Twitter is now a reality at many conferences. Now the question is: should you display a live twitter stream on a large screen so that everyone (not just the tweeters) in the audience can see it?

Sir Ken Robinson speaking at "Hacking Education" organised by Union Square Ventures. Photo used with permission from Fred Wilson

Sir Ken Robinson speaking at "Hacking Education" organised by Union Square Ventures. Photo used with permission from Fred Wilson

Having twitter on a large screen can enrich the conference experience. Here’s a report from the Museums and the Web conference 09:

So when the conference delegates arrived at the auditorium for the conference welcome and opening talk we found two computer displays: one of the speaker’s slides and the other a display of Twitter posts tagged with the #mw2009 tag, using the Twitterfall software,  And judging by comments made on the conference blog, many people found that this live display of tweets in the opening session provided a valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active participation which continued throughout the conference, with many newcomers subscribing to Twitter, following the more well-established Twitter users and engaging with the discussions themselves.

Twitter can also allow the conversation to continue after the conference. At the Travolution Summit 2009 , 200 of the 1,150 tweets using the #travsummit hashtag were after the event. The organiser, Kevin May, comments:

Now this is where it gets interesting. Post-event analysis and continuing the conversation was, until now, the Holy Grail of event organisers.

However, there is a downside. Distraction:

Museums and the Web conference 09

Which is not to say that everyone found the Twitterfall display useful: some participants, for example, did find the display distracting.

Richard Mulholland at NetProphet 09

…looking around the room, more people are watching the twitter screen than are listening to Arthur’s great preso.

But you can get the benefits of conference tweeting without the distraction by choosing carefully when to display the twitter stream on a large screen. The decision depends on the nature of each session: is it a presentation, panel or a discussion? Let’s look at each in turn.

Live twitter screen during a presentation

My advice is to only show the twitter stream when it adds to the presentation- just like any visual.  With an actively tweeting audience, a twitter stream can move extremely fast. It will be very hard for the audience not to pay attention to the constantly moving screen – so it’s likely to be distracting. If it’s on the large screen it’s no longer an opt-in experience.

However, I think that Twitter can be a great audience participation tool. And it will be much more inclusive if you do display the twitter stream, so that non-tweeters can see it too. So have the twitter display ready to go (use the remote of the datashow projecter to hide the screen) and turn it on just when you want it. That could be when:

  • you ask for audience input on a particular point
  • you ask the audience for questions
  • you take “twitter breaks” specifically to look at the twitter stream and address any issues which have been raised.

For more ideas on this see my posts 8 things I learnt about using Twitter as a participation tool and 7 ways to use Twitter to engage your audience.

Live twitter stream during a panel

Twittering during a panel allows the audience to have direct input into the questions being asked of the panel. It allows the tweeters in the audience to mould the experience in a way that otherwise would not be possible. This can take place without the twitter stream being displayed – but that excludes those not on twitter. Having the twitter stream displayed also allows panelists to refer visually to specific tweets as they respond to them. Mike McAllen (@mmcallen) reported back from  Blogworld 08:

In one of the panels I attended they had the breakout screen projecting a twitter search feed ( To make it work the moderator made up a conference room tag #PR08 and the people sitting in the audience had a running dialogue with what the presenters were talking about. This dialogue was between audience members, and of course anyone else who wanted to see what was going on anywhere in the world (with an internet connection)

So the audience was real time commenting and asking and forming the best questions together for the panel. It was fascinating. I find panel discussions usually frustrating because each panelist is usually fighting for time to speak or someone drones on and on. This way the audience is the real moderator.

Live twitter stream during a discussion

This is where Twitter really comes into it’s own – allowing more than one person to have a voice at the same time: Fred Wilson describes his experience:

It is hard to moderate a conversation of 40 people and there are times when several people want to make a point but one gets the opportunity. I started to notice that the others would simply post their thought to twitter instead which allowed the rest of the room to see what they wanted to say in parallel with the point that was being made live.

Downsides of displaying Twitter

There are some other downsides of displaying Twitter on a large screen:

1. Spammers and trolls may be attracted by the attention they can get

And once the tag was included in the top tags of the day it, perhaps inevitably, attracted the attention of Twitter spammers, with a tweet from ‘PantyGirl’ – and an associated image being included in the live Twitterfall display. [from  Brian Kelly at the Museums and the Web conference 09]

Tweetchat allows you to block users if this becomes a problem.

2. Negative comments about the speaker or panelists

Most reports seem to be that people are courteous about what they tweet if they know it’s going to be displayed on a large screen. But there’s still a risk of this happening – and it’s something to accept.

3. Off-topic tweets

From Kevin May of the Travolution Summit

If the on-stage content started to wane, people would Tweet *other* observations, such as comments regarding the panel’s socks and footwear!

From the comments on Kevin’s post, it seems most people enjoyed a little light humor.

4. Libellous tweets

I haven’t found any reports of this happening, but it’s a risk to be aware of. This would be the one situation where it would be wise to pull the stream from the display.

Your views

What do you think? When would Twitter on the large screen add or detract from your conference experience?

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