The debate on the misuse of Twitter back channels at conferences continues and I have to mention another good post on the subject from a participant at the Web 2.0 Expo, Michelle Riggen-Ransom, Web 2.0 Expo: Harshtags, Twecklers and the Silence of the Death Star. She suggests that Twitter flows at conferences should not simply be beamed up on the screen behind the speaker, there should be a moderator function. Admittedly the hecklers would still be able to send their wise cracks but at least they wouldn't be magnified on the big screen.
The other main point in this post is also worrying. The participants were so engrossed in their laptops and cellphones that there was very little direct conversation, one of the main attractions of going to a conference in the first place. I've had the same experience a few times; at break times you look around for people to meet but everyone is too busy typing to notice you. In the end you just find a corner and start typing, look as if you're busy.
Are we hiding behind our devices, afraid of real human contact? Social media can certainly extend the reach of a conference and I have "participated" in several via Twitter, Second Life or web meeting. We can also bring the delegates closer together by providing a pre-conference community site to make contacts. But the main event is actually meeting all these net contacts face to face and discussing over a coffee or an evening drink.
As Michelle concludes:
"Next time you’re at a conference, try putting away the iPhone or the Blackberry during breaks. If you disagree with a presenter, seek them out afterwards, write a thoughtful blog post or contact them via Twitter to start a conversation. Say hello to people. Be open. You could meet someone IRL (!) who could become a friend, a mentor or business partner, or even start a project that makes the world a better place for your being in it."