Two Sides Of Social: Connecting Or Disrespecting?

Apparently I opened a can of worms in my last column. I was talking about real-time tweeting during the Search Insider Summit, lead largely by Rob Griffin, who added additional comments after the column ran.  The collective force of the Search Insider audience jumped on Rob with a pretty unanimous condemnation of tweeting during live events. Some of the snippets: 

"We are not the multitaskers we'd like to think we are. If you're tweeting instead of listening, you may as well not be there." - David Lott

"Save the tweets for the birds. Disrespectful is not a strong enough word." - Paula Lynn 

"Encouraging the attendees to clutch their phones, feverishly pecking out the next great tweet while viable information is being presented...is yet another segmentation of our society!" - Catherine Maino 

"I teach at a university - and I ban phones in the classroom. Anyone who is typing [even 140 characters] is not listening to what is being said" - Alan Charlesworth 

I'm going to steer clear of the disrespect minefield, and dig a little deeper into three of the themes introduced in these comments: multitasking, segmentation of society and the visual feedback to the presenter. I think the raw nerve struck here speaks to something foundational in how we're reimaging social connection.

First of all, David Lott is right. We're not the multitaskers we like to think we are. Nobody is. Attentional focus is one-mindedl we can't pay attention to two things at once. So the brain switches back and forth. This not only impacts our tweeter, but the distraction and lack of focus can spread to the entire audience. Our language processing modules, although a wonder of evolutionary design (thank youm Noam Chomsky), are products of a one-track mind. We can't compose our pithy tweets and focus on the message of the speaker at the same time. So, as we tweet, we temporarily "tune out" the speaker, creating a task switch in the mind. Each one of these "switches" can fragment our attention. The same is true for the rest of the audience. As we are distracted by the Twitter commentary, reading the latest "Twitticism," we have to relegate the poor schmuck on stage to background processing.

Yes, these switches are fast and, to us, almost unnoticeable, but they do happen. Nick Carr ("The Shallows") and others worry that this new environment of constant distraction could be turning us into a society of addle-minded wool-gatherers. 

But what about  Maino's concern about the segmentation of our society? Are we being divided into the technologically elite and Luddite plebes? Does the divide run across generational lines? Possibly. Even probably.  But I think there's something more visceral in her protest. Has technology driven a dividing wedge in our society to the point where it's no longer possible to gather a 100 or so souls in the same room for an hour to share a common social experience? Why can't we  resist the urge to check emails, Facebook updates, tweets or other digital distractions? In a new world of mass collaboration and creation of content, we seem to be losing the ability to digest the message of the person standing right in front of us.

Finally, we have the firsthand experience of Charlesworth, who has felt the pain of standing in front of a digitally distracted crowd. As a person who often presents in public, I share this pain. The visual feedback speakers get is important for their own self-confidence. I've discovered that an audience's concept of how to show respect to the speaker varies from culture to culture. I've found audiences in Northern Europe to be generally more attentive than North American audiences, who often peck away at some type of keyboard.  

Even within the U.S., there are regional differences. The Midwest is more polite, the East Coast more distracted, with the West Coast hopelessly connected to a digital umbilical cord (with the worst being the engineering teams in Redmond and Mountainview, who seem unable to communicate at any level without a keyboard in front of them). 

Perhaps the most disconcerting experience I had was in China, where in addition to being simultaneously translated, I was taken aback when several members of the audience started talking on their mobile phones in the middle of my presentation. If not for the fact that they did this to the other presenters as well, I would have taken it personally.  

Thank goodness Twitter wasn't around then.

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20 comments about "Two Sides Of Social: Connecting Or Disrespecting?".
  1. Rob Griffin from Media Contacts , May 19, 2011 at 1:49 p.m.

    Gord, you know I have to bite...

    First, I'd argue that 6 or 7 responses hardly represents the collective force of Search Insider. I did receive comments from people that agreed with me, but that is moot because none of them did so publically.  None the less, it does stress that this anti-feedback is not unanimous.  Plus I didn't recognize many of the commenters names on the attendee list ... Just saying.

    That said I would agree that there is something to the momentum of putting away the keyboards and phones.  I'm obviously a supporter but fair in one respect that by the end of SIS it did turn into a duel of wits.  It did start out though as fair feedback both positive and negative.  Sadly my negative comments fare over shadowed the good. This is human nature of course, but no one complained about my speaker agreements or other tweets about the large spider. 

    One thing I wanted to pose questions to the group on would be around poly versus monochromatic thinking. Can noone multitask or just those accustomed to monochromatic thinking? I've watched some 20-somethings multitask across devices, content, conversations, games and not miss a beat. For younger generations accustomed to polychromatic thinking I'd argue they are less effective when forced into a mono environment.  Now in full disclaimer, that's not me.

    In the end I'd sum up with a few key points.

    1) if you don't like it, don't put it there. 
    2) if we have it there, let's have fun with it and not be so sensitive.
    3) if we want only good tweets then we need perfect content and speakers which isn't possible.
    4) in the end, SIS maybe should institute guidelines for audience participation.
    5) we can all learn humility and not to take ourselves too seriously. 
    6) if you don't like twitter diatrctions, ditch name tags too as it has caused us to lose the ability to introduce ourselves properly and created a sales culture of hunting names by spying the tags against attendees' chests to the detriment of real conversation.

  2. Nectarios Economakis from straDG , May 19, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.

    I completely agree with you Gord. I presented at a conference yesterday and truly felt distracted by the audience's fixation on their phones/laptops.
    I've been guilty of this in the past too but I better understand that you can't fully appreciate the value of the content being delivered if you are multi-tasking.

    This type of behavior is not very present in non-digital conferences - the digital community should wise up!

  3. Jacquelyn Krones from Microsoft , May 19, 2011 at 2:22 p.m.

    As a speaker at SIS I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I always want the positive and the negative feedback and we're not getting it via the old way (forms at the end of sessions) anymore. On the other hand, I didn't feel like I could respond to it in the moment because I had a short amount of time to present and knew I'd already be cutting it close (not a critique of the format - I liked it and felt it made presenters be more focused and pithy).

    In terms of attention, it's not that no one can multi-task it's about how well they can really do any task justice when multi-tasking.

    I do think there's a larger cultural shift that's already happened: instead of speakers getting attention because of their "structural authority" they are now expected to earn our attention and that's not a bad thing. But the problem is that we're so used to thinking that we can multi-task that we often don't give speakers a chance. I've started leaving my gadgets in my room/office for at least many meetings and I find I'm thinking more deeply for sure. But it is still true that not all speakers are worthy of the amound of time they have (as true of meetings at work as presentations).

    I don't think things are going to change back. I've been to several meetings where the speaker starts with "Please close your laptops. Laptops are not allowed for the this session" which frankly just irritates me (and I'm sure others). Instead of thinking of how to influence people to disconnect when someone's talking, it might be better if we try to influence people to give the speaker their attention at least for a while to see if what they're saying is worth their attention. And finding ways to make conversation a more integral and organic part of presentations will also help people stay more focused and connected.

    I don't think tweeting during a presentation in the ways I've experienced it so far is about the presentation as much as it is about performance of the tweeter (it's not just that it is 140 characters, it's that people are trying to get retweeted and so they want to be sharp or funny which takes attention too). That's not entirely bad - it does give the presentation an opportunity for engagement beyond the room, but it isn't conversation. Is there a way that real time feedback could be used to make the session more interesting? I think there is - maybe it's saving time for reading/responding to tweets/questions from the audience and doing it in a way that it's not just happening as people are leaving the room.

  4. Jeffery Beliveau from PFC , May 19, 2011 at 2:22 p.m.

    "Why can't we resist the urge to check emails, Facebook updates, tweets or other digital distractions?"

    We can. I do. A little self-discipline goes a long way in matters well beyond this topic.

    Just turn it off, or don't bring it with you. The "crackberry" epithet does sure seem to apply - just one more tweet then I swear I'll stop...

    I wouldn't be so quick to bypass the "disrespect" issue. Self-absorption and the lack of common decency is not a trivial matter. I suppose a discussion will bring out the trolls, but it is worthy of review.

  5. Rob Griffin from Media Contacts , May 19, 2011 at 2:42 p.m.

    Full disclosure. I fully agree with ditching phones and laptops for formal training, client meetings, and business meetings that are more serious in nature.

    I think this is a tall order when it comes to conferences when it's a luxury to just be there. Many still have real work to do - never mind the silly tweets - and so go in and out of paying attention to show speakers based on interest.

    My approach. Be smart. Be passionate. Be an entertainer and a great presenter. If you can capture and keep the audiences attention, they will put down their devices.

  6. Carmen Hill from Babcock & Jenkins , May 19, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.

    Great post, as usual, Gord. A few thoughts: First, I appreciate the folks who live tweet from great events that I can't attend myself and try to return the favor. Is it really that much more distracting/disrespectful to have the audience tweeting than it would be if they were furiously taking notes? Also, in my experience (unless they're just complaining about the wi-fi or air conditioning or, OK, a boring speaker), a tweeting audience is usually an engaged audience; they want to share the good stuff they're hearing. That said, there are two circumstances when I shut down the Tweetdeck: 1. when the content is particularly complex/difficult and 2. when it's not tweet-worthy, i.e. dull as dirt. Finally, it's interesting to observe the tweeting habits (or lack thereof) among different audiences--even when the content is about social media (a phenomenon about which my colleague Eric Wittlake recently blogged: http://bit.ly/jhYxrg).

  7. Jacquelyn Krones from Microsoft , May 19, 2011 at 3:02 p.m.

    "Is it really that much more distracting/disrespectful to have the audience tweeting than it would be if they were furiously taking notes?"

    Disrespectful, no, but distracting (to the author) - I'd say yes, because when you're notetaking you're engaging with the content and when you're tweeting you are engaging with the content - and simultaneously packaging it in a specific way for others.

    And I agree that engagement is good and lack of an comment usually isn't a good sign that the session was good, but I haven't seen super engaging content in twitter while in a session because it is "soundbitey" and even if that does sometimes happen shouldn't that interesting discussion be happening with the participation of the speaker who presumably has something to add?

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 19, 2011 at 4:12 p.m.

    Whoa horsies ! One difference between taking notes and twitting is that one is for you own self to review LATER, after the seminar and the other is to demand attention. ....Just because you have an opinion in the beginning of a meeting, if you would just listen (and participate with the entire community when asked) you may find your opinion changes. .....If you are that bored, leave. Do not distract the people facing you or around you who do want to pay attention .... Somebody paid for the privilege of being there. If you don't understand privilege, then there is too much too explain what it is here. Again, if it's you and you are bored, you can leave. If it's someone else, then it is your responsibility to bring back as much as you can, positive or negative or boring or leave taking that back, too .....It is the opinion of some that the ME generation has left the building. Obviously, not. Sharpening one's skills in being polite is never out of fashion. The listen to me know while I interrupt is the beginning of bullying. Your important opinion, no doubt that it is important, significant and can infuse energy into a project. It can wait 45 minutes and it still will have an impact. ....Gord, have you read the article in the NYT, 5/18, regarding how our brains are loosing the ability to critically think, rationalize, memorize, analyze and so on ? It was written by Bill Keller entitled The Twitter Trap. He explains it better than I. ......Rob is right on key points 1 through 5. #6 is just sarcasm that lacks humor.

  9. Eric Wittlake from Babcock & Jenkins , May 19, 2011 at 4:24 p.m.

    It's not a crime. Rob, you're innocent.

    I tweet (a lot) at live events. To date, the only complaints I have received are from people not at the event, wondering if I somehow hacked TweetDeck and blocked everyone else out.

    I have had presenters or the organization running the event say 'thanks' for helping to drive activity from the event beyond the event itself.

    Sure, tweeting during an event can be distracting. Taking notes during an event is distracting too. Now, I take half my notes (published to TweetDecks everywhere) and others around me fill in the other half. In addition, Twitter extends networking after the event with more people than I could ever connect with live.

    Jacquelyn, you asked how it could be incorporated. I haven't been at an event that does this well, but I would love to see a Twitter (and live blog) moderator. They would select questions or reactions from Twitter to submit during Q&A, potentially share particularly insightful or relevant comments during a presentation, without creating a free-for-all that would take an entire presentation off-track.

    Rob, just turn off your Twitter >> LinkedIn feed during events. I'm pretty certain you hacked LinkedIn from SIS. :-)

  10. Rob Griffin from Media Contacts , May 19, 2011 at 4:36 p.m.

    Paula, #6 was sarcastic in tone but not meant to be purely funny. It is quite true. I walk up to attendees and introduce myself only to get no reply while they bend to read my tag, then hold up theirs. I've also experienced scenarios where someone interepts an existing conversation, versus joining in, to say "oh you are so and so ... my boss told me to meet you..."

    No joke there!

  11. Micah Nyatsambo , May 19, 2011 at 4:41 p.m.

    For better or for worse this is a cultural shift and some folks are having a hard time adjusting. As Eric mentioned many people have come forward and thanked me for drawing attention to what's happening for those that can't be there. I think there certainly is a pro and con for live tweeting during events and the issue of moderating / harnessing the tweets would go a long way in making the event more interactive. I wish I could have counted how many people were just buried in their electronic devices and not paying attention to the speakers. If I don't tweet during an event it means either I was asked to refrain from sharing information that was confidential or you lost me. It's my version of highlights or quick take aways.

    Excellent article here from @nickbilton http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/18/this-is-your-brain-on-twitter/?src=me&ref=technology

  12. Susan Borst from Consultant , May 19, 2011 at 5:28 p.m.

    Great post, thanks - also great comments. I just advised a non-profit client to add a conference hashtag to their Press Release and encourage tweets during their upcoming conference (making an announcement at the start of the conference.) This is a niche non-profit org with minimal resources. "Live" conference tweets from key attendees will benefit the non-profit, plus the speakers themselves. While I understand that, as a speaker, it's not nice to look out at an audience that has their eyes and hands on a keyboard, I do believe that those audience members who tweet are most definitely actively listening. I believe it is possible to multi-task, especially during multi-day conferences.

  13. Eric Wittlake from Babcock & Jenkins , May 19, 2011 at 5:56 p.m.

    I put this question out on Twitter and quickly received responses from a few folks that regularly speak at events. Notably, they wouldn't register to comment (maybe another topic we should take on in this comment stream? MediaPost, the multi-page registration form and newsletter signup to comment is more than a bit dated.)

    Stream:
    @wittlake: Is live tweeting at events disrespectful or laudable?
    @jblock: Interesting. Not a fan of signing up to comment; an extension of the gating/opt-in argument.
    @cahidalgo: Not sure its one or the other. If it adds value then go for it
    @jblock: I also don't buy the whole can't-divide-attention argument. Guess none of them have kids ;)
    @megheuer: What's disrespectful about sharing content you find valuable? In my book live tweeting is high praise

    I particularly love Meg's comment. Meg's last presentation I saw was full of great data points and surrounding insight. It was valuable and sharable, and because of that, Meg had a far larger audience than the ~800 people in the room.

    Paula, I would add, at a multi-day conference in today's environment, you have to multi-task. Very few of us can take multiple days out of the office without looking back.

    @jblock: Jonathon Block, Analyst at SiriusDecisions
    @megheuer: Meg Heuer, also an Analyst at SiruisDecisions
    @cahidalgo: Carlos Hidalgo, CEO at Annuitas Group
    And @wittlake is me

  14. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 19, 2011 at 6:04 p.m.

    1. 2 wrongs do not make a right, Rob. 2. Twitting during a conference is a no-no, especially with a non-profit which does not have extra finances lying around for a re-do. Conferences can be video-ed for those who are not able to attend and even have a live feed. There always can be a Q & A afterwards. As told by many from MediaPost, it can be done very inexpensively and the equipment does have to be professional and can be reused and reused and reused. For the live feeds, I am sure someone from MediaPost can suggest places where to get information without extra funding.

  15. Rob Griffin from Media Contacts , May 19, 2011 at 7:01 p.m.

    Paula, let me reuse an analogy. Sports. No one has issues with commentators talking while watching/listening to a game. Not all that different than tweeting live ... Please note it's not "twitting". Some are better than others, but that is life. Some also get into heated debates and disagree, but that's part of the job. If we are all adults and don't overly react or get too sensitive, does it matter?

  16. Silvia Bitchkei-campbell from Xclamation Marketing , May 19, 2011 at 8:40 p.m.

    It seems ADD (or Attention Deficit Disorder) is a common characteristic of social media professionals. Or anyone who has access to a number of communication streams.
    The bottom line is : if the topic is important, one will make an effort to pay attention; if not so engaging, well...out come the crackberries and android phones. This, of course, does not imply that courtesy is part of the issue, since a truly polite listener will at least pretend to be interested.

  17. Chris Stinson from Non-Given , May 20, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.

    I find people who (tweet, text, call, surf) during a presentation no different the those who talk during a concert. If you don't want to be there, leave. Please. Your uninterest is in view of all those who are interested.

    If you not saving someone from execution, it can and should wait.

  18. Carmen Hill from Babcock & Jenkins , May 20, 2011 at 2:39 p.m.

    With respect, I tweet because I AM interested and AM paying attention, and I do so silently. What difference would it make to those around me whether my notes are only for me to view later or for sharing with those who choose to follow in real time? Twitter doesn't demand anyone's attention unless they care to give it.

  19. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 20, 2011 at 5:52 p.m.

    Birds tweet. People twit. Chit chat. Rob, you are an intelligent person. That is loud and clear. The day this light goes on, it will hurt.

  20. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion , May 20, 2011 at 6:45 p.m.

    Would like to add:

    I am someone who either needs to scribble notes or keyboard them to secure a spoken presentation in my memory. So, I have a question: Does the person who says put down your phones and close you laptops, also say, put down your pens/pencils? To me, that is like a speaker saying: Don't bother; I'm forgettable. That said, of course, someone might not be using the laptop to take notes, but the same can be said of pencils -- lots of doodling going on, perhaps.