This week I have been endeavouring to participate in the ASTD Conference Twitter backchannel. Given that I live in a time zone 14 hours ahead of the conference location I would need the dedication of a World Cup fan to participate in real time. On Day 1 I opted for a lagged experience.
On my morning bus commute (at which point Conference Day 1 was wrapping up) I scrolled through #ASTD2014 hoping to pick up some overall themes. After 20 minutes of skimming in reverse chronological order (this being the way Twitter search results are presented) I had favourited some interesting insights, mostly on design for user experience, but was having difficulty putting things together. It was like being given a few pieces of a jigsaw at a time – in fact, several jigsaws all mixed in together as Tweeters were posting from a range of concurrent sessions – and not knowing what I was missing. Also, I had only worked by way through an hour of conference tweets, and felt that my time investment had exceeded the value of what I had gleaned. It struck me that it would make more sense to work through session tweets in chronological order from the start of each session rather than reverse order.
On the morning of Day 2 I tried something different – participating in the backchannel in real time.
Before getting started I asked other #ASTD2014 back channellers how they were finding the experience. Jane Hart (@C4LPT) commented that few people were tweeting with session hashtags which makes it difficult to isolate relevant tweets. This explains my jigsaw experience, and I learnt that session hashtags could be used -the jigsaw pieces would be easier to sort if they were labelled. I noticed several tweets commenting on the low percentage of conference attendees who were actually tweeting, which is disappointing given that this is a large international gathering of L&D professionals.
I found Mark Brit’s (@britz) comment on the value of the backchannel insightful, and decided to look for examples that met his criteria of quality, frequency, and context.
So, at 10.30pm Sydney time I sat in bed and joined the first session of Day 2 – a keynote address given by General Stanley McChrystal. As it was the only session running at this time at least I wouldn’t be trying to figure out which jigsaw the pieces belonged to.
In the first half of the session the tweets were predominantly informational – sharing key points being presented, with lots of photos of a slide summarising the speaker’s key points. This gave me an idea of where the presentation was heading. General McChrystal then started telling stories – good ones apparently. I think he told two main stories – one about Captain Sully landing an aircraft in the Hudson River, and another about the operation to capture Bin Laden. As they are both well known stories I could picture them, and I think that the main point of each story was tweeted, however any subtleties in McCarthy’s observations were not conveyed through the backchannel. I suspect that Twitter is not an easy medium to use for real time capture and sharing of a story being told verbally. I retweeted a couple of items from this informational flow, but was conscious that my followers had even less context than I did and in isolation these retweets might be of little value to anyone.
I was waiting for someone to start a different kind of backchannel conversation – to discuss what was being presented, or to share additional resources. At 11.03pm it happened – @eGeeking shared a relevant personal experience (thank you!).
The first backchannel question was posed by @dan_steer at 11.05pm and I took my opportunity to join the conversation. I exchanged a few comments with Dan, but no-one joined in our thread. @ImagiRaven also replied to Dan. perhaps everyone else was too focussed on General McCarthy to join in the side discussion. It felt a bit like we were talking in class, albeit in a constructive way – helping each other to process information and think out loud. A good discussion helps me figure out what I think, so I enjoy using Twitter in this way.
I only saw one other question posed in the backchannel during this session, which left me wondering whether all hash tagged tweets were actually appearing in my search (I was using Hootsuite on my MacBook Pro).
The other thing I was waiting to see was sharing of additional relevant resources. These came towards the end of the session. Perhaps the speaker had mentioned them, or attendees had searched for them during the session. Either way, they were a useful addition to the ‘context’ of the session.
I had a sense that the session was wrapping up from a flurry of comments on the standard of the presentation. I really appreciated @eGeeking advising the backchannel that the session had indeed ended, and letting us know how long the break was before the next session.
So, how did I rate my backchannel experience against Mark Britz’s criterion?
1) Frequency – there were enough people tweeting that I was able to follow session progress, although there was a lot of redundancy in informational tweets.
2) Quality – although I was focussed as much on observing the backchannel process as I was on the session content, I still extracted some useful insights. For example, the crew resource management approach in aviation trains the crew (amongst other things) how to communicate in an emergency rather than precisely how to respond to every possible emergency (which is unachievable). The business application is to build communication skills and teamwork to help our people figure out a response to a range of situations. A more active backchannel discussion would have improved the quality of the experience and value of the content for me.
3) Context this was the most challenging of the criterion for the backchannel to meet. I couldn’t grab the corner and side pieces to start constructing the jigsaw. Even though it was easier to follow the session in chronological tweet order, I was still working hard cognitively to put the pieces together as I was given them; it helped that I was being given pieces that fitted close to each other. What did really help to provide the context was a mind map of the session blogged and tweeted very soon after it ended by @Quinnovator http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=3852. Ah! Now I had my corners and edges with some of the middle pieces thrown in too! This really helped to bring it together for me.