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More than just passing notes in class?

Reflections on the
Twitter-enabled backchannel (draft)

Tony McNeill (a.mcneill@kingston.ac.uk)


Academic Development Centre, Kingston University, Kingston upon
Thames, UK

The focus of this study is the conference behaviours of academic


users of Twitter, a social networking/microblogging service that
allows users to view and send short messages from mobile phones
as well as computers and other internet-enabled devices. Twitter is
being used increasingly as a means of continuing and extending
dialogue, commentary and networking amongst academic
conference participants and is rapidly becoming the default
technology used to support what is known as the ‘backchannel’.

Introduction

funny how conferences now have a soundtrack - tic tic tic tic tic tic
tic
Tom Abbot, http://twitter.com/tomabbott/status/1444366047
HU U

The backchannel is the term used to designate the digital communications


space used to sustain primarily textual interactions alongside live spoken
presentations delivered in a physical environment. The backchannel was
first employed in large technology conferences in the USA and was
enabled by lightweight synchronous communications tools such as IRC
(internet-relay chat). The growing adoption of Twitter has led to Twitter-
enabled backchannels – both ‘official’, or ‘quasi-official’, and ‘unofficial’ -
becoming an increasingly common feature of many academic conferences
all over the world. What was once a marginal practice specific to
technology conferences is now moving into the mainstream (Person
2009).

There has been some debate in the blogosphere, as well as in academic


publications, about the digital backchannel in general (Lawley 2004;
Jacobs & McFarlane 2005; McCarthy & boyd 2005; Siemans 2009) and the
Twitter-enabled backchannel in particular (O’Hear 2007; Jones 2008; Clay
2009; Guy 2009; Jukes 2009; Kelly 2009; Reinhardt et al. 2009; Schwartz
2009). However, in the context of digital backchannel practices entering
the mainstream as a result of the rapid uptake of Twitter and the ubiquity
of portable and hand-held devices enabling its convenient use, it’s time to
revisit the question of the conference backchannel and its contribution to
community learning.

The Twitter-enabled backchannel

Twitter is a web-based communications platform frequently described as


enabling both blogging, although the term microblogging tends to be
applied, and some of the activities supported by social network sites like
Facebook including participation in various forms in online communities.

Twitter posts, or, as they are more commonly known, ‘tweets’, are no
longer than 140 characters in length and, due to their brevity and the
varieties of language used, have much in common with the short text-
making practices associated with SMS messages, instant messaging or
Facebook status updates (Herring 2001). However, it is blog posts, albeit
in a greatly truncated form, that tweets most resemble. Lankshear and
Knobel have defined blogs as “hybrids of journal entries and annotations
or indices of links, or some mix of reflections, musings, anecdotes and the
like with embedded hyperlinks to related websites” (2006: 139) and there
is certainly much evidence to support the application of this definition to
Twitter. The tweet below (fig. 1), taken from my own Twitter public
timeline, is an example of twittering as “classic journalling” with myself,
the author “at the centre of the day-to-day matters being written about”
(Lankshear & Knobel 2006: 150). Unlike what David Silver calls ‘thin
tweets’, or “posts that convey one layer of information”, my example is of
a ‘thick tweet insofar as it “convey[s] two or more, often with help from a
hyperlink” (Silver 2009). The hyperlink, in this case, is to a picture taken
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on my cameraphone and sent to a Twitter-related image hosting service.
Tweets, then, although not intrinsically multimodal, may link easily to
multimodal texts.

Fig. 1: Twitter and ‘classic journalling’

Twitter users have the option of filling in pre-set profile fields to enable
other users to find them or learn more about them. The profile template is
a space for a minimal identity performance: name, username, a self-
description of no more than 160 characters, a field for the URL of the
user’s homepage or blog and an image users select to represent
themselves. The example below (fig. 2) displays all of these features and
is characteristic of the ‘laminated’ identities performed on many Twitter
profiles The notion of ‘laminated’ identity refers to ways in which we enact
particular identities by consciously, and unconsciously, assuming or
rejecting the always/already present subject positions available to us
(Holland & Leander 2004).

Fig. 2: Example Twitter profile details

Tiffini Travis, our sample twitterer, has selected the username ‘mojo_girl’
in a conscious and playful taking up of the identity position of Afro-
American woman (Nora Dean’s Mojo Girl is also the title of Tiffini’s
favourite song). On top of this, she overlays other layers; there is, for
example, a reference to her dual professional identity as librarian and
author as well as a more personal subject position, ‘mom’. Tiffini uses her
160-character bio space to list specific interests - ‘punk rock’ ‘60s reggae’,
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‘information literacy’, ‘edupunk’, ‘educational technology’- which
constitutes an abbreviated ‘taste performance’ (Liu 2007). This ‘taste
performance’ adds additional layers but is also another of the ways in
which Tiffini projects a public identity that enables her to navigate some of
the online Twitter networks and connect with others with similar interests.

Twitter allows users to follow the updates of other users; these appear in
that users list of people they are said to be following. The people they are
following may, in turn, choose to follow those who are following them.
These physically distributed social networks form innumerable loosely
coupled communities bound, albeit fleetingly, by shared histories and
interests. Twitter’s search tool enables a user to find others with similar
interests and clicking a ‘Follow’ link adds them to that user’s list of
contacts. A less permanent way of bringing twitterers together is to add a
hashtag (e.g. #alt08) to tweets. This allows other users to search and
retrieve all tweets with the same hashtag. This is now the common
practice in conferences and workshops and allows Twitter users to interact
with others without having to add them to their list of contacts.

Twitter therefore largely conforms to boyd and Ellison’s (2008: 211)


definition of social network sites as “web-based services that
allow individuals to 1) construct a public or semi/public profile within
a bounded system, 2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share
a connection, and (3) view and traverse their lost of connections and
those made by others within the system”. However, Twitter is more
accurately described as an ‘open’, rather than a ‘bounded’ system insofar
as both Twitter profiles and the associated timeline of tweets are fully
public unless users decide to make them private.

Defining the backchannel

The concept of the backchannel invokes the metaphor of partitioned or


divided space; a ‘front’ area for the speaker usually comprised of a
lectern, networked computer(s) and projection screen(s) and a larger

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‘back’ area for the audience with seating facing the front. The model,
ecclesiastical in origin (i.e. preacher at pulpit delivering a sermon to
seated parishioners), has informed the design of most lecture theatres
from the Middle Ages to the present day. Although a shared space, the
lecture theatre provides the physical platform for an asymmetric
interaction: speaker/presenter talking to - or at - a seated audience whose
opportunity to speak is limited by social conventions dictating a small
period of time at the end for questions and comments. This spatial
arrangement ‘positions’ individuals as either speakers or listeners.

The backchannel disrupts such positioning by allowing, without interfering


audibly with the frontchannel presentation, a range of interactions
between delegates. The backchannel, then, is the space for simultaneous,
multidirectional and, up to a point, multimodal communication. The
notion of the backchannel also problematises the distinction we make
between ‘virtual’ and ‘physical’ spaces. The use of a digital backchannel
at conferences presents a hybrid form of interaction in which the virtual
and physical are embedded in one another. A presentation in physical
space is often the trigger to a series of textual interactions in virtual space
which may, in turn, be reused in the same physical space in the form of
hashtag-aggregated tweets projected onto a screen and responded to by
the speaker or used as a stimulus to further discussion.

Review of the literature

There is currently relatively little in the way of formal academic research


on the use and impact of Twitter although a small number of conference
papers have been published over the last 12-18 months. Much of the work
produced tends to fall into one, or more, of five categories: (1) definitions
of Twitter and its key terms (McFedries 2007), (2) accounts of the growth
and geographical distribution of Twitter users (e.g. Java et al. 2007), (3)
categorisation of Twitter behaviours (Huberman et al. 2008;
Krishnamurthy et al. 2008), (4) reflections on Twitter for educational
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purposes (Costa, C. et al. 2008; Ebner & Maurer 2008; Grosseck &
Hololescu 2008; Stevens 2008; Young 2008) and (5) analysis of the
Twitter-enabled backchannel (Reinhardt et al. 2009; Saunders et al. 2009;
Schwartz 2009). The blogosphere also provides a intellectually lively
space for academic commentary and conversation on the emerging
practices relating to Twitter use and it is here that the description of
particular case studies and discussion has been at its most intense.

Jacobs & Mcfarlane’s (2005) early paper on conference backchannel


practices framed discussions of technology-supported backchannels in
highly polarised terms; its subtitle, ‘distributed intelligence or divided
attention’ highlighting a conflict between, on the one hand, an inclusive,
participatory conference culture and, on the other, the fracturing of
conference delegates into cliques only intermittently engaged with the
main presentations. The majority of papers and posts on the backchannel
have tended to make a case for them supporting shared learning - “a
valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active
participation” (Kelly 2009) and “[m]icroblogging allows virtually anyone to
actively participate in the thematic debates” (Reinhardt et al. 2009). A
minority have taken the opposing view; a post by Marieke Guy in her blog
argues that social networks can be occasionally “elitist and alienating”
and that Twitter, based on her recent observation of conference
backchannels, “seems to be the right application in which to be clique
[sic] and have a dig at people” (2009). The backchannel’s ‘snarkiness’
(the term ‘snark’ is a neologism based on the words ‘snide’ and ‘remark’
and is used to designate sarcastic and dismissive comments) is, according
to at least one commentator an integral part of its vitality (Lawley 2004a).
However, it is clear that for some it is a cause for concern.

Research questions

Against this background of practice and debate, there are a number of


questions that need to be asked of the growing use of the Twitter-enabled
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backchannel in academic conferences. My particular research questions
are:

• What types of interaction are academic twitterers (i.e. users of


Twitter) engaged in?

• Does Twitter enable a more participatory conference culture by


facilitating additional modes of networking, discussion and
information sharing?

• Is there a need to formulate guidelines on how best to manage the


backchannel to support community learning?

Research Methods

My research data takes two forms: (1) responses to an online


questionnaire completed by 103 respondents; and (2) a set of hashtag-
aggregated tweets sent by 22 participants of a single learning technology-
related conference that took place in April 2009 and was attended by 108
delegates. I collected and analysed my data over a six-week period in
April and May 2009. By seeking responses from a wide range of
academics, I was attempting to establish the ‘bigger picture’ of Twitter use
and attitudes towards the emerging cultural practices associated with the
Twitter-enabled backchannel. Through my analysis of conference-related
Twitter activity, I was hoping to get at richer data – i.e. specific actors,
detailed social context - that would illuminate Twitter behaviour in a
different way to the questionnaire.

Design of my survey

The intention of the online questionnaire was to gather data on attitudes


to, and use of, Twitter for professional development purposes in general
and as a means of enhancing conference participation in particular. The
survey was therefore divided into two sections: (1) ‘Twitter and you’ which
sought to elicit attitudes to and use of Twitter in more general terms and
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(2) ‘More than just passing notes in class’ which sought to gain a picture
of Twitter use as part of an academic conference backchannel. Question
types included multiple choice, lickert scale and matrix. I was interested in
seeking qualitative data in participants’ own words and included a number
of open response questions in the survey. Of particular interest to me were
the blurring of professional and personal identities and the idea of Twitter
as a laminated discursive space in which multiple identities are
performed. The survey was publicised through a number of HE discussion
lists and by sending a tweet with a link to the survey which I asked
followers to retweet (i.e. a form of Twitter-based snowball sampling).

Participant analysis

This part of my research is probably best described as an ethnographic


study in which I occupy a space somewhere between researcher-as-insider
and researcher-as-analyst (Davies & Merchant 2006). The data presented
in this study was collected as a result of my developing participation in a
loose network of higher education practitioners (e.g. lecturers, librarians,
educational technologists) attempting to understand the nature and
implications of new and emerging technologies to teaching, learning and
assessment and using social media such as Twitter to do so.

My research setting was both physical – a single academic conference that


took place in early April 2009 in a physical venue at a university in the
south of England - but also virtual insofar as a unique conference-specific
Twitter hashtag aggregated the disparate tweets of conference
participants into a single shared digital space. So, my research context
was a specific discourse community of academics sharing physical and
virtual space as conference participants and twitterers. My collection and
analysis of tweets has more in common with the methodology of
‘unobtrusive measures’ (Webb et al. 2000) than, for example, some work
on digital culture in which the researchers position themselves as both
subjects and objects (Turkle 1995; Markham 1998; Davies & Merchant

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2006; Davies 2008; Lankshear & Knobel 2008). The conference whose
Twitter backchannel I have chosen to analyse was one I attended as a
delegate but at which I did not present. I also took no part in the
backchannel other than as a ‘read-only participant’ or ‘lurker’. My
‘inhabitation’ of the conference and its Twitter backchannel – my
ethnographic field site – was therefore limited.

Analysis and findings

Survey responses

The story I have to tell about my research data is one of enthusiastic


engagement with an emerging technology and the new socio-literate
practices that the technology facilitates. It’s also a story of individuals
finding their own ways of using Twitter for personal as well as professional
purposes and managing the separation, or blurring, of these two social
contexts.

The majority of participants in the survey were recent converts (42 or


40.8% joined in the last 6 months), suggesting that 2009 may well be the
year that Twitter went mainstream in HE. However, as one might expect
from higher education practitioners with an interest in technology, a
significant number were early (i.e. users over the last 18-24 months), or
earlyish (users over the last 6-18 months) adopters. Other Twitter users,
both friends (8.7%) and colleagues (28.2%), brokered over a third of
participants’ introduction to Twitter with less than a third learning about it
first from a range of web-based sources (30.1%). Participants were quick
to discover a range of tools (Tweetdeck, Twitterfox etc.) to improve the
user experience of Twitter, although a little less than half (46.6%) were
using Twitter-related services such as Twitpic.

My research participants are using Twitter for a range of purposes;


professional development was the reason participants rated most highly,
although ‘learning more about Twitter’s potential in education’,
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‘developing new social networks’ and ‘strengthening existing social
networks’ were also highly rated. Twenty-one of the survey participants
took up the option of specifying other reasons for using Twitter. What was
striking was the range of reappropriations of the technology which
spanned the professional – e.g. “Gauge potential as part of a ‘toolbox’ of
‘Web 2.x’ services to support collaborative scientific research”, “marketing
of services”, “as outreach for my library” – and the highly personal – e.g.
“prayer support for close friends”, “fun”, “Stalking celebrities!”.

What’s clear from the many of the replies is that Twitter users are
engaging creatively with what Pinch and Bijker (1984) call technology’s
“interpretive flexibility”, i.e. users interpret how they want to use it in
ways meaningful to them, and producing what Grint and Woolgar (1997)
call new ‘readings’ that are very different to the intentions of its creators
as a lightweight notification service (‘What are you doing?’).

Of particular interest to me were ways in which Twitter users were


managing the separation or blurring of personal and professional
identities and activities. The majority of participants had a single Twitter
account (72.5%), although over a quarter had multiple accounts (27.4%)
with one respondent having as many as 11. The reason most frequently
cited for multiple accounts was the perceived need to separate
professional and personal spaces:

Personal, two for work, one for daughter and one for band
I have a personal Twitter account and one for both the subject areas I
manage
One is my main personal/professional one; the other is to support a
research project I'm running with students

There were often cases of different Twitter accounts for specific areas of
professional practice:

one for ASTD chapter one for ALA roundtable


I've had 3 for me, undergraduate students and postgraduate students
two I use for automation purposes

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Ninety-six participants completed an open response question on their
attitudes to the blurring of private and professional realms. I attempted to
dimensionalise attitudes by placing participants on a continuum: at one
end were those who were comfortable with the blurring and, at the other,
those who felt uneasy. Broadly speaking participants mainly clustered at
the ‘comfortable’ end of the continuum. Some maintained that Twitter’s
relative newness means it’s still to be adopted by the mainstream making
the blurring less of an issue:

no one I know socially uses Twitter


few friends and family on Twitter

Some participants were actually enthusiastic about the blurring:

One of its strengths


there's benefit to a professional person demonstrating human traits
prefer it when the people I follow combine social & professional twittering;
it gives a fuller picture of that person, and helps fill in the gaps created by
not meeting them face-to-face

More than half the participants (61) had sent tweets during a conference,
the majority of which used the conference hashtag (49). ‘Notes to
contacts not present at the conference’ was the reason selected by most
(49) with ‘to participate in discussion with other delegates’ not far behind
(43). A little more than a quarter of conference twitterers (16) claimed to
have sent dismissive or dissenting tweets during presentations. These
included:

snarky replies and DMs [direct messages] to another person sitting near
me about content we disagreed with
sometimes speakers say something so wrong (like an assumption or
misconception held by non-experts) and you can't wait til the end to go
"wtf??"
Speaker was boring, wasted our time
Others participants objected to my survey’s use of the word ‘subversive’
and claimed that critical tweets were no different to the critical comments
they would otherwise feel comfortable articulating face-to-face:

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am usually tweeting my thoughts of the presentation and that means both
good comments that i agree with as well as things i disagree with
to highlight frailties in argument, or to identify my position on topic
They have been critical, rather than subversive: making critical comments,
opinions or reflections about particular issues raised. They are openly
tweeted, and nothing I would normally hide from a group of critically
engaged colleagues.
The majority of respondents (46.2%) agreed with the statement that
Twitter enhances conference participation by enabling a distributed
dialogue, with over a fifth (21.5%) strongly agreeing. Twenty-one
participants took up the option of describing Twitter’s contribution in their
own words. Only one response provided an alternative description:

oh please, it's just anothe [sic] way of talking to the people you get on
with and ingnoring [sic] the people who get on your nerves. sometimes
you have to listen to the balix [sic] to hear something interesting or useful.
The others used the space instead to add caveats. Some related to the
uneven adoption of Twitter as a backchannel technology amongst higher
education practitioners and the risk of “two-tier engagement”:

I agree, but would like to see the tweets documented in some way.
Besides, twitter is still used only by a minority of people
Yes to above, but multi tasking this way is not for everyone.
Hmmm, sort of agree, but only some people twitter. Like the William
Gibson quote, "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet."
Twitter can be great for confs, BUT risks having two-tier engagement,
therefore not actually inclusive. (I know people CAN all join if they want,
but they haven't yet, have they?)
One area identified by a number was the value of the backchannel to
colleagues not physically present:

I think it creates an interesting backchannel for conversation for those


participating live at the conference, and for people who aren't at the
conference physically but are present virtually
can potentially broaden and enriche [sic] dialogue and information
exchange through backchannel - enable some degree of participation by
those not physically present
Some related to the limitations of the technology:

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potential for wider participation, but it is quite limited in potential unless
combined with streaming of the content itself
I fiind [sic] that I agree with this statement, but also have a comment. […]
Twitter is a poor notetakere [sic] with seriously unstable backfiles, and bad
searchbility, so i see it's [sic] use as very much "at the moment"
it also provides a record of conference impression but much less coherent
than blog postingd [sic] from people who attended the [sic] conference

The final survey question addressed the issue of good practice guidelines
for the use of Twitter conference backchannels. A slightly higher number
(49 against as opposed to 40 for) argued against the needs for such
guidelines. Of the 40 who responded to the request for suggestions, about
a quarter justified their reasons for saying good practice guidelines were
unnecessary or undesirable. Some argued this on pragmatic grounds –
“Could you imagine tryign [sic] to enforce anything??” and “they are
unlikely to suceed [sic] in being adopted by more than a minority of
participants”. Others trusted their fellow professionals and twitterers to
use the backchannel appropriately:

because social networks police themselves


I think on the whole people are fairly sensible at conferences, from the
twitter streams I've read. It would sort of lose the point if you had too
many dos and donts
I think professionals (adults even!) should be trusted to excercise [sic]
their own judgement in this respect. It's quite likely that an element of
self-regulation would creep in here too, as followers move to the defence
of those who are unfairly tweeted about

Finally, three took a more overtly moral stance on the imposition of


behavioural norms in the backchannel:

I want to say something about no ... I will have no part in constarined [sic]
practice ... what is good p for one is not necessarily good p for another
I would resent greatly an imposed set of best practices for this tool. It's
[sic] flexibility and personalization are outside of that, I believe
I don't think so. Rules are made to be broken imho. If you constrain me I
will buck the system just because!!

The 31 suggestions for good practice guidelines tended to be more


practical than moral and often related to the technicalities of hashtag use:

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[not] clogging up the conference stream by using conference hashtags on
non-conference related posts
just simple guidance for the uninitiated...
Just the common sense stuff: Hash signs should be a MUST
Publicising hashtags in advance so that we can ensure use correct tags.
Full URL citation when possible - URL shorteners may not persist (lost link
over time) and may be subject to hijacking by hackers for nefarious
purposes (security)

About a quarter made good practice recommendations relating to the


sending of snarky tweets and other forms of inappropriate behaviour:

"Do no harm", i.e., conduct the conversations with the same level of
courtesy and respect that one would expect of any professional
interchange Not publically flaming speakers!
actually exposing the twitter stream at events might have the effect
making people self moderate a bit more
Keep public tweets 'politically correct' and constructive to the
conversations, even if critical. Keep subversive, complaining tweets
private
Only Tweet what you would stand up and say publicly
To not make subversive remarks using the conference hashtag...it's
unprofessional.

Note to self: summary of findings and link to next section needed

Participant observation

The other main component of my data set consists of a series of tweets


using a shared hashtag that were sent during a one-day educational
technology conference. I thought it would be more productive to
reconstruct and analyse the chronology of these tweets – understanding
their ebb and flow in the context of the day’s events - rather than discuss
them category by category as other some papers and blog posts have
done (McCarthy & boyd 2005; Giles 2009). Although I have interpreted the
use of a shared hashtag to mean that these tweets are in the public
domain and, therefore, may be cited without their authors’ permission, I
have attempted to anonymise participants and context of their

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interactions by changing the names of both twitterers and removing
details of the conference venue and speakers that would immediately
identify the conference.

One striking characteristic of the hashtag-aggregated Twitter activity I


observed is that it constitutes not a single distributed conversation but,
rather, multiple monologues and a few intermittent, loosely joined
dialogues which participants enter and exit at will.

The earliest tweets fall into the category of play-by-play summaries, i.e.
brief descriptions of the conference as it unfolds akin to live coverage of a
sporting event via a web page,. Play-by-play tweets were the main
category of conference post and many were purely descriptive:

Good morning all! At the train station to start trip to [name of location] &
[#conference hastag]
Paul Jones, from the [name of university] speaking "We're interested in the
future, and that's the semantic web"

Others play-by-play tweets extracted a key message or personally salient


points. These tweets are not verbatim transcriptions but distillations or
identification of salient points and take-home messages:

another knife in the heart of recording 50 min lectures from Paul Jones of
[name of university]
[name of university] tends to avoid putting lecture content, instead
putting up high-quality documentary content with academic
narration/intention
Note made that lecturer's need to be trained in presentation techniques
because of limitations of webcast cameras

It was not uncommon for these types of tweets to include the url of
relevant sites or documents:

[name of project] has 7000 metadata entries on the website, encouraging


other universities to aggregate feeds into it [url to project website]

biggest barrier is legal / IPR , suggest having a look at [url] as a starting


point for advice about a month ago

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Another category of tweet that featured amongst the earliest
contributions related to logistics and often concerned the availability of
WiFi and details of the agreed hashtag:

Arrived for the early bird session at [#conference hastag] at [name of


university]. All arriving in [name of venue]. plush Lecture room. No sign of
WiFi
new tag for today's podcasting conference [#conference hastag] - a really
interesting day ahead [url to conference programme]

At this point tweets replying to logistical questions were also in evidence:


@[name of participant] [conference hashtag] wifi is available on eduroam
or someone will pass around visitor login for [name of conference venue]
network soon.

Tweets about Twitter and the backchannel-related comments also feature:

so we're doing a good job collab note taking. Is there a good tool for
reversing these back to the right chron order?
We've made the Twitter trending topics list again!

Dialogues between participants, although not as common as play-by-play


tweets, were a perceptually salient feature of the Twitter backchannel.
Here is one example – with names changed - of the kind of dialogic
interaction observed:

articulatedesign:
Q re transcripts, access4all: credible transcription systems anyone? A: no,
no answer...
kunst:
automated transcripts are not very readable. We operate on-demand
transcription - if requested, we'll send off to a transcriber.
paterfamilias:
@kunst - another thing to keep in mind: if you have a script, you also have
a transcript
articulatedesign:
@paterfamilias re script = transcript: that's what i'm talkin about, yes yes
yes. But will put REAL pressure on workload of teachers.

What we see is a three-way dialogue, initially triggered by the


frontchannel presentation, taking place between participants in the
backchannel. Participants are sharing experiences and, to a degree, co-
constructing knowledge. It’s interesting to note that one of the
participants identified backchannel interaction as a positive part of his
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conference experience, turning his attention toward backchannel activity
at moments when not engaged with main presentation - “this one a bit
too technical for me, twitter talk keeping me engaged tho”.

A more interesting interaction in the backchannel occurred during a


presentation after lunch when a cluster of highly critical tweets were
posted during one particular presentation by a representative from a
major computer manufacturer that was deemed by many as too
corporate. There are four tweets by the same user – once again, the real
names have been altered - on this presentation, the sarcasm growing
more marked as irritation at being ‘pitched at’ increased:

articulatedesign:
I really *want* to like this talk. But I don't. Not "speaking" to me
judgng frm twts, i'm not alone in my discomfort. my neighbour's reading a
blogpost on "why i hate [name of computer manufacturer]" (cos of the
lock in!!!)
salespitch suckfest with tinkle piano
@[janefrand] mmm brains nom nom nom (note to self; sell your [name of
MP3 player], time to stand firm)

The last tweet was an ‘@ reply’ or public tweet directed at a particular


Twitter user who had posted moments earlier, also directing her post to
other delegates who tweeted their objections to the presentation:

janefrand:
@vilnius @articulatedesign @rdtechie must... eat... brains... no wait...
buy... [name of computer manufacturer] ... products

The above tweets are, on one level, examples of ‘snarks’. On one level
they correspond to Guy Merchant’s (2009) observation that the Twitter-
enabled backchannel is “works well as an outlet for frustration”. However,
something more complex is occurring; the twitterers, irritated by the
frontchannel presenter’s attempt to promote a brand, turn inward toward
the backchannel and engage in forms of banter that assert shared forms
of academic identity and associated modes of conduct that the speaker
appears to be violating. Although the twitterers are having fun – the tone

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is alternately sarcastic (“salespitch suckfest”) and silly (e.g. the zombie
brain-eating routine) – I’d argue that they are subverting the presenter’s
attempt to use an academic conference to sell a brand and are reclaiming
the conference space as their own. In the face of the presenter’s
corporate ‘strategy’, snarky tweets in the backchannel are these
participants’ preferred subversive ‘tactic’ (de Certeau 1984).

Towards the end of the conference other sorts of tweets are posted such
as follow-ups - e.g. “bookmark [url of project website]”) and expressions of
appreciation to the speakers or conference organisers – e.g. “great
conference, thanks” and “thanks for great two days everybody :-)“.

Conclusions

The Twitter-enabled backchannel constitutes a complex hybrid and


multidirectional discursive space in which the conference participants
make and share notes, quibble, query and demur, have off-stage
dialogues with like-minded colleagues or contacts either present in the
lecture theatre or elsewhere, engage in serendipitous networking and
exchange humorous and bantering tweets. The Twitter-enabled
backchannel, whilst offering something new – simultaneous,
multidirectional and laminated interaction - might be said to re-mediate
older analogue conference practices – e.g. discussing presentations over
coffee, lunch or dinner, on the train home etc.. Unlike spoken comments
which are unrecorded and quasi-private – tweets are generally public and
retrievable, qualities which may be viewed positively or negatively.

There is some evidence from both the survey and from the ‘telling’ case
study of one conference, that such backchannels make a contribution to a
more participatory conference culture by providing additional
opportunities for discussion, information sharing, knowledge building and
professional networking. There is also some evidence from both survey
data and participant observation that backbiting in the backchannel
features in academic conferences to some degree. However, more
18
research into this aspect of backchannel interaction in the context of a
range of academic conferences is necessary. Anecdotally, snarky tweets
were much less visible in another conference I attended where the
hashtag had been introduced early and where the conference organiser
modelled, to a degree, the tone of backchannel tweets.

I’m still reluctant to claim that there is no pressing need to formulate


guidelines for the use of conference backchannels beyond basic technical
advice. My study has been about Twitter users and, therefore the ‘voices’
of those who have yet to, or who have chosen not to use it are absent
from this study. During my data collection I was contacted by email by two
colleagues whose presentation – at a conference I did not attend - had
been tweeted and who felt that the “mode of dissemination lacked
transparency and collegiality” and did not offer them the “chance to
engage in any discussion about the criticisms” (email to Tony McNeill 9
April 2009). In our enthusiasm for this new mode of participation are we in
danger of creating a “two-tier engagement” that includes some and
excludes others?

The Twitter-enabled backchannel raises some interesting questions about


the nature of both lecture and conference participation, professional
development and collegiality in an increasingly digital age. In future
research I hope to return to some of the questions raised and to
reintroduce some of the voices marginalised in studies to date.

19
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