Monday, June 27, 2011

Why I don't like Twitter

Let me start by making one thing really clear. I like Twitter very much. I find it very useful and it has probably become my number one personal learning tool over the last year*.

However, I am becoming increasingly sceptical about its use as a social learning tool in any organised sense and in particular, there are some characteristics of how it is being used that frankly I'm not altogether comfortable with.

I follow a lot of people from different arenas, but the only ones who consistently use Twitter to amplify what they are hearing in a conference are those in the learning technology industry. Perhaps this is because there are lots more conferences in the learning tech arena, perhaps not.

The concept is familiar enough. If you have ever participated in a webinar then you will hopefully have seen how the text discussion of the talk can be used as an excellent supplement to the main show. The slides are on the screen and in the absence of all the online delegates being able to speak at the same time the onscreen text channel provides a really good way of allowing for feedback - especially if the presenter is aided by a "producer" who can watch the channel and respond, or post relevant links and so on. Some systems even allow whispering" between delegates which are another, quieter channel opportunity.

Twitter, with it's low barrier to entry and ability to work on all manner of devices, makes an ideal platform for taking this notion of the "backchannel" anywhere. And it works okay. For Ignite Bristol, where venues allow we throw up a twitter wall so that anyone tagging with our #ignbrzl hashtag can see their contribution to the debate, albeit after about 20 minutes wait, in the interval.

"Look mum, I'm on telly!"
Which kind of leads me on to another peculiarity of the Twitter-as-part-of-live-event mentality. Just like a bare wall in an alleyway exerts a magnetism for a cretin with a can of paint and a flowery autograph, or a virgin powder field will pull in sideslipping snowboarders from the safety of the piste (or learner slopes) where they belong, so a Twitter wall frequetly encourages less than entirely worthwhile contributions, or the me-too sensibility of the RT. Any 140-character friendly pronouncement will be pounced on as an opportunity to be the first to get that point out the the non-attending participants. Not fast enough on the last one? No worries, seize the next succinct and snappy phrase and tweet that instead.

Of course, playing the game in this way does rather depend on being able to read the Twitter channel at the same time as playing to it, however it has often been my experience that wi-fi provision at events is mediocre at best. The idea of being able to get a consistent connection so you can follow the backchannel in a timely manner is restricted, which reduces many contributions to a one-way broadcast model as you can post and let your client shift the tweet in its own good time, next time your device gets a sniff of the router.

If I worked in a large open plan office I am accepting that I will get aural overspill from the work going on around me. A little spill is acceptable, indeed desirable, as I am able to keep up with what is going on around me and drop my own points in to the conversation to test them or seek advice. This is good, this is right. This is Twitter 90% of the time.

However, if, once a week, a proportion of my colleagues gathered in the middle of the room and started a raucous discussion, while at first it may seem novel, it would quickly begin to grate. This is Twitter as a backchannel.

My daily dose of useful titbits and sound bites is occasionally washed out by the enthusiastic twitterings of one or more conference delegates, and amplified by a few keen twitter echoes. It's a shame because I really only follow people who use it wisely - I stick to the "tell-me-about-your-coffee-and-you're-unfollowed" credo - but occasionally I find myself flirting with the unfollow button because the torrent of decontextualised sound bites.

Present, only not present
The edu-learning crowd like to bust myths - our ILT forebears are prone to latching on to every snakeoil salesman to cross their path or submit an article to their journals so there are plenty floating about in need of deflation. Great stuff. Myths are worse than useless as they actively misguide the, er, mythees - a false model is less helpful than no model at all.

One myth that has been rubbished time and again is that of multi-tasking. We can't do it. As John Medina says, "The brain is not capable of multi-tasking. We can talk and breathe, but when it comes to higher level tasks, we just can’t do it." I'd include in this category of higher level tasks, assimilating a useful and/or complex new concept and interacting with your smartphone/tablet user interface. Somehow this point is jettisoned when it comes to "socialising" the learning experience.

Okay, I'll concede that not every nugget that comes out of a presenter's mouth is gold, but the fact is that you never know when what they say will be relevant to you. And if you are struggling to type on your poxy little smartphone screen, or rather, waking up your phone, unlocking it, switching to Tweetdeck*2, typing in the pithy point (prĂ©cising it for 140 characters and remembering to include the hashtag and perhaps the Twitter account name of your source of course), sending, waiting, getting frustrated at the crappy event wi-fi, etc, then you are by definition NOT paying attention. And all this lost attention is only worthwhile if the summarised point you have made is received with understanding by your crowd of followers, and worthwhile. Which it frequently isn't, taken out of context and without reference.

The best conference I've been to in terms of me getting something out of it was one organised in a venue with no wi-fi and very thick walls. No internet meant I bust out my notebook - actual paper notebook, £5.99 in Staples - and scrawled 24 sides of notes. Okay, there were more good speakers than I usually encounter and fewer people trying to sell their services in the guise of an informative talk but the fact remains that I still look back on speakers that day and think positively of them (and can remember more of what they said). Now, we might argue whether or not I was fully present with my head in my notebook, but since I have plenty of notes and could, at a push, reconstruct some of the speakers' arguments from them (which I did, partially, with this post about Bettr), I'd argue I was sufficiently in the room to benefit. I can't say the same of the tweets I issued from the floor of Learning Technologies this year.

A simple solution?
This is not to say that I don't believe Twitter is bad, or that it doesn't have a place in the workplace learnosphere, but I think we need to remember that in learning technology we are in the vanguard of professional users of Twitter, alongside perhaps politicians and salespeople. The professions we serve - finance, engineering, oil and so on - may not be as ready for this as we are.

Furthermore, could not more traditional channels - ie "classic" chatrooms or forums - not provide more appropriate, secure locations for activities that lead to the same outcome? After all, #lrnchat transcripts bare an uncanny resemblance to a chatroom chat history*3.

Perhaps someone has already thought of this, but a simple "block tweets with this hashtag" would mean I could zone out of at least that portion of the chatter that is correctly marked. If it had a timespan, for example "until 3pm" or what have you, then I wouldn't have to worry about then leaving potentially useful.

Ultimately though, my solution is not to tweet from talks.  I'm more than happy to tweet about events before they happen, and use the channel for conversations about what is happening, but as a courtesy to speakers, I think I'm going to stay "in the room" next time.


* If we count only work-relevant learning. Otherwise it's Wikipedia. This week's it's not been battleships I've looked up, but I did learn that in addition to the R22 and R44, Robinson Helicopters have now added an R66. Ladbrokes will not accept bets on the name of their next model.
*2 Other Twitter clients are available. Though of course, if you have an iOS device you won't be "switching" to it exactly, for although humans and iOS can't multitask, Android can.
*3 Except that every comment has been truncated to 140 characters...
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