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.