Conference tweets left the chair and speakers lagging behind

The Guardian Activate Summit at the beginning of July was a brilliant example of the publication becoming an event.  Everyone present seemed very very Guardian-esque, from speakers to delegates.

There was a great mix of speakers – from Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer at Amazon who sees the future in cloud computing, via Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University who has brought the internet to children in remote villages in India, to Gerry Jackson founder of SW Radio Africa, an independent Zimbabwe radio station, fighting for democracy.

Arianna Huffington – co-founder of the Huffington Post – gave one of the opening keynote speeches on the topic of “Society, Humanity, Technology and the Web”.  During this she described “traditional” media as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder  (ie wanting to move on to new content and new stories at too fast a pace) while “new” media suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – claiming that the greatest contribution that it can bring to changing the world is an obsessive interest in details that would be brushed aside by media editorially limited by space and time.   She dismissed those who accept disruptive innovation in business and those who don’t  by quoting a 2,500 year old Greek philosopher Heraclitus to dismiss those who are trying to revive a past that no longer exists she said “ you can’t step into the same river twice”.

There was a very new media feel about the second keynote session too where the Tweets of the delegates were posted up behind the speakers.  This felt very experimental.  The subject of the panel was “Politics, democracy and public life : mobilising democracy, streamlining government and realising political power through the internet”.  The issue here was whether the Twitterfall behind the speakers added or detracted from the debate.  The speakers, Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital who worked on the Obama election campaign, Adam Afriyie MP and shadow minister for science and innovation and Tom Watson MP and former minister for transformation were excellent, however they and their chair Emily Bell could not see the tweets behind them, but the audience of course could.  This meant that the comments posted were unanswered by the speakers and at some points the Twitter overtook the debate.  This hit a low point for me when the audience began giggling like school children because someone, presumably a bit bored, commented “Doesn’t Tom Gensemer look like Gary Oldman?”, shortly to be trumped by a further twitter “Doesn’t Tom Watson look like Frank Carson?”.

To give the experience its due some of the Twitterers were extremely relevant.  My advice would be make sure the speakers can see the Tweets too and respond, or don’t put them up.

It’s true that you can’t step into the same river twice, and applause is due to the Guardian for being so progressive but any potential speakers at conferences would naturally prefer to preserve a world where audience members wanting to mock them had their audience limited to the bloke next to them.

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