Split attention at conferences: take notes or join the back-channel?

You’re attending a conference where the attendees are tooled up – there’s access to electricity, wireless internet and mobile devices.

You’re not just a participant – you’re trying to act as a delegate on behalf of your colleagues, so you want to make notes and make a digest available for people who couldn’t attend. At the same time, there’s an active Twitter back-channel where participants – some of whom are also presenters at the conference – are publicly responding to the scheduled presentations. The back channel is full of insightful, critical responses and public-spirited documenting of the proceedings. Questions are asked and answered, supplementary links are supplied, resources are shared, and good points made.

Personally, doing justice to following the presentation while taking notes and at the same time participating in the Twitter back-channel is too much for my working memory space – I can’t do it all and probably shouldn’t try. Obviously, I’m not going to abandon the presentations – they’re the reason I’m at the conference – so the decision boils down to whether to take notes or join the back-channel discussion.

Or to put it another way

  1. can you curate a Twitter back channel so it becomes a coherent set of notes?
  2. and assuming you can, can you trust the crowd sufficiently to co-produce a set of notes which is as or more useful to your colleagues than those you’d produce on your own?

The answer to the first question is yes. Twitter doesn’t make it very easy to archive tweets, and indeed deletes them. Brian Kelly has a post and ensuing discussion about curating alternatives. Meanwhile, I’ve used Storify to order the tweets and add commentary. It makes it easy to reorder, delete, and add supplementary material.

And I think the answer to the second question is yes. There’s a great spirit of camaraderie and shared endeavour when a group of listeners show themselves as inclined to pool their resources. Anyway, you can be the judge – the conference I attended, tweeted and curated on Storify was Beyond Books: There and Back Again, at the University of Oxford (n.b. Storify stories could be a lot more media-rich than this particular one is). I think it’s fuller, more informed, and more questioning than I could have achieved on my own.

At its most helpful I think tweeting with this future use in mind entails:

  • watching to make sure that at least (and ideally no more than) one person tweets when a given session starts and ends, and the details of presenters including their Twitter account if they have one.
  • similarly, if a web site, project, book is mentioned, no more than one person needs to promptly tweet that.
  • taking your turn doing the above.
  • to learn when listening to presentations, it’s important to actively work hard rather than simply comprehending what is being said. So, on Twitter, rather than summarising the presentation, trying to cross-reference, weigh up, compare, relate, and expand.
  • trying to keep up, so that when the tweets for a given hashtag are aggregated and (probably) display chronologically, yours appears in context
  • organisers suggesting dedicated hashtags for each parallel session
  • using the hashtag religiously
  • if using the hashtag, being considerate about keeping on-topic and constructive so as not to divert attention from the presentation
  • treating each 140-character Tweet as needing to make sense independently of others, and paradoxically also remembering that it is one small part of a bigger stream which future others may try to work into a coherent account.
  • prioritising listening to the presentation.
  • when curating, break the chronology if it helps the resulting, inevitably linear account make sense, and add commentary to break up the stream. It’s inevitably flat – would be nice if there were a visual way to give relative emphasis to important tweets, but there isn’t so a curator will need to add a summary at the beginning in order to direct attention – particularly to records as long as mine.
  • when hosting a meeting make electricity and wireless internet access easily available.

What do you think? Without over-determining a back-channel, is there a way to get it to self-organise for notes?

Some suggestions for back-channel practices:

Update: a Storyfied backchannel from the 8th June 2012 Heads of E-Learning Forum / Higher Education Academy workshop on e-assessment, curated by Rachel Forsyth of Manchester Metropolitan University.

Update: David Kelly’s series of curated backchannels.

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2 thoughts on “Split attention at conferences: take notes or join the back-channel?

  1. So true – these are really good ideas. i’ve coincidentally spent all day at a conference wondering whether i was splitting my attention inappropriately (should I be looking up and tweeting URLs in mid-session? Did I miss something important while I was doing that, or will it actually help me to go back and remember what happened because I’ve already bookmarked them?). If we could all learn some live-tweeting culture along the lines you suggest, I’m sure we could do a lot better. i’ll try to improve!

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