Twitter's Influence on Real-World Forums

Last night in St Paul, Minnesota, a group of local bloggers and members of the mainstream media got together to discuss ethics in new media.

The event (considering it was in Minnesota on a Monday night) was heavily covered online with a 3000+ word live-blogging effort, a live stream, and plenty of Twitter users. That was during the event. Additionally, quite a few local blogs (including this one now) covered it after the fact.

In looking through the plethora of coverage, I noticed two comments regarding Twitter behavior that stood out to me.

1. Some non-Twitter users (or at least Twitter engaged at the time users) seem to find it rude that a fairly active side-conversation was taking place within the room over laptops and cell phones. In fact, that conversation included people who were connected via Twitter but not physically in attendance. Bob Collins from Minnesota Public Radio reflected on news NewsCuts blog, saying, “Twitter seems like digital spitballs to me.”

2. Collins also seems to believe that the Twitter crowd could have done a better job engaging in the real-world conversation rather than Twittering their ongoing commentaries. He seemed frustrated by this, writing in the comments thread of his blog, “The honesty that people were able to muster up while punching messages on their cellphones to twitter, or by live blogging, they were not for some reason able to muster up in face-to-face communication.”

Based on the hundreds of comments that have been posted about the event, I see this as a simple clash of cultures. The Twitter users were simply doing what they do all day long every day through their blogs, Facebook status, IM messages and IM status, and – from time to time – in the real world. Suddenly, the topic of conversation turned to, obviously, the topic at hand.

More than anything else, Twitter brings efficiency to conversations in large crowds. I don’t know the attendance figure for the forum, so let’s just assume it was 50 people. Clearly, 50 people cannot all ask even one question each in a public forum lasting 90 minutes, much less receive thoughtful responses from others. But 50 people could each share their thoughts as they happen with whomever finds them important (subscribes to their Tweets or Tweets on a topic) and receive real-time responses from people they find interesting.

I’m sure many of the non-Twitter using mainstream media members in attendance leaned over to whomever they happened to be sitting next to and shared a spontaneous thought or two during the event. That’s great, but it’s constricted to the handful of people you happened to sit down next to who may or may not be interested in hearing your take at that exact moment. Scaling your thoughts beyond whisper range makes things much more interesting.

Another factor is public speaking. Public speaking is consistently one of the highest rates fears people have. Twitter allows people to send thoughtful, concise, messages to interested parties without having to stand in front of a crowd with a microphone in hand. This is one of the things that makes back channels (even public back channels like Twitter) so valuable.

I believe a great balance can be found by having someone other than the moderator monitor the Twitterverse for relevant comments and bringing them to the attention of the moderator for further discussion. There is a good chance you’ll find a few ideas that are more valuable than what you’ll get from someone with a microphone who likes hearing himself talk a bit too much. And it avoids Twitter overload of moderators.

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