The Tweet, the search, the hashtag and the backchannel

My relationship with Twitter is evolving. It’s maturing into an incredible networking and search tool. (Or maybe it’s always been that, and I am the one maturing!) I suspect the majority of the population know nothing of the potential it holds, let alone are able to work out what words like hashtag and backchannel mean. Working with social media is like negotiating a new language; when you are fluent in it you walk confidently through the new landscape. When you are learning, your steps are tentative and you look for those who can lead you in the right direction. Thankfully, that is part of the appeal of social media; there are plenty of guides out there ready to help.

Twitter – Real time search

The use of Twitter as real time search is something that I’m sure most of the population would have no clue about. It’s called real time search because people are sending out tweets relevant to what is happening right now. I know that when I go to Twitter I have a network of people who are willing to share what they know. I can guarantee if there is something new on the horizon I will find out about it first from this network. The point of Twitter for me is that I have a network.  But even if you don’t have a network you can use Twitter for real time search. There is a search box on the front page of the Twitter home page. Just type into that box what it is you are interested in and you will receive a lists of tweets that contain the words you were looking for. Below is a screenshot of a Twitter search I did for Danah Boyd.

Notice how many links you can see in the results I received. This is the real beauty of Twitter. Links take you places, they expand your thinking and introduce you to new voices and opinions. We need to be teaching our students the value of using tools like Twitter and Diigo and Delicious for search purposes. They act as a filter; human intervention has played a part in the results you receive. Someone has made a conscious decision to note this link as important.  A search engine may not find a web page that has been loaded to the web for a day or two or maybe even longer. That’s the reason why search engine companies like Google are interested in companies like Twitter and integrating their results into their search results. It’s the human filter at work; our consciousness making results relevant.  Note also that you can click on the trending topics links in the right sidebar to take you to tweets about what people are interested in now, in real time.

The Hashtag

Twitter hashtags are really interesting. They came about as a creation of the Twitter community, as a means of organising information around a topic, idea or conference. It’s the conference hashtags that I am finding most relevant to me at the moment.  Last week there was a really interesting conference taking place in the United States (San Francisco I think) called Supernova 09. Developers of content and leading thinkers were talking about business and the rise of social media and new ways of doing things. Great speakers like Chris Anderson and Jonathan Zittrain were speaking. The hashtag for this conference was #sn09. Someone sent out a tweet with this hashtag as part of it. When you are using twitter, a hashtag becomes a link to a results page that collects any tweets using that hashtag. When I visited #sn09 I discovered a ustream link to the conference that was streaming the entire thing live. I was able to dip in and out of this conference in some of my spare moments (not too many of those unfortunately!) and hear what some of the leading thinkers out there had to say about how business is responding to the rise of social media. Conference organisers are now setting up Twitter hashtags before conferences start to try and generate interest in upcoming events. #acec2010 is already being used for next April’s ACEC Digital Diversity conference. Read this Mashable guide to hashtags for more detailed information on how to use hashtags well.

The Backchannel

Hashtags being used at conferences are providing what is being called a backchannel to events taking place in real time. What they enable is for people to use their computers or networked devices to provide commentary about what is happening at events they are attending. Now this can be illuminating when it is done well. People often provide a blow by blow description of what presenters are relaying and you can feel like you are part of the conference. If you’re not there physically you have the ability to send out tweets asking the people there to relay your questions or probe for more detail. This is the ‘using backchannel for good’ approach.

‘Using backchannel for bad’ is something I’ve seen happening for some time. There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism or questioning someone’s thinking about a topic, but I do see something wrong with attacking a presenter’s skills at delivery. I’ve sat through conferences of late when I’ve felt the presenter is giving a less than stellar performance, but I’m not going to send out tweets bemoaning this to a public audience. It’s rude and bad form in my opinion. I’ve seen it happen when people are ustreaming presentations and viewers are criticising the stream and asking people to do a better job. The reality is that the people going to the effort of doing this don’t have to. They are going out of their way to ensure that others can participate. There are times when I’ve been embarrassed by the behaviour of people who really should have better manners.

Danah Boyd, a researcher with Microsoft, suffered from a nasty backchannel incident at the Web 2.0 Expo recently. She’s been transparent enough to write about it in depth and let people know the effect it had on her. I admire her for doing so. It seems that some people take the 140 character tweet as an opportunity to send out some pretty hurtful commentary. Unfortunately, incidents like this will see the backchannel suffer in conferences with event organisers potentially shying away from its use.  Joe McCarthy has written a very detailed assessment of the dark side of the backchannel that is more than worth reading. Visit his post for a deep insight into the use of backchannels at conferences as far back as 2004.

In all, Twitter, you continue to amaze me with you useful application to my learning. You are my most crucial network; you lead me in directions I might never have discovered any other way. It’s quite often serendipitous. I find myself  led to new thinkers I have never read before and my mind is expanded. Our relationship will continue; I’m certainly not ready to give you up.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Tweet, the search, the hashtag and the backchannel

  1. Jenny, as always, your insight into social media is comprehensive and clear. I agree with you and thank you for taking the time to explain everything so well. Just musing on the possibility of following people’s hashtags on Twitter in the same way that you can follow what they’re reading in Delicious and Diigo. Wouldn’t that be useful?

  2. johnp

    Hi Jenny,
    Seems like Twitter is experiencing just like with most new tools, a shake out period where experimentation and boundary pushing takes place before a set of socially accepted norms evolves. Having tried in some small way to harness the technology to better reflect on presentations I must admit that even with hashtags and search etc Twitter can often be disjointed and patchy.

    All that aside not sure if you have seen Steve Wheeler’s post titled “Weapons of Mass Detraction” at http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2009/12/weapon-of-mass-distraction.html

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