The latest academic research on Twitter and conferences addresses the issue of “snarky tweets” during presentations. What should be the guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not? My own experience of tweeting during presentations at Presentation Camp LA highlighted for me the new challenges we face around Twitter etiquette at conferences.

The research

Tony McNeil reports on a survey of 103 people from a conference on learning technology in April 2009: More than just passing notes in class? Reflections on the twitter backchannel.

More than a quarter of the conference twitterers said that they had sent dismissive or dissenting tweets during presentations. These usually related to disagreements around the content of a presentation. One tweeter admitted to tweeting that a presentation was boring and a waste of time.

Some of these respondents claimed that their critical tweets were no different than what they would have been prepared to say face to face.

Are snarky tweets a problem?

However, it does seem that negative tweets can be a problem:

Marieke Guy says:

I’ve watched Twitter back channels at events for some time now and have on occasions felt quite uncomfortable reading some of the personal comments made. It’s almost as if people think that because it’s being said using a social networking tool (rather than in the ear of the person next to them) it’s OK. Quite the opposite. I’m sure there is many a presenter who has put themselves through hell reading the unkind comments written about them.

Peter Bromberg had this to say after a conference:

Twittering snide, insulting remarks about your fellow committee members while they speak and marking it with #ala09 hash tag to ensure that the widest possible audience sees your comment: REALLY VERY NOT GOOD

Are guidelines needed to minimize negative tweets?

McNeil asked his respondents whether they thought guidelines were necessary. Forty-nine people were against having guidelines, and 40 were for.

Some of those against guidelines said they trusted their fellow twitterers to use the backchannel responsibly. But there were others who were adamant that having guidelines was against the spirit of Twitter:

“If you constrain me, I will buck the system just because!”

“I would resent greatly an imposed set of best practices for this tool.”

However, 40 people did agree with having guidelines. Most of these were more concerned with practical than moral issues eg: consistent use of hashtags. However, a number suggested guidelines to minimize “snarky” tweets. For example:

“Do no harm ie: conduct the conversations with the same level of courtesy and respect that one would expect of any professional interchange. No publicly flaming speakers.”

“Only tweet what you would stand up and say publicly.”

What should be the guideline?

I think it would be useful to develop a shared etiquette around tweeting during presentations. I think conference organizers could include such a guideline in the conference programme (personally I don’t think much of the maturity of a person who will rebel against a guideline just because).

I like the idea of the principle that you should only tweet what you would be prepared to say face to face.

But in practice, it’s quite challenging. At Presentation Camp LA I tweeted this:

Being stimulated by Jeanne’s acting workshop. But not convinced that bringing acting techniques into presenting is useful. #pcampLA

Now, I think it’s a perfectly polite tweet and I could have said this out loud during the presentation. But I didn’t. Partly because it didn’t fit with the flow of the workshop and partly because I didn’t want to.

So was it wrong for me to tweet this? Not necessarily.

A professor using twitter in classes (I don’t have the link at the moment – will add it when I’ve found it) found that some students who had never contributed before, started contributing through Twitter, and some started contributing out loud as a result.

Many of us are frightened of challenging people out loud, and I think holding people to the standard of only tweeting what you would be prepared to say face-to-face would stifle valuable debate. Instead, how about seeing twitter as a channel for encouraging dissent and challenge which has previously remained hidden out of fear or politeness.

And possibly this will then grow people’s confidence so that the debate does take place out loud – which I agree is the ideal.

So my suggestion is that the guideline should be that you should only tweet what would be considered acceptable to say face to face. What do you think?

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