Web 2.0 Expo: Harshtags, Twecklers and the Silence of the Death Star

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This past week, I was at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City. Since we launched BatchBlue Software just over three years ago, I’ve been to quite a few conferences. In tandem with the growth of our company has been the rise of social media, which has been great for us in many ways since our product, BatchBook, is an online contact organizer that grabs feeds from social media sites and lets you read them in one place.

But something seems to be changing in the conference world. In the past, they’ve been great places not only to learn from the leaders in your industry but to make connections, spark new friendships and form potential new partnerships. That sense of the hallway conversations being as important as the sessions themselves seems to be receding, largely because the conversations…aren’t really happening.

At Web 2.0, people were heads-down on their various electronic devices during breaks, not engaging with each other but seeking frenetically to connect with people not actually at the conference. I don’t mean to just specifically call out the Web 2.0 Expo because this is certainly happening in other places as well. And the conference panels were very good, in fact from a business-level some of the most useful that I’ve attended. But that’s another post.

Having recently attended the PopTech conference, which is a place where people connect instantly and constantly to share ideas, discuss sessions, start projects, I was particularly struck by the lack of attendee interaction. Even at the Web 2.0 “Power Up” station (Web 2.0’s version of  the Blogger’s Lounge at another highly social conference, SXSW) it felt like we were in a cavernous office, with people quickly clicking and scrolling away in solitude rather than talking about the sessions that they had just attended.

Admittedly, people still have their daily work to do and as someone who liveblogs, I’m guilty of having my laptop up and running most of the time during sessions. But another thing that’s changing is what people are doing while they are online during the sessions. The Keynote speakers had an enormous screen behind them that was at first broadcasting their Twitterstream (hashtagged #w2e) behind the speakers. As an attendee, I found it enormously distracting. danah boyd from Microsoft Research New England, presenting on (ironically) “Streams of Content”, found it so unnerving that the audience was laughing at criticisms of her presentation that she later stated on her blog that she “closed down”.

I’m all for the back-channel and having a spirited conversation about a presentation, but I can tell you that as a presenter, to have it broadcasted while you are presenting sucks, especially once the spammers and the trolls join in. There’s even a term now, “harshtag”, which is when people start tagging their related tweets with something insulting in order to get it to trend.

There’s something seriously wrong about a thousand people who won’t talk to each other in the hallways bonding together to silently mock presenters, who have taken time, energy and in many cases personal expense to come speak. The first time I saw this happen was Sarah Lacey’s now infamous interview of Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW, when the back channel on Twitter caused the crowd to turn against her and made for a fairly hostile Q&A. It happened earlier this month at a HighEdWeb Keynote speech in Milwaukee, where even non-attendees jumped on the bandwagon (possible now with live-streaming.) I know that the audience has spent money and time to be there as well so they feel like they are owed a relevant, well-prepared presentation. But this livestream Twitterbashing (Tweckling?) seems a bit like the bully in my Spanish class who used to reflect a circle of sunlight glinting off his watch onto the teacher’s bottom while she was writing on the chalkboard just to make the class laugh.

So what could be done to make the overall conference experience better, especially in light of the fact that conferences are expensive, time-consuming and need to show a real ROI if people are going to continue to attend them? Here’s a few ideas.

Choose your venue carefully: The Javitz Center, where Web 2.0 Expo was held, is a black, Death Star-like structure that dominates several city blocks. The sessions, Keynotes and even Starbucks felt like miles away from each other and in between, there was no real place to congregate except a very few stone benches. And maybe it was just that it was in New York, but it seemed like once the day was over the attendees disappeared into the city, choosing to meet up with their in-town friends or folks they already knew rather than going out with new people.

Don’t post the back-channel or moderate it if you do: After the danah boyd incident, the Twitterstream screen was moderated before it was broadcast on the giant screen. I’m not sure this is a better solution than just letting it do its thing but not on the stage with the presenter. PopTech had the unedited stream running on its website during the conference, which seems like a good compromise.

Attendees, find a more constructive way to voice dissent: Most of the harshtaggers probably wouldn’t invest the time it would take to actually be constructive since it’s easy to get a cheap laugh in 140 characters. My husband suggested that a speaker stop the presentation to invite a Twitter heckler on the stage so they can present and see how the crowd feels about that. It might be disruptive, but at least it would be interesting, while most hecklers are not.

Put down your devices: I thought a lot about Chris Brogan’s post on how to be “sexy” at conferences. What he means is, be approachable, be both interested and interesting. It’s like your mom’s advice on being polite: enter a room head up, shoulders back and smile.

Next time you’re at a conference, try putting away the iPhone or the Blackberry during breaks. If you disagree with a presenter, seek them out afterwards, write a thoughtful blog post or contact them via Twitter to start a conversation. Say hello to people. Be open. You could meet someone IRL (!) who could become a friend, a mentor or business partner, or even start a project that makes the world a better place for your being in it.

Photo credit: Graham Steele

About Michelle Riggen-Ransom

16 Comments

  • James says:

    Great observations and advice, both for individuals and the social climate.

    A lot of people I know would call that last paragraph “being an adult.”

  • Terrific post, and I think you may be coining the term “tweckling” — it fits. Hope we’re not seeing a trend here in small snark-groups “bonding” to pillory the speakers. Tough crowds are getting tougher and these “interactive” broadcasts of Twitter streams only encourage one-upsmanship in side conversations. Unfortunately, for some, the “sound” of their own tweets trumps live speakers every time. Thanks for writing about this, and adding some tips at the end!

  • C.C. Chapman says:

    You may have just won the “best title for a blog in the month of November” category. Talk about eye grabbing.

    I completely hear what you are saying. This was my first time at a conference in this location and I was a little confused about having Web 2.0 sessions at one end, the Web 2 Open ones at another and then the keynotes being in a completely seperate location. It was weird.

    We talked about a lot of the same topics and concerns you raised on Media Hacks that we recorded at night during this conference so you are not alone in your thoughts.

    As we get more connected it is making some people forget to stop and connect with the people sitting right next to them.

    Hopefully there is a shift back to talking rather then just tweeting.

  • [...] intimate learning and sharing spaces within a big conference- and how to engage, even as others found the larger conference colder and less friendly than they may have hoped.  For those that attended, it was a smaller and more intimate podcamp-like [...]

  • Thanks, guys! @marcia I didn’t coin the phrase “tweckling”, but it definitely fits.

    @c.c. Thanks for the title props! I don’t know if the post actually lived up to the title, but it was on my mind and I wanted to get it out there. Curious to hear your thoughts, I’ll have to check out Media Hacks.

    I know there were some good side events/conversations happening (e.g. we had a great time at the Small Business Web-up), but I just felt if you didn’t already know people at this event, you were kind of out of luck.

  • Dan says:

    Great post!

    Danah Boyd gave a fuller explanation of what happened from her point of view yesterday on her blog: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html

    One error though “The Javitz Center, where Web 2.0 Expo was held, is a black, Death Star-like structure that dominates several city blocks on the Lower East side”

    The Javitz Center is on the West Side at 43rd Street overlooking the last industrial area of Manhattan on one side and the West Side highway on the other. Still a Death Star-like thing though…

  • Thanks much for the thoughtful post and suggestions, Michelle! Great/helpful feedback for us conference organizers.

    WRT to Javits, we’re stuck with it as our venue–there just isn’t another space large enough to accommodate a conference/expo of Web 2.0 size in Manhattan. Unfortunately.

  • Mike T says:

    Michelle,
    I agree with your thoughtful post. While we all have differing comfort levels with real time e comments on speeches, there is a thing called common decency.

    Most people wouldn’t start booing/heckling a speaker midway, so why do it semi anonymously? Why embarrass or disrupt someone who is just trying to do what they were hired to do? I think 90% of people who disrupt speeches probably would freeze if they had to suddenly deliver a coherent speech to 500 people. It’s really hard. Why not respect the effort?

    Every speaker, no matter well prepared, well meaning and competent will strike some attendees the wrong way. They were hired to give a point of view, not to make everyone agree with them, not get into a real time debate or reinvent their speech on the go. I book speeches and one of my clients lopped off parts of their speech at the last minute/told them to switch focus. It made it far worse. You don’t prepare or reprepare a speech in minutes.

    Q&A at the end in various forms is fine. Asking someone to react to or even be aware of a continuous stream of input is a recipe for a poor speech. What about the majority of folks who just want to hear the speaker? Should they be held hostage to the whims of the minority or some self important audience member?

    The golden rule is good guide for this situation.

  • Nancy says:

    Not to quibble, but Javits Center is actually in midtown, on the West Side. And yes, it’s a horrible, horrible place to have any kind of academic conference–fine for an auto show and not much else!

  • Charles says:

    I too attended the conference looking forward to not only the conference sessions but also the networking and out of many sessions I attended, there was only one presentation where I actually connected with the other individuals.
    During the lunches, people were either crowded by the charging stations or just silently eating. At other conferences, I remember during breaks the room would be a hive of people talking and exchanging cards.

    As for the live tweetstream, at another conference I attended, they used text messaging so they could log the people making inappropriate remarks so overall it went fairly smoothly although they occasionally had sarcastic humor, but it seemed much less crowded than the tweetstream at W2E

  • I was at a similar conference last year and left without making many contacts at all. At every break all delegates sat feverishly typing and talking on cellphones and I wondered around looking for someone to talk to. We need more group discussion sessions where we actually talk to each other, unplugged!

  • Jeff Hurt says:

    Great question: So what could be done to make the overall conference experience better?

    The majority of what you wrote about making the conference experience better involved the attendee’s behavior. It did not involve the conference organizer’s behavior.

    In your opinion, the attendee’s behavior ruined the speakers’ presentations. I seriously doubt that. The speakers did not have good content to start with or they did not have the skill set to handle hecklers. So why were they even speaking? Who hired them in the first place?

    The event is about, and for the attendee, not the speaker. The attendee pays to attend.

    If the quality of the presentation is substandard or does not meet the expectations of the attendee, what recourse does he/she have? Very little! Most of the time the attendee has paid a non-refundable registration fee.

    I believe the burden of the conference experience belongs on the conference organizer, not the attendee. Let’s ask, “Why are the conference attendees heads down in their computers?” “Why are the attendees stating bad things about the speaker and the content?”

    If the presenter has an engaging presentation, the audience is engaged with the speaker and the content. If the presenter has poor content or poor delivery, the audience is not engaged. It’s pretty simple to me.

    BTW, as an event professional that manages meetings ranging in size from 10 people to 25,000, I’ve been using the Twitterstream, projected behind the speakers successfully for three years now. Yes, the burden is on my back to provide awesome content, networking experiences and great speakers.

    Let’s not throw out the baby and the bathwater because you had a negative experience. Sometimes it works and it works very well.

  • great post – having recently organised one conference and attended another, I’d only just started truly noticing some of these issues when the conference is packed with ‘social media junkies’ – e.g. limiting direct interaction and moving useful public feedback from sessions into informal ‘back channels’

  • Thanks to @Dan and @Nancy for correction to Javitz location. Heard from several New Yorkers that it is not a convenient one, although I can see @suzanne from O’Reilly’s point that hosting a conference of that size in NYC would be a challenge. Any other suggestions from NY folks?

    @Jeff Hurt I agree with what you’re saying to an extent. As I mentioned in the post, the speakers were excellent (and you can read a re-cap of danah boyd’s perspective of her presentation on her blog: http://bit.ly/5kdaKY)

    Unfortunately, some of the tweckling I’ve seen or experienced myself had nothing to do with the presentation e.g. when it devolves into comments about body parts or gender.

    My observation is that the back-channel is fundamentally changing what the conference experience is like from both a presenter’s and an attendee’s perspective. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. But if civility goes out the window, presenters might stop coming and then where will we be? In a room full of people tweeting snide things back and forth to each other? Talk about an echo chamber.

  • Another viewpoint from another presenter at the conference, as well as some suggestions for going forward.

    http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2009/the-challenge-of-visible-twitter-at-conferences/

  • Yes, it can be unnerving–but on the plus side, without feeding the hashtag onto the projector, I really did enjoy speaking at a Twitter-friendly conference last year, where people were actively tweeting highlights of my talk in real-time. And came back to discover 100 new followers, including quite a few who were not at the conference.

    Shel Horowitz, co-author, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet (with Jay Conrad Levinson)