions about attentiveness: is eye contact engagement?

WitthayaPhonsawatAt BP’s Future of Learning event in November, we were lucky enough to have the fabulous Crystal Washington as our guest speaker at dinner (follow her on Twitter @CrysWashington).

Crystal delivered one of the most dynamic, engaging and passionate presentations I’ve seen for some time. Keeping the attention of a room full of people when you’ve got the after-dinner slot and everyone’s been at a conference all day isn’t easy! But that’s not the only reason why Crystal’s presence had us all talking throughout the next day.

Crystal gave us a whirlwind tour of social media: the dark side, the war stories, the lessons learnt the hard way by big businesses and unwitting individuals; the generational advantages afforded to both those young enough to have been using technology since infancy and those old enough to have experience of networking and business etiquette to inform their (strategic) use of it; and tips for how to make sense of the web of social networks out there and use them to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

During the Q&A time, someone picked up on the theme of generational differences and Twitter in particular, asking Crystal how she feels as a presenter if she’s in front of a Gen Y audience whose heads are down over their phones. Despite confessing that she doesn’t appreciate her siblings using their phones during dinner, Crystal replied quite firmly that this Gen Y audience scenario doesn’t bother her. She understands that these people are paying attention, they just do it in a different way from what speakers might be used to; this is their way of working and learning. Incidentally, Justin Mass asked the same question of Richard Culatta at Learning 2012 and got the same response: ‘nope, normal.’

Some people didn’t seem to believe Crystal, though: the next question was less of a question and more of a challenge. A lady at the next table pointed out, quite rightly, that I’d been on my phone almost the entire time Crystal had been speaking. She also said that she’d bet any money that I hadn’t been tweeting or taking notes.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. In fact, it’s what I’d been doing all day. Crystal had been following our backchannel throughout the event and immediately came to my defence, pointing out that she’d have been more concerned if I wasn’t typing away on my phone while she was talking, as it would suggest I was less interested in what she had to say than I had been all day. After dinner, Crystal thanked me for being a perfect embodiment of one of her key points. Different generations (whether defined by age or by use of technology) have different ways of engaging and learning. This lady looked at me and made an assumption that I wasn’t paying attention – perhaps shopping online or browsing Facebook instead. By contrast, I was absolutely more engaged with Crystal’s content than I would have been had I not had my phone there.

Another aspect to this is the value of the tweets being shared. I found some of the comments on Justin Mass’ recent blog post about real-time activity switching interesting. Melissa Daimler says that she’s observed a move back towards low-tech experiences, towards people abandoning live-tweeting in favour of face-to-face conversation and then tweeting later. She says ‘the tweet is usually more thoughtful since they can give more context around it after having sat with the idea for a little.’ Actually, for me it’s the other way around. I think there is equal value in tweet-reporting (as it were) the content of a session as it happens, and then adding my own thoughtful context later in whatever format or medium is appropriate. I’m a fairly reflective person; I prefer to have time to think before I draw conclusions or make plans. So it suits me to contribute something in real-time, and this rapporteur-style of live-tweeting works for me, and then contribute more fully later if and when I feel I’ve got more to add from a personal perspective.

I’m not by any means saying that, if you aren’t live-tweeting or taking notes on a tablet or phone, you aren’t paying attention. That would be a ridiculous claim to make. I’m still partial to a beautiful notebook and still turn to my trusty pen and paper to take notes during meetings, when jotting down thoughts for my next book review, and in numerous other situations. But my experience over the past few months has been that live-tweeting does enhance my attention and focus in a seminar or conference situation. If I’m on Twitter (or even using a notepad app) I’m not able to easily flit between different apps, whereas if I’m taking paper notes it’s very easy for my attention to switch to my email or other things on my phone. I also have a tendency to doodle in the margins of my notepads which, though not always a sign that my mind has wandered, probably doesn’t convey engagement and interest.

A while back, when Craig Taylor was subject to similar cynicism, I declared myself firmly in the pen-and-paper camp. And I would still today choose to make paper notes rather than digital notes (using a notepad app on my phone or tablet). I prefer paper note-taking for the reasons I mentioned before: it caters better for my personal brand of shorthand, and so on. But live-tweeting is something different. Knowing that my notes are going to be read immediately by others enforces a certain level of discipline; it keeps me focused and concise, and totally engaged. So when it comes to a conference or similar event, I find myself increasingly choosing live-tweeting over paper notes.

Another commenter on Justin’s blog post, Travis Cunningham, says: ‘People are engaged in an activity when you mix feedback, friends and fun … Most trainings lack all three. Twitter adds all three.’ Thinking about it, Travis has pretty much got it bang on for me. Live-tweeting absolutely does not diminish my engagement; if anything it improves my focus and attention. And I enjoy it; it enhances the conference experience for me.

The day after the dinner with Crystal, several people thanked me for helping them see Twitter in a different light. I think if those people now don’t pass immediate judgement when they see someone tapping away on their phones, and perhaps even give some thought to what engagement with a speaker or session really is, then being singled out at the dinner was worth it! 

Image: Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Brilliant backchannel tweeting: what to do after an event

HandHoldingSocialNetworkIcons - MrLightmanA conference can be a fairly exhausting experience, and if you’ve been preparing for days and then tweeting throughout it’s perfectly understandable that, on leaving the venue, you want to switch off and spend some time away from the backchannel.

But to be a really valuable contributor, you need to switch back on and engage again before too long. There are a few simple things you can do in the days following an event to cement your reputation for brilliant backchannel sharing and to get the most out of the experience for yourself.

  • Say thank you

Take the time to thank the people who engaged with you during the event. There are lots of ways to do this, and I’m still working out what’s best. At the moment, I tend to send individual thank you tweets to anyone who I really conversed with online or who regularly retweeted my content. I always make sure to include what I’m saying thanks for: ‘Thanks for all your RTs and conversation during #learningevent’ is more meaningful and personal than ‘Thanks for the RT!’ Even better would be something like: ‘Thanks for your RTs and for discussion of Twitter etiquette during #learningevent’. I also send group thank you messages to people who retweeted me once or twice.

There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but doing something is just good manners. For some more ideas, take a look at this post exploring when and how to thank people on Twitter in a bit more detail.

  • Deliver on promises

Even with the most thorough preparation, you’ll probably find there are times during the event where you don’t have all the information. It might be the author of a book, the Twitter handle of someone who’s mentioned, a link to a website or video… Whatever it is, if you said you’d find something, do it. Find the missing information, tweet it and tag it with the same hashtag for continuity. If it related to a question or request from someone in particular, make sure you include their Twitter handle in your follow-up.

You might have made other promises, too: to connect two people you think would be useful to one another, for example, or to arrange a meeting with a new acquaintance. Review your Twitter mentions and messages from the duration of the event, and follow up on anything you need to.

  • Don’t abandon the backchannel

The backchannel doesn’t end when the event ends. People will be revisiting it for a few days as they catch up on sessions they missed at the time, and conversations will continue. Be part of those conversations: drop by every now and then to see what new resources or questions there are, and keep contributing. If you blog about the event or about something inspired by it, tweet the link into the hashtag stream. Or you might want to create a permanent record of the backchannel by creating a Tweetdoc or something similar.

Collating or curating all the resources from the backchannel into one place is a great way to add value to the community after an event. David Kelly is the king of this and has numerous examples and tips on his blog. I had a go myself after Future of Learning, but learnt the hard way that this needs to be done very soon after the event otherwise all that good stuff vanishes into the ether!

(This guide is an expanded version of a post originally published as part of the eLearning Network’s 24 tips, in December 2012.)

Image: Mr Lightman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Brilliant backchannel tweeting: what to do during an event

HandHoldingSocialNetworkIcons - MrLightmanPreviously I’ve suggested some reasons why you might want to improve your backchannel contributions, and some things you can do before an event to set yourself up for success. Avoiding that feeling of not-quite-keeping-up as you tweet from the conference will be much more achievable if you’ve done the preparation!

But while preparation is key, it’s not everything. Tweeting well throughout a conference is hard! So here are some ideas for during the event iself to help you increase the likelihood of calm, collected and really valuable tweeting.

  • Provide an introduction and some context

Shortly before each session starts, send an opening tweet to set some context. Provide the title of the session, the Twitter handle of the speaker if possible, and a very brief summary of what to expect (if the title doesn’t provide that itself). Okay, you may need two opening, context-setting tweets…! Without this, it’ll be really hard for any backchannel followers to place subsequent tweets: don’t forget, you might be competing with two or three other simultaneous sessions all using the same hashtag.

Even better is to prepare these opening tweets in advance, save them as drafts and then just send them at the appropriate time. This will save you many valuable minutes on the day, and make you appear super-organised!

  • Be prepared to commit!

If you start tweeting a session, you need to stick with it. Even if you find the content isn’t as interesting to you as you’d expected, keep sharing the key points for those people following remotely who do find it interesting. Don’t just send sporadfic, apropos-of-nothing quotes when you hear a good soundbite; make sure you send at least one tweet for each point the speaker makes. I look at it like this: if I read back my tweet stream from this session, would it at least provide an executive summary of the content?

If you really find you can’t keep up or don’t understand the content enough, let backchannel followers know that you’re going to stop tweeting for now – don’t just go suddenly silent.

  • Take advantage of any visuals provided

If a chart, diagram or cartoon is shown, don’t struggle to translate it into 140 characters. Instead, take a photo and upload it to Twitter with an accompanying caption. Likewise, if the speaker provides a list of tips or takeaways, it’s easier to upload a photo of the slide rather than transcribe all the points before the speaker moves on. I did this in earnest for the first time at our recent Future of Learning event, and saw numerous benefits. It was much quicker for me to do; I was able to listen more attentively to the speaker; I had space to add explanation or my own thoughts around the visual; these tweets stood out a bit from the stream of text; and when I was reflecting on sessions afterwards, I had access to particularly useful visuals even where the slides hadn’t yet been shared.

Photos can also be a good way to share any last-minute changes or contextual information. For instance, I attended an event where speaker bios weren’t available beforehand, so I photographed and uploaded the printed bios when I got there, as a way of sharing as much information as possible, as efficiently as possible.

  • Focus on the speaker’s content first

I suspect others may disagree with this, but I think it’s important to share the speaker’s content first and your own opinions second. If I decide to tweet with non-attendees in mind, then I have a responsibility to share as much of the speaker’s expertise as possible. In some sessions, the pace might be such that it’s possible for me to add my own thoughts or opinion as well. But in many cases, the speaker is packing in so much good stuff that adding my own reflections would be at the expense of their content. I figure I can always share my own opinions later, either via Twitter or more often via my blog.

If you are able to do both, it’s important to distinguish between what are the speaker’s points (perhaps by adding their Twitter handle, which you should have from your pre-event preparation) and what are your thoughts.

  • Be retweetable!

This is something that’s worth keeping in mind whenever you tweet, but particularly so during an event. Twitter.com and some other platforms do now allow you to retweet without adding any characters, but often you want to add a few words. So you need to leave people room to do this – especially at an event where the backchannel will be fast and furious. If you aren’t easily retweetable, you won’t be retweeted. Keep your messages as concise as possible, rather than trying to use up all 140 characters.

I recently came across a post about working out ‘your number’ in order to increase your retweetability. It’s a few years old but still very relevant, I think.

  • Engage with other contributors

Whilst bearing in mind that you need to tweet the speaker’s content coherently, look for opportunities to engage in conversation with other tweeters. If the pace is fast, you may only be able to retweet someone else’s commentary – for example, if they’ve captured a point you didn’t quite get or if they’ve linked to a related website. If you have a bit more breathing room, you might respond to questions from non-attendees in the backchannel. As someone following the event from afar, you’d appreciate the interaction, so try to bring some of those people into the conversation where you can.

More challenging but also potentially very interesting would be to engage in conversation with people in different sessions, if there are links to be made between the topics, speakers or discussions.

  • Don’t delete anything!

I often find myself composing tweets which aren’t quite right for the backchannel: a slightly off-topic train of thought, a note to follow up on something back home, or a reference to a video or website that doesn’t make sense without a link. For whatever reason, you will sometimes find that you’ve written something that doesn’t warrant publishing to the backchannel, but don’t delete it – save it as a draft. Come back to it later: it might be something you can craft into a meaningful tweet with more time or information, or it might just be a useful prompt to yourself to explore something further.

As a pen-and-paper girl, I struggled for a long time with tweeting coherently whilst also taking useful notes for myself. I recently admitted defeat: if my tweeting is good enough and I save unfinished or imperfect tweets as drafts, that’ll give me all the notes I need. Be brave – leave the notebook at home!

(This guide is an expanded version of a post originally published as part of the eLearning Network’s 24 tips, in December 2012.)

Image: Mr Lightman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Superstar conference tweeters, bloggers and curators

I wanted to cite a couple of excellent and experienced conference tweeters in my last post about preparing yourself for backchannel tweeting. So I turned to Twitter, of course, and asked for recommendations. I’d expected one or two names to pop up several times, but instead I got a raft of recommendations – some familiar, some new to me – so I decided to share the list in full for the benefit of any aspiring conference tweeters (or experienced tweeters looking to up their game!).

Some of these people are expert tweeters, others do more live blogging, photo-sharing or curating. Some do all of those things! Either way, these are all examples of people who are perceived to contribute to event backchannels in a really pro-active, consistent and valuable way.

  • AnneMarie Cunningham - One of the names that was new to me, AnneMarie is a GP and clinical lecturer so is in medical ed rather than corporate L&D. She was so highly recommended as a conference tweeter that I look forward to following her at the next event she attends to see what tips I can pick up.
  • Aisha Taylor – I had the pleasure of meeting and tweeting with Aisha at BP’s recent Future of Learning event in Houston. I loved how seamlessly Aisha brought non-attendees into the backchannel by referencing previous conversations or other websites, programmes and events.
  • Craig Taylor – Craig is the master of speedy end-of-day recaps. Whether it’s on his blog, Tayloring It, or his YouTube channel, he shares the two or three key points from each session and his own personal takeaways or actions.
  • Dan Martin – Another new name to me, Dan is (amongst other things) editor of BusinessZone.co.uk and was recommended by Kate (herself an excellent backchannel contributer, mentioned below). He sounds like he knows what he’s doing with social media so, again, I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn from him next time he live tweets from an event.
  • David Kelly – I have no doubt that, when he tweets from conferences, he does so brilliantly. But where Dave really sets himself apart is in backchannel curation. He describes himself as ‘a huge proponent of backchannel learning’ and his commitment to curating backchannels, even from events he hasn’t personally attended, is second to none. 
  • Justin Mass – I met Justin in the backchannel at Learning 2012, noticing his relentless enthusiasm and ability to capture the really resonant, retweetable soundbites. I’ve since discovered that he’d pledged to just share a single core learning takeaway at the end of each session, but found himself falling back into live tweeting, leading him to reflect on real-time activity switching.
  • Kate Graham – There’s a reason why Kate has become the go-to girl for backchannel organisation in the UK. She’s always aware of her audience and looking for new and better ways to share the event experience with her network. Most often, this is via Twitter and her blog, Learning As I Go.
  • Lesley Price – One of the most enthusiastic tweeters I know, Lesley can always be relied upon to inject a sense of the event atmosphere into the backchannel. She’s also a good person to follow if you’re interested in any tweet-ups that might happen.
  • Martin Couzins – Martin was probably one the first people I noticed uploading photos during conferences and events, as well as sending text-based tweets. He regularly shares round-ups and video or audio interviews from events on his blog, itsdevelopmental, and he’s also written about why live event coverage is so important,
  • Mike Collins – As well as presenting at a number of conferences recently, Mike always reflects thoughtfully and usefully on events he attends, and I believe has also ventured into live blogging – both on The Learning Asylum – as well as tweeting during events.
  • Perry Timms – I’ve not personally followed Perry as a conference tweeter yet but he comes highly recommended, and was also recently voted 7th in People Management magazine’s Top 20 HR Power Tweeters poll – so certainly one to start watching!
  • Steve Wheeler – When some people speak, you know you should listen. Steve’s one of those people. He’s much sought after as a speaker at conferences and other events, but his backchannel contributions are also worth following and learning from.
  • Sukhvinder Pabial – Sukh was another one recommended by Kate, an occupational pyschologist and proponent of positive psychology. Collaboration is a big thing for Sukh and he co-founded the L&D Connect community, so it makes sense that he knows what he’s doing when it comes to backchannel sharing.

Who would you add? If you know of someone who’s a role model for aspiring backchannel contributers, let me know in the comments below or via Twitter, and I’ll add them to the list.

Brilliant backchannel tweeting: what to do before an event

HandHoldingSocialNetworkIcons - MrLightmanIf you want to improve the contribution you make a conference or event backchannel, to both get value from it yourself and add value for others, your job begins before the event itself.

One of the things that sets the best conference tweeters (I was going to include some examples here, but got so many suggestions it’s become a separate post!) apart from the average conference tweeter is preparation. Putting in a bit of time beforehand will also make it infinitely easier for you to be the tweeter you want to be!

So, first things first: why do you want to tweet from this event, and who for?

  • Will you be tweeting for yourself, as a way of taking notes? If so, you may want to acknowledge this before starting to tweet at the event, for the benefit of those following the backchannel. They may well still get value from your tweets, but there’s no harm just letting them know that your tweets might not give them the full flow of the session, but rather more sporadic, note-to-self messages.
  • Will you be tweeting for other people at the conference, for more conversational purposes? If so, your focus may be more on retweeting or replying to messages in the backchannel rather than making lots of your own contributions. But think about how you might still add value, for example by ‘introducing’ new people you meet to your existing followers or by sharing reminders about which sessions are coming up next.
  • Will you be tweeting for people who can’t attend the conference? I would guess that most of us like to think that’s at least part of what we’re doing. But it takes some commitment and thought, and it’s easy to be distracted by other things at an event (interesting people, activities in a session, the lure of tea and biscuits…). So I think it’s fair to say that this is what we collectively do least well.

Assuming that tweeting for people who aren’t at the conference (or aren’t in the particular session) is at least part of what you want to achieve, here are three things you should do in advance of the event.

  • Prepare yourself with the key Twitter details

If you’re a conference tweeter, you don’t need to be told to include the hashtag in every tweet. But the Twitter handle (@name) of each speaker is equally important. I try to reference the speaker in every tweet that’s a quote or point from their session, and ideally also in any tweets that are my own opinions on or additions to their content. Yes, it makes sticking to the 140 character limit a bit more challenging, but it provides useful context for anyone dipping into the backchannel mid-session. Don’t forget that, at larger events, you might be contributing to a backchannel that’s recording three or four different sessions simultaneously. Including the speaker’s name helps to make the stream from your session coherent and clear. And it’s much easier to find out names and Twitter handles (if they have them) in advance, rather than scrambling around in Twitter’s search at the start of the session.

  • Review and research the session content

Don’t just read the summary for each session you plan to attend. Read it, and then consider what other information or resources you’re aware of that might be useful. Have you written – or read – blog posts on related subjects? Do you know of any useful infographics or videos that might illustrate or enhance the session content? Have any other backchannels or tweetchats covered similar topics that might be of interest to the audience? Whatever it is, equip yourself with a list of links that you can easily pull into tweets as and when appropriate at the conference. Again, it’s better to go prepared with things you might not use than to be racking your brains during the session for where exactly you saw that article that perfectly supports what the speaker is saying.

  •  Invite your Twitter followers to join in

Let your followers know that you’ll be attending the conference and which sessions you plan to attend, highlight any tweeting speakers that you’ll be hearing so people can start following them, and tell them that you’ll be tweeting on the day. Share the backchannel hashtag with them to make it as easy as possible to join in remotely if they can’t attend in person. Invite people who won’t be there, or who won’t be in the same sessions, to send any burning questions they’d love you to ask the speaker on their behalf. Don’t promise that you’ll do this, just in case there isn’t time, but offer to compile a list and tweet those questions into the backchannel at the right moment even if there isn’t the opportunity to ask the speaker directly.

(This guide is an expanded version of a post originally published as part of the eLearning Network’s 24 tips, in December 2012.)

Image: Mr Lightman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net