The Twittered Conference: A Richer Experience

Last week in Oxford, I posed a simple question to the audience assembled for my panel at the Skoll World Forum: who was on Twitter?

About half the attendees raised their hands. And indeed, the the conference – better known as #SWF09 on Twitter – really become two separate experiences. As Peter Deitz of Social Actions (who did a a great job organizing the mass online participation for Skoll’s Social Edge community) commented: “Frankly, there are two conferences going on: one for the tweeters and one for everyone else.”

And it was about a lot more than cool technology, laptops and iPhones – as Peter said, “The twittering delegates are having a distributed conversation with people here and around the world. The others aren’t.” Even during my panel, I kept one eye on the Twitterstream – and found that there were tons of people not present in Oxford who were “sitting in” on the conversation that I was faciliating from afar, and even prompting actual attendees to ask tough questions.

At Social Edge, Catherine Michel captured the upside:

While sitting in one panel, I follow the live updates from others. I capture the most stunning quotes from my session and absorb the most influential in others. Most impressively, people in Panel I are using twitter to ask someone in the audience of Panel II to pose a question to the experts. The answer, of course, appears again on twitter, satisfying even more people’s need for information. With twitter, we get a taste of every session, we can maximize our exposure to knowledge, we can be greedy.

Now to be sure, there was a temptation to zone out to the actual panels – and the speakers in the room – and drift downstream with Twitter chatter. During the inevitable dry spots in a 90-minute panel discussion on finance models for social entrepreneurship, there was always the pull of organizing the evening’s “Tweetup” pub crawl. But walking that wire between tuning out and broadening the conversation proved well worth the effort, in my view. I was able to audit several sessions that conflicted either with meetings or with other sessions. Further, it was great to meet people whose opinions and reactions mattered to me – and to read some of their follow-up blog posts.

Frankly, this is not a new phenomenon for technology conferences, where live-Tweeting has been a staple for a good year now. But the Twittered Skoll World Forum was something new for the non-technical social sector, and it added a rich new level to the conversation. As Nick Temple wrote on the School for Social Entrepreneurs blog: “This was the event where I really began to understand the full potential of Twitter.” Next year, I think, everyone in the room will raise their hands.

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