tinkering with twitter, live tweeting

So, it’s happened. After a few months of quiet watching, a first twitter post is out. It’s an attempt at joining the conversation. Appropriately clumsy.

Spent two days at a Yale conference on Journalism in the New Media Ecology that was simultaneously twittered (and live blogged.) People in the audience threw snippets of speaker’s comments at each other and their followers around the world. Then added their own comments and observations on what was being said.

Everybody seemed really proud of it. I was, obviously, the aged idiot in the room. How did they handle the distraction? What should get your attention first, the speaker or the twitter feed? Were others really capable of grasping both at the same time? Or was it more about the skill of switching from one to another constantly and knowing, almost instinctively, when to be where?

Decided that my preference was to to respect the speakers and the fact that I’d traveled to New Haven to actually meet people in person. Learned that if you listen to the panels first, it is possible to catch up on twitter feeds during boring presentations. To choose when to listen in on the ‘other’ conversation. The twitter feed will even direct you back to interesting things the speaker may have said while you were not listening. Assuming someone else was listening; and doesn’t twist the comment all that much.

The twitter feed, interestingly, had two sides to it: One was clean cut wire service typing of what others had said; the other was emotional, subjective, and pointed. So, one was providing information, the other opinion.

Almost a week after the conference, some striking elements of this coming together in actual and virtual spaces at the same time still have me pondering: How many conversations can you follow simultaneously? And what happens if you keep switching between one and the other?

I quizzed other participants about this during breaks. Of the seven people I talked to, all seven were tuning out of presentations as soon as they got disinterested in what was covered at the moment. They switched to and enjoyed the twitter discussion, which was often much more lively, diverse, and inspiring than what was going on on stage. They also switched to doing e-mail or reading online.

The NYT’s David Carr, being on the last panel of the event, said in his talk that at some point during those two days, he stopped sitting there with his laptop open; he closed it, deciding he did not need it anymore.

Earlier, he had twittered what kept racing through my mind: “Conferences have morphed into presentations to aud who are in their own media silos. Like me twittering. #kmedia. 9:20 AM Nov 14th from TinyTwitter “

This, it seems to me, is the big challenge in the world of opportunities offered by live access to such an event via various platforms: Just as online, we need to find ways to organize and “utilize” (mhm, management science lingo was abundant)  the information and conversation streams and, assuming that’s why you’re having a conference in the first place, find ways to engage everybody who is interested in a dialogue–not in simultaneous monologues.

(We could have an argument about several inside-the- silo conversations going on at the same time, both via twitter and in the panel discussions. Not to be confused with across-the-silo turf battles, of course.)

The organizers had put great care into having life bloggers and fantastic tweeters at the event (next to the great line-up of speakers, that is.) It was all video streamed. These new media tools made the event accessible to those who could not be there.

What was missing was moderators who connected the panels and thoughts with each other; or a “curator”, to use more new media language, of the conversation happening at the event and online. There was a lot of simultaneous talking but too little discourse. On a subject so polarized and discussed mostly through anecdotal evidence and strong opinions (involving strong egos…), there was too little following up on claims, not enough detail, examples, case studies and thus not enough depth, not enough progress in the discussion (which to me is the major draw to convening such a meeting.)

I was not surprised that my colleague Zach Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab got only one tiny post out of the two day conference.

Aside from occasional highlights, the event felt to me like a rushed piece of reporting on a posh topic throwing in “balance” in lieu of diversity and confident questioning & analysis cutting through the clutter.

What’s ironic is that many of the smart thinkers on the subject were actually present (here’s the program.) But — everybody was multitasking. Speakers tweeted from the panel. Everybody was here and there.

Instead of pushing when things got quirky, ignoring the long panel structure and starting a conversation right then and there, we turned to something else whenever we got upset, bored or tired of the disconnect.

As I try to understand what twitter is to people and their interactions (and their institutions…), one image prevails: Bruno Ganz walking through a library in Berlin in Wim Wender’s film “Wings of Desire/Der Himmel ueber Berlin.”

As the angel Damiel, Ganz can listen to people’s thoughts. He roams around the women and men listening in, entering the magnificent world of people’s inner conversations for brief moments of time. He can listen to it all, but Wender’s angels can not enter a conversation with a human being.

(There’s a lot more in this analogy, I think: the film is mostly narrated in poetry contributed by Peter Handke; I’d argue that some of what comes along via twitter is pure poetry of the moment. Also, the angels are there to “assemble, testify and preserve reality”, as another angel, Cassiel/Otto Sander, puts it.)

On twitter, and to some extend Facebook, we can now listen to each others thoughts (yes, there are also all kinds of other uses.) As we are all discovering, there is some value in just listening in. We don’t always have to respond.

But there’s a reason why the angels in the film want to be humans. We benefit from having actual conversations, from our encounters as human beings. May they happen on twitter or elsewhere. Be factual or emotional. Poetic or profane.

Which is why I sent that twitter post.