Digital Lemmings

I’ve been reflecting a bit since the ULearn conference about the extensive use that was made of the various ‘back-chat’ channels during sessions at the conference, particularly the use of Twitter. I’ve been a Twitter user since it was first released, and have enjoyed building a list of those I follow consisting mainly of a number of NZ and overseas teachers, principals and luminaries within the field of education. Occassionally the updates on who has eaten at what restaurant become a little tiresome, but generally the exchange of quick-fire thoughts and questions relating to what others may be working on or thinking at the time, along with links being shared and commented on provides me with a sense of being “connected” to a wider group of people with interests that complement and feed my own.

I found the prospect of using Twitter as a ‘back-chat’ channel at the ULearn conference very interesting. it had been used at the 2007 conference by a handful of early adopters, but this year, with the provision of a more powerful wireless network throughout the venues, the uptake was huge – so much so that the usage of Twitter by delgates on the first day rocketed ULearn to the number one position on Twitscoop.

Beyond the euphoria of being able to do this, however, comes the question “how does this actually add to or enhance the conference experience?” Obviously it may provide non-conference attendees with the opportunity to ‘participate’ in what is going on through the running commentary of their twitter friends, plus it may provide an opportunity for delegates to exchange ideas and questions that occur to them while they’re listening to a speaker. Of course, such use assumes a certain level of intelligence and digital literacy on the part of the users.

Sadly, this was lacking in much of what I saw being exchanged in the many of the messages. This is not to say that what some individuals chose to share may not have had some validity for them, but one would have to question the usefulness of simply sharing a stream of consciousness of unformed (and un-informed?) thoughts as a presentation was being made – particularly where the thoughts being expressed are negative.

What was more significant to me was the way in which one person’s thinking appeared to ‘flavour’ the contributions of others, resulting in a lot of ‘imitative’ comments – what I’ve referred to in my title as Digital Lemmings! I spoke to one of the delegates that I’d seen active in the Twitter exchange – someone I have regard and respect for as a digital innovator and thinker. This person was relatively new to Twitter and the whole back-channel idea, but had decided to ‘give it a go’ in the context of the conference. He spoke with me about how even he’d found himself being dragged into the ‘spiral’ of negative comment at one stage, and had to consciously direct his thoughts in positive directions.

In his book The Wisdom of the Crowds, James Surowiecki argues why many are smarter than a few – but he does point to a number of failures of crowd intelligence which I believe I saw emerging in the Twitter back-channels. These include the fact that the crowds themselves can be too homogeneous, too imitative and too emotional.

The irony for me was that, as the messages I’m alluding to were being posted, the speakers on stage were making some extremely valid points about the nature of public sharing, and how, in the digital world, what we share becomes a record that cannot be erased – thus requiring some different ways of thinking about what is and isn’t appropriate for sharing in public online forums.

Perhaps we’ve still got a way to go to fully appreciate and understand the affordances of these technologies, and the literacies that are going to be important for us to focus on and develop in our students – and for ourselves.

15 thoughts on “Digital Lemmings

  1. Frankly speaking I didn’t like tweeter. When I used it for the first time I didn’t say anything new in it. It is something regular and really slow as compared to other in its competition.

  2. A good point. With freedom of expression comes the responsibility to act responsibly. Maybe Skype chat would have been a more appropriate form of expression for some especially when people deliberately used the #ulearn08 tag. I suppose some are like children, making mistakes as they come to grips with using a new medium. Some people just have bad manners in their general day to day lives as well. As people become more familiar with the technology they will hopefully understand better the implications of what they are doing.

    I teach my children to sign their blog post comments but not write their surnames. Then when adults leave comments with their whole names my kids want to give them a lecture on cyber safety. The kids are modelling good practice to their parents.

  3. I found myself drawn into a fascinating whirlpool of wanting to up the #ulearn08 flag (by making it the most active tag), of wanting to share comments on the keynotes as they happened without disturbing the speakers or the audience, of wanting to listen to other tweeters’ views as we listened and of being subsversive about the event – including a plan to all stand up at 17:23 which I, for one, bottled out of in the end. I still haven’t quite found an equilibrium around twitter so perhaps I was easiy swayed, but still I enjoyed the demand of articulating in words my reaction to the keynote – I think it made more the keynote more effective for me although I didn;t get many repsonses, which would have made the activity even more worthwhile.

  4. Maybe it doesn’t enhance your experience at all, but it has enhanced mine seeing Richard tweet the concepts. Sure, I’ve not had the depth but it’s nice to have a tweet-stream of consciousness float by…

    Don’t ask what tweeting can do for you (it can’t) ask instead… (sorry 145 chars used up)

  5. The good thing about twitter is that unlike talk back radio you can turn off the callers you dont want to hear. At a conference with everyone tweeting you get every tom dick and harry and they become a crowd, then they become a talk back radio audience. Perhaps twitter isnt the tool of choice.
    I love twitter, you just need to take time and find out how it best works for you, a slice of laughter, person trudgery and people with similar interests sharing their learning, nice tool and brilliant on the iphone.

  6. The jury is out on Twitter for me.. I struggled to figure out why i might want to use it, but can also accept the notion that it takes a we while to learn how to use something new. 140- characters.. that’s brief.. usefully so? or inhibiting? Is this another solution looking for a problem?

  7. just reading this … …. and thought about this post. I must admit I only briefly followed the Twitter streams as what I was reading was not of sufficient depth or ‘value’ to me to be very engaging, or add to my thinking or compete with the content coming from the stage.
    Of more concern to me were people physically leaving towards the end of presentations. I would find this tremendously disruptive as a presenter and quite frankly I believe it was pretty rude. It is just showing plain old good manners – and this is really the issue you highlight with twitter too … these are moral and ethical issues, the technology is the tool not the cause.

  8. I read your post with interest as a new comer to Twitter. I joined Twitter AFTER the conference – mainly because I had had conversations with people at conference who twittered. The idea that one could be part of a collective discussion during a presentation intrigued me and I would have liked to have been part of that. It is disappointing to hear the ‘conversations’ were not all they could have been. I agree with Greg Carrol that Twitter is the tool, the technology – it is what we choose to do with that tool that makes the difference – just like blogging, websites, skype/chat. One difficulty for me would be the expected immediacy of twitter during a presentation (not to mention the possible distraction from the completion of the presentation, and that it would be possibly unnerving for the presenter) – it invites, as you mention, a swift response with little thought. I particularly like to think before I speak/twit – and maybe that is something newbies to twitter are learning – because once your thoughts are out there, online they are really out there and impossible to get back… your digital footprint has been altered… I still see huge potential with this technology tool and am looking forward to exploring it more – but with hopefully a responsible online approach. Thanks for your Post Derek – it has really encouraged me to think wisely about my personal and professional use of twitter.

  9. It is interesting. We tweeted throughout the conference in 2007 however because we knew there were only a few ‘elite’ of us in the room the conversation during the keynote was rich. We were openly disagreeing and agreeing with points and engaging in discussion and felt free to do so because it was a seemingly closed twitter group. This year at ULearn with twitter open to all the conversation was diluted. I think the criticisms leveled at twitter as a result of this are unwarranted however as this was a room full of people learning a new technology, and we need to make allowances for that. I kept most of my comments out of the main twitter channel for this reason.

    I had an interesting thought on the weekend though. I enjoy twittering during conferences and it does help me with clarifying my understandings, however as I sat in Church on Sunday I wondered how people would feel if I twittered through the sermon? It would seem absurd! I often have thoughts about the finer points of a sermon I would like to share, however I suppose I will have to twitter those to the man upstairs for now :).

  10. Beverly Kaye adds some good points about digital footprints to this thread.

    Can one go back and log at a log of twits (sorry tweets)?

    As BoT member with staff at the conference, looking at a log might help me decide whether there was any value in funding further attendances by staff by looking at their professional conversations using the service.

    Secondly as a presenter, I could decide whether my presentation held any value to the audience by reading their insightful comments. 😉

  11. As an avid Twitter user, I was saddened to hear that Twitter had people behaving ‘badly’ during keynotes. Working with the media team as I was, I didn’t get a chance to be part of the conversation at the time. Of course, I went back and read what had been said and while I think that certain people did ‘go on’ a little, I didn’t find the tweets as bad as I had expected. I think that people should be able to express their opinions on the keynotes and debate this with others. I think the value of this is lost though if people constantly pepper Twitter with negativity without looking to go a little deeper and discuss things in constructively. I agree with others that have talked about the fact you are able to tune into and out of Twitter and pick out what is useful to you – that is the power of being in a Twitter network. I think a lot of people don’t really understand Twitter as they don’t have a large enough network to see the power when you leverage this network to find out information. I hope that this won’t put people off Twitter.

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