Monday, December 7, 2009

What Do You Mean I Can't Twitter?

This morning I read a great post from Steve Wheeler over at his blog, Learning With 'e's. The post deals with a ban of social media during the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Society Cell Biology. Here is restriction as it was sent to meeting participants:

"Use of cameras and all other recording devices (this includes digital, film, and cell phone cameras, as well as audio recordings) are strictly prohibited in all session rooms, in the Exhibit Hall, and in all poster and oral presentation sessions. Twittering (see above) and other forms of communication involving replication of data are strictly prohibited at the Annual Meeting or before publication, whether data presented are in the Exhibit Hall, poster area, poster sessions, or invited talks, without the express permission and approval of the authors. Persons caught taking photos, video, or audio recordings with any device or transmitting such information with any device will be escorted out of the hall or rooms and not be allowed room re-entry. Repeat offenders will have their meeting badge(s) revoked and will not be allowed to continue to attend the meeting. This policy is necessary to respect the willingness of presenters to share their data at the meeting as well as their publication opportunities."

Steve speculated that the ban might be because of the sensitive nature of the data presented. Meaning it would be wrong to broadcast data that was unpublished. And I agree, that is probably the best way to handle that. The conference organizer actually clarified the ban stating just what Steve assumed, in that the ban only covers unpublished data elements. They actually encourage debate and discussion. The organizer goes on to say that the way the policy is written is not what they intended and are currently revising.

However, recently there have been some recent, high-profile cases where using Twitter at conferences and presentations has caused a stir. One such case involves Social Media Researcher Danah Boyd. At the Web 2.0 Conference she experienced what a Twitter Backchannel can do to a person and a presentation. To sum it up, she was being criticized and her talk picked apart as it was happening. There are also some cases going as far back as 2004 where the audience, using a backchannel, disrupted a presentation.

So all this got me thinking. Would you go to a conference or a presentation the banned Twittering or Social Media during talks or discussions? I don't think that causing a disruption or disturbance is warranted in any case. However, if you can't stand the heat....The Twitter stream and backchannel provide a place for the audience to comment, in real-time on what is being discussed.

As a conference participant and presenter I have to ask some questions. As an audience member, why should I not be able to question and comment on what is being presented? Should I just sit and accept, without question, what is being said? As a presenter, do I not want people to discuss my work and ask questions, and yes, even criticize? (After all, isn't that how we get better and do better?)

Would you attend? What if there was a ban on Tweeting and Social Media? Would you do it anyway, sticking it to the man so to say? Is a backchannel to be expected now at conferences and presentations?

Image from Google CC Search. View The Original Here.


  1. I would still attend a conference if social networking were banned. I haven't really fleshed out exactly how I feel about backchanneling. I certainly appreciated when my twitter PLN tweeted what they were learning at the NCTE conference recently. That sharing of information was valuable and powerful.
    My feelings are more ambivalent when it comes to questioning and criticizing a presenter. To me backchanneling feels like it happens behind the back of the presenter. If the presenter isn't tech savvy, it seems unfair. The presenter should have the opportunity to address questions and criticisms. Does that happen with a backchannel? I honestly don't know as I've never been involved in a conference where it happened. Unfortunately, many people have a tendency to criticize the person rather than the ideas, and that is most definitely not fair.

  2. Twitter and backchannels have really increased my enjoyment of presentations at conferences. I've found its a great way to post notes, urls and comments related to the sessions that can be shared. Backchannels and social media have become integral parts of conferences and sessions.
    Besides, what kind of conference attempts to ban social media in 2009? I don't think you can stick the genie back in the bottle.

  3. A great superhero's father once said, "With great power comes great responsibility." I think this idea is relevant here. Mean-spirited, unconstructive criticism that can and does happen within backchannels is just not okay - as LeeAnn also mentions. We teach kids that when they have an audience, they need to rise to the occasion and produce things that are worthy of that audience. Crap does not belong in a professional public space. Rants belong somewhere else. Mean-spirited pokes are little more than hurtful... and I have witnessed this being done by professionals who should really know better.

    That being said, as a presenter, I should want to know what my audience is thinking. Some of those ideas may be hard on one's pride, but can (and should) valuable nonetheless. If I really want to be responsive to my audience I should be able to find those ideas and respond to them - even if it is after the presentation is over. We are living in the age where information is not contained by 4 walls of a conference room... or any room. As presenters, we all need to understand that, I think. But with any new shifts such as this one, there are messy things to negotiate.

    Would I attend a conference that bans such forms of interaction? Sure. The usefulness and quality of information being presented is not solely determined by the conversation of the backchannel.

  4. I would attend a conference that banned SM (with due respect to unpublished data as an exception) ONLY if the value derived from the conference was a higher priority than my ability to have free speech during the conference. (I simply don't like to be told I can't do something for an arbitrary reason)

    Backchannels can get ugly, but I've also seen them raise great questions. And if topics are monitored and addressed in the presentation, that creates an even broader avenue of communication. As we move toward "unconferencing" I think there will be less "snark" on the backchannel, because those people will be actively involved in the conversation.

  5. I think speakers at a conference are public figures like politicians and actors, and everyone is free to talk about them, create satire, mock their faults, etc. That's free speech and any attempt to muzzle or conceal it does far more harm than good. Mean-spirited comments say more about the commenter than the speaker, but they must not be suppressed.

    I have had an open Web comment system for everyone in all my classes to use for anonymous feedback for years at and I think everyone should. We need far more audience participation, not less. If my students are bored or unhappy, I want to know that immediately.

    However, I would attend a conference that banned social media if the talks were interesting enough. But I would lose respect for the organizers for doing such a stupid and self-defeating thing. If it's a secret, don't present it at a conference.

  6. A follow-up post about this online at:

    In short, though, if you have the ability to tweet--using your mobile phone--and you are at a public event, then do so. If, as a member of the Press, I were to attend one of these events, I would make pains to be accurate and report on what was going on. I don't see that as any different that what Twitterers are doing when they are microblogging a conference presentation.

    As another commenter points out, don't present at a conference what you'd rather keep secret.

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