It’s now becoming common to kludge a conference “backchannel” onto Twitter. I am quite ambivalent about this. I don’t think Twitter works nearly as well as an internal backchannel, even though there are some very nice and fancy twitter clients to help make this look nicer.
But the real problem comes from the public/private confusion. Tweets are (generally) public, and even if tagged by a hashtag to be seen by those tracking an event, they are also seen by your regular followers. This has the following consequences, good and bad.
- Some people tweet a lot while in a conference. They use it as a backchannel. That’s overwhelming to their followers who are not at the conference, and it fills up the feed.
- When multiple people do it, it’s almost like a spam. I believe that conferences like using Twitter as backchannel because it causes constant mentions of their conference to be broadcast out into the world.
- While you can filter out a hashtag in many twitter clients, it’s work to do so, and the general flooding of the feed is annoying to many.
- People tweeting at a conference are never sure about who they are talking to. Some tweets will clearly be aimed at fellow conference attendees. But many are just repeats of salient lines said on stage, aimed only at the outsiders.
- While you can use multiple tags and filters to divide up different concurrent sessions of a conference, this doesn’t work well.
- The interface on Twitter is kludged on, and poor.
- Twitter’s 140 character limit is a burden on backchannel. Backchannel comments are inherently short, and no fixed limit is needed on them. Sure, sometimes you go longer but never much longer.
- The Twitter limit forces URLs to be put into URL shorteners, which obscure where they go and are generally a bane of the world.
Dedicated backchannels are better, I think. They don’t reach the outside world unless the outsiders decide to subscribe to them, but I think that’s a plus. I think the right answer is a dedicated, internal-only backchannel, combined with a minimal amount of tweeting to the public (not the meeting audience) for those who want to give their followers some snippets of the conferences their friends are going to. The public tweets may not use a hashtag at all, or a different one from the “official” backchannel as they are not meant for people at the conference.
The most common dedicated backchannel tool is IRC. While IRC has its flaws, it is much better at many things than any of the web applications I have seen for backchannel. It’s faster and has a wide variety of clients available to use with it. While this is rarely done, it is also possible for conferences to put an IRC server on their own LAN so the backchannel is entirely local, and even keeps working when the connection to the outside world gets congested, as is common on conference LANs. I’m not saying IRC is ideal, but until something better comes along, it works. Due to the speed, IRC backchannels tend to be much more rapid fire, with dialog, jokes, questions and answers. Some might view this as a bug, and there are arguments that slowing things down is good, but Twitter is not the way to attain that.
However, we won’t stop those who like to do it via Twitter. As noted, conferences like it because it spams the tweetsphere with mentions of their event.
I would love to see an IRC Bot designed to gateway with the Twitter world. Here are some of the features it might have.
First of all, somebody would set it up. It might be the conference itself but might well just be an audience member who wants this sort of backchannel. The bot would be told the “official” hashtags of the conference and perhaps some variant hashtags used for posts to the world.
- Any who join the room could tell the Bot a twitter account and password. This might be their real twitter account, but better if it’s a 2nd one, created just for backchannel. That way, your backchannel tweets don’t go out to your followers or go into your public timeline.
- The bot would also have its own general twitter account, possibly creating one just for this conference. The admin might have to handle any captchas to create this account.
- Any tweets with the appropriate conference hashtags that are not from IRC channel members would be posted to the IRC channel by the bot. The bot would create IRC users for each tweeter who uses the hash tag, and make them be in the room until it’s been more than a certain time since they tweeted. As such, the tweets would appear in the IRC room as though from the twitter user. Namespace collision would have to be managed.
- Any posts by members of the room which have registered with the bot would be tweeted on the provided account with the appropriate hashtag added. The bot would do URL shortening, and could either break up long messages into 2 tweets, or send an error back to the author if there is no easy way to do it.
- Members of the room could put characters in front of their IRC messages to avoid having them tweeted — or set the reverse, so that they need to put in something like the hashtag to cause it to be tweeted.
- Members of the room who have not registered with the bot would get their messages tweeted through the bot’s own account. Their name would be added, reducing the number of characters available. Members could turn this off with a command to the bot. Alternately the admin could make it so members must tell the bot that they want this forwarding.
- Another special character might say “tweet this with my real account” if the user has enabled that. So their most salient points would go to their followers.
- I see no big reason to do anything with retweeting.
- The Bot would handle direct messages to the virtual room members, and send them out as twitter DMs.
- If an IRC message started with @username, the bot would treat this as a twitter reply.
- The bot would also check the feed of the users who have authorized it and look for DMs and replies and send them as IRC messages, unless the user disables that as they are already getting this through Twitter.
- The bot will put out tweets every so often advertising the IRC room, using the hashtag. But not so often as to be annoying. Twitter users can block the bot of course.
The result is that people in the IRC room would see all tweets as though they were from other people in IRC, and their comments would, if they like, be tweeted out with the hashtag to be seen by the people following the conference hashtag, but possibly not by their followers. The IRC room would have a roster of real members and specially marked virtual members who are just the people tweeting the hashtag.
Let us know if somebody builds this. I will use it for sure.