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Month: November 2009

Teaching Twitter

Teaching Twitter

Last Friday I did two sessions with library staff around Twitter. We’ve explored Twitter before, but it was two years ago, before the explosion of use. What I wanted to demonstrate was how people use Twitter in a conference setting. I find it so engaging to listen to something and process it through and with Twitter and my amazing collection of Twittering friends and professionals, I wanted to share that aspect of its use.

So I set up accounts for everyone, set them up on Seesmic for the autorefresh, and prepared a presentation. It was October 30th, so I presented about ghoulish things; ideas about death and dead bodies in early modern Europe, ideas that are precursors to zombies and vampires and all other kinds of post-dead creatures.

The first presentation went fine, but I felt very weird about the whole thing. I didn’t really know what the experience was like for them, and it was certainly a new and weird experience for them. Listening and responding is a difficult skill. I think this is one of the skills we don’t directly teach, but expect people to just know. It’s like reading a novel versus reading an academic article; you read them very differently. You go into it with a different mindset. Your goals are different. We got into a good conversation afterwards about the whys and wheretofores, which made me feel like I might have had a shot of getting my general point across. I got lots of nice feedback about it, but something felt off about it to me. It was more off-putting for me than I expected; as my supervisor Susan says, you have to lean into what makes you uncomfortable. I think I was experiencing the loss of control that a presenter/teacher usually feels that they have. I deliberately set it up so that I was only part of the experience in the room; they were also talking to each other, playing with it, experimenting. So by the end of the presentation I really only had half the story (if that).

I had set up tags on each computer with the username so that they would know who was saying what; too often they were spending time looking around for a name and I think that was distracting for them. We talked about how comments about sessions at conferences leads people to leave one session they’re not enjoying and move to one that sounds more interesting; about gaining background. the content presentation contained two falsehoods and ten truths; they were to determine which was which. Gut instincts appeared, agreements and disagreements, etc. So I think it worked, they did what it is we do at conferences, but I think it was uncomfortable all around.

People do not now how to allocate attention. We don’t train people to do that either. I can sort of understand that, as I guess I’ve had moments of struggling with that as well. I don’t find using Twitter and listening to a conference presentation to be multi-tasking, as they are about the same thing. I am merely giving digital voice to the thoughts in my head. For me, the response on Twitter rarely distracts me because I look down for response only in a pause or segue, or when the speaker is reiterating something I already understand. So they flow together well; one enriches the other. But that’s not a skill you’re born with. Both of those pieces (the speaker’s content, the @replies on Twitter or other conference goers opinions) need to be important enough to you to weigh them effectively. I often look at tweets from a conference when I really agree with something being said or a disagree dramatically; I want to see what the room thinks. I want to know if someone says, “that’s not true because…” For me that’s enriching the actual talk. It also emboldens me to pose a question or make a comment outloud, because I know I’m not the only person thinking it.

But that’s a carefully honed skill. It’s even a bit of a technological issue; lately I’ve been using seesmic for conference sessions, and I shut off my main timeline. I only look at direct replies and people posting using a conference hashtag. That helps keeps me focused solely on the matter at hand.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a different skillset, really; just an old one on steroids. But I definitely found that that was the hardest part for the staff; how to listen to me and read tweets at the same time. (It’s NOT at the same time. That’s the trick.)

One of the most interesting things about the experience was the initial tweets by the participants. Some of them were things like “what do you mean by X?” or “Can you give us a definition of X?” Questions that should have been asked in person, at the time. I said from the start that I would not be following the tweets, but we’re so stuck in the idea of presenter/audience that the most obvious ways to start were merely to ask me questions. To me that showed how very much presentations are still about the presenter, with the audience meant to be only open and absorbing (and only from the presenter, not from each other). But as we proceeded, we got more responses that went farther than just me; to each other, to self, to the world.

Critical listening isn’t really a web 2.0 type skill, but it seems to me that maybe some tools require it. What people call multi-tasking, that IS a web 2.0 skill. And I think it’s far more varied and complex than people presume. It’s less about multi-tasking and more about identifying where you must pay attention and where you have a moment to catch a breath and jot down some ideas and reactions. It’s like learning to read for academics: you need to hear the introduction, you need to hear the opening of each section, and you need to pay attention to the first example in each section so that you understand it well. Then you can skim until you come to the concluding sentences, and the general conclusion. There are all kinds of little nooks and crannies in there where you can insert yourself and others.

But how do you teach that?