Twitter and Conference Session Hash Tags

One of the coolest uses I have seen for Twitter is as a conference back channel.  Twitter has grown enough so that there are usually enough people to keep it interesting even if you aren’t there. The only problem comes in organizing the Tweets so that they are easy to find. After all – what is the point in tweeting if no one sees it?

Usually, the conference tweets are easy – just use the organizational acronym and that is it.  There are a few issues, but more on that in a bit.  The real problem comes when tweeting about specific sessions.  You don’t want to have to explain in every tweet what session you are at – right?  The solution is usually to start numbering sessions and adding that to the conference tag.

Last year, I worked with the Texas Distance Learning Association on this issue.  We had 150 or sessions, so just add a number to the end of the tag and you are done: #txdla101, #txdla102, etc.  The problem is, we ran into a huge problem with searching for tweets.  If you want to just find #txdla101 – no problem. But then what if you want to see #txdla102? That is a separate search.  Multiply that by 150 sessions and then the conference tag (which won’t show up when you search for #txdla101) and you have a tiresome problem that would hinder the back channel due to search exhaustion.

I tried wild cards, but the results were spotty at best. And I was shocked to see how many random link generators that spammers use ended up containing “txdla” in them.  So we came up with a simple solution.

Just put a dash in the tags (like #txdla-101) and your problems are over.  A search for “txdla” will show every session tag AND the general conferences tags – all in one search.  Easy.  Or, if you do want to see a specific session, then search for it (like “txdla-101”) and your search is easily narrowed.

Once we figured that out, we had to discuss the general conference tag a bit more.

The discussion that we had was whether to use the year in the general conference tag – #txdla vs #txdla2010.  Ultimately you would need the dash in there to help with searches.  But we also ended up with confusion over whether to use #txdla-2010 or just #txdla-10.

Most conference only happen once per year, so I say the year is unnecessary.  Twitter searches in 2011 are not going to find anything from a year ago. They just don’t go that far back.  But, if someone does somehow find an old tweet and wants to know the year, they can just look at the time stamp and quickly find out what year the conference happened.  Overall, I would say that it is unnecessary to identify the current date in any Tweet – they are all time stamped.

Another controversy I have read online is over whether conferences should officially announce Twitter tags or allow them to be used by presenters.  Some say that this would keep some back-channelers from being totally honest if they knew that it would be seen by the person up front.

To this, I say “hogwash.” (guess my Southern roots are coming out).

Look, Twitter is a public forum.  If you have a problem with what you are about to say being read by the person up front, then maybe you should consider whether it should be Tweeted at all.  But even if that is not enough, then I still have to come back to Twitter being public. If you don’t want everyone to read it, then make your feed private, or go to a different method of back-channeling.  But don’t claim that a public forum is going to shut down honesty and openness because it is being, well – public.

Now, if your conference or event has less sessions or happens more than once a year, you might have to come with a different set of guidelines. But these are the ones I found work best with year conferences with large numbers of sessions.

4 thoughts on “Twitter and Conference Session Hash Tags

  1. One of my frustrations with Twitter at conferences is that it’s become less of a backchannel and more of a “everyone broadcast what they’re hearing” channel.

    I’ve seen conference posts happening, and I’ve tried engaging those posting them. But, there’s little to no engagement; they just keep on broadcasting what the speaker is saying. That’s not terribly useful. (a) It’s not engaging at all – for those at a distance or those in the room. and (b) It’s particularly unuseful in plenary sessions when there’s 39 people all posting the exact same thing.

    Twitter backchannels CAN be exciting IF you engage others in the backchannel rather than just broadcasting. Two examples that I remember, one more public than the other.

    First. ELI in January 2008 – before Twitter hit the mainstream but after EdTech folks had already picked it up – there was a plenary session with an EXTREMELY active backchannel. You could hear the backchannel throughout as about 30-40 people clicked away at the keyboards. The discussion in the backchannel was as lively and as interesting as the plenary. Questions for the speaker began to develop, and while not everyone is comfortable asking questions in a room of 400 colleagues, there was at least ONE that was. @bryanalexander, I believe, stood and asked several questions from the Twitter stream.

    Second. eLearning 2010 in Fort Worth. I was at a table with @ajwms, @evinsmj, @sherrymn listening to a plenary by @nancywhite. There was a fairly active conversation in the backchannel – including @nancywhite using Powerpoint plugins to both auto-tweet AND periodically show the backchannel to the room. But, I also ended up in a very engaging conversation with someone (the name escapes me at the moment) at a distance about how showing the backchannel could have a chilling effect.

    THOSE were valuable backchannels. Unfortunately, that happens less often rather than more – in my experience.


  2. Ultimately, I think that since Twitter was designed with just one purpose in mind (answering the question “what are you doing now?”), using it for anything beyond that will be debatable and open to personal opinion. Personally, I have to disagree with you when you say that tweeting what you are hearing is not engaging to people following at a distance. My organization has cut all travel funds, so I have had to follow most conferences over the past year at a distance. I find it very engaging when people tweet what they hear – I tend to tune out when watching live video feeds. Usually, when people start chatting or dialogging is when I start to get lost. A lot of that has to do with the limitations of Twitter – there just isn’t enough room to point out what you are commenting about and make the comment in the same tweet, so most people just make the comment and the rest of us often have no idea what they are talking about.

    As a speaker, I have grown to really appreciate when people just tweet what I am saying – it gives me better feedback than any evaluation form. I can know that something I said connects with someone when they tweet it – letting me know what is impacting people and what isn’t. In fact, I find it funny when a main point of mine is totally ignored and a side comment becomes tweeted and re-tweeted dozens of times. I sometimes even change presentations based on what people tweeted, making those impacting side comments in to main points.

  3. Oh, yeah – FYI (for full disclosure) – this post was written because I was following a conference on Twitter recently and there was massive confusion over how to use Twitter at that conference. It was really just meant as a quick primer to help the attendees get on track. I don’t classify “Twitter at conferences” as a hill that I would die upon, so everyone is free to disagree with me and it won’t hurt me at all.

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