The Twelephant in the conference room – beware live unmoderated Tweet screening

By MARK PEARSON

The practice of screening live, unmoderated Twitter feeds as a backdrop to speakers and panels still happens at many conferences despite its potential to backfire.

I blogged about my own experiences with this practice after it triggered a series of embarrassments at a conference I attended at the end of 2010.

That opinion piece was published in full by the Pacific Media Centre here.

Let’s first get my definition straight. I am not as concerned by the screening of moderated tweets in conference rooms, and I am far less concerned about delegates, bloggers and journalists live tweeting the proceedings of conferences to the outside world – although both practices also have their risks.

My graver concerns are for the practice of the rolling live Twitter feed to a conference hashtag behind the speakers as they give their presentations.

Such a live feed happened at a journalism education conference I attended in Sydney in late 2010. (Incidentally, it also prompted a defamation threat from the editor of a national daily newspaper against a journalism academic over a series of tweets she had posted from the proceedings.)

As I recounted in my earlier piece, those of us who at the time were relatively new to Twitter were taken aback by the influence the live screened feed had on the conference proceedings from the moment ABC managing director Mark Scott began his opening address.

He noticed the Tweets rolling on the large screen behind him and interrupted his speech to say: “Is this a live Tweet feed that’s happening here? There’s nothing more frightening than a live Tweet feed. I’m going to turn my back to it and review later. Imagine if David and Margaret were reviewing half way through the film!” (For international readers, ‘David and Margaret’ are Australia’s most famous film reviewers who host a popular weekly movie criticism program on the ABC.)

Scott proceeded to sing the praises of his own public broadcaster’s innovative use of Twitter, but also acknowledged its hazards and quoted an editorial from The Australian describing it as “the dunny-door graffiti of the digital age”. Anyone holding  that view would have found it reinforced as that conference’s proceedings unfolded.

Immediately after his speech, Scott joined a panel of editorial executives from a cross-section of media to discuss journalism education, with the live Twitter feed rolling in the background.

That feed became a vocal de facto panellist as it ticked over on the screen behind the real panellists, with audience members tweeting criticisms of the size of the panel, the comments of speakers, the room lighting and even the camera work.

When one editor criticised the quality of graduates from a named journalism program, the screen behind him lit up, insisting the chair of the session (yours truly) give the head of that program a right of reply and joking that he should throw a shoe at his critic.

It was all taken in good humour at the time and offered some light relief to a somewhat tense session, but it was also a forewarning of a more alarming altercation later in the conference prompted by a cryptic tweet.
During a session on social media and journalism, one academic audience member described a panelist as ‘so male’. He didn’t notice the original tweet, but looked back at the screen to see it had been retweeted by a student reporter in the room.

“F*** (student’s name)”, he yelled in the midst of the session, and packed his things and stormed out, leaving the student in tears and the organisers scrambling to manage the awkward situation. Understandably, the organisers decided to suspend the live screening of Tweets for the final conference session.

I suggest it would be a rare conference host who would want this level of angst to unfold on their watch and I am sure my good colleagues who hosted that journalism conference have, like me, learned much more about the dynamics of Twitter in a public forum over the ensuing two years. Far worse situations can unfold, such as the hijacking of the hashtag by individuals or groups outside the conference wanting to damage proceedings.

Yet, strangely, some conferences continue to feature live screened Twitter feeds.

To my mind, the potential risks – disarray, discomfort, distraction and defamation – far outweigh any possible rewards.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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