Against live-tweeting

Uncle Sam says: turn off your damn phoneHere’s something I was reminded of this morning when I checked in on Twitter and saw a stream of comments from the just-started Netroots Nation 2012 rolling in:

If you’re in the audience at a session at Netroots, or at any conference, really, do a favor for both yourself and whoever’s presenting to you and put away your damn gadgets, at least until the session is over.

I know you think you’re adding value to the proceedings by “live tweeting” them or whatever. But you’re not. All you’re doing is subtracting value. You’re hurting yourself, since you’re going to get less out of the presentation when you split your attention between it and your blinking gizmo than you would if you engaged fully with the presenter and her message. And you’re hurting the presenter, since the message you’re sending to her is that you’re not paying attention, which may lead her to screw up her presentation in an attempt to win your attention back.

(What? You thought they didn’t notice you’ve never looked up from your screen? Any presenter worth his salt is constantly keeping an eye on the audience’s interest level.)

I know you think that it’s critical that you get your opinions on the presentation out to your legions of followers right this minute. But trust me, your followers can wait for your thoughts until the session is over; you’re not Edward R. Murrow, and this is not the London Blitz. And by waiting a few minutes to hear the whole presentation, you can actually form a thoughtful opinion of its entire content, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction to whatever words the presenter just said.

There’s only one thing worse than breathlessly tweeting to people who aren’t in the session with you: breathlessly tweeting to people who are in the session with you. The polite term for this is “the backchannel,” and it’s always existed at conferences. In the past, though, backchannel discussions took place in the hallway after the session, not while the session was actually going on, and that makes a big difference. Think about it for a second: if you were having the same conversation out loud, right there in the room as someone’s trying to teach you something, you’d be considered an irretrievable boor. You can’t wait to have that conversation until after the session’s over? It’s that important?

This is why I get frustrated, when I make presentations, to hear people telling me about tweets from people in the audience — even glowing, positive ones. The whole reason I’m there is to try to engage with you, provoke you, fire up your mind; and that’s something that requires a degree of mental intimacy between the two of us, intimacy that can only be achieved if we give each other our undivided attention for a few minutes. If I’m half-assing the presentation, phoning it in, sure, feel free to get out your iPad. But if I’m not — if I’m working hard up there to communicate something to you, as I generally am — show me the respect of at least meeting me halfway. Even if you’re not convinced by what I’m saying, I’d rather have spirited, thoughtful criticism right there in the room; spirited, thoughtful criticism teaches me things, makes me a better presenter and sharper thinker. Passive-aggressive snarky tweets don’t do any of that.

So next time you’re sitting down in a conference session, do us both a favor. Put your devices away, at least for a little while. They won’t spoil. And you might just learn something!


Pedro Fortuny

June 7, 2012
12:38 pm

Any speaker worth his salt noticing that the situation is disturbing him will need either to consider his saltiness or even better, make a joke about it and get all the people’s attention back.

D. Lentz

June 7, 2012
1:30 pm

I think you may be missing another side of this: the older I get, the more taking notes helps me out. So, when I’m jotting away important points of the presentation on my tablet, and I think they are worthy of being shared, I tweet them out to my friends and followers. I don’t do it to be annoying, I do it to give credit to the presenter on something that has resonated with me and I have taken the time to write down. I figure if I find it interesting so will those that aren’t annoyed by this point of my twitter feed.


June 7, 2012
1:56 pm

re. taking notes… the point of the post wasn’t not to take notes. It wasn’t even arguing against tweeting the tidbits that you think your followers would like to hear. The point was to wait until the end of the presentation to do it.


June 7, 2012
3:05 pm


SOMEONE HAD TO SAY IT. Regardless of how poor history has treated them.


June 7, 2012
6:02 pm

As long as they are not making a lot of noise, I don’t generally mind all that much when people tweet while I talk. If I say something really awesome and thought-provoking and someone misses it, well then I guess it’s their loss.

Alhena Adams

June 7, 2012
8:07 pm

This is the new communication, for better or worse, everything a slogan or soundbyte. I hope we can extend the lives of our wisemen soon, lest we lose those abilities that brought us this far and end up a comfortably dumb populace in technologies cradle.


June 7, 2012
11:48 pm

This rant comes up as someone who spoke at a conference that was upset they weren’t getting the attention they think they deserved.

True, there are people that distract others physically in the room and those that tweet solely for the purpose of their followers. But for even the latter, it would be up to their followers if they found it too much (because they can unfollow).

Live tweeting to many is a way of keeping notes and pulling the bits they want to remember. Like it or not, most of your presentation is not going to be remembered long term by most, only a few chosen concepts (especially if you are doing a decent job). If they wait until after the sessions, they’ll lose even most of that. I think some tweeting or even paying MORE attention to you then those that blindly stare.

Let’s try to avoid being like the grumpy old man complaining about “kids these days with their gadgets”. The audience in general should be balanced but at the same time learn to adapt as a speaker. Someone suggested to make a joke – you can also start off your presentation with a line similar to “keep your tweets short because i’ve got alot to say”. I’ve also found it personally helpful to post slides and summary prior to the session and link to it early on, so there’s not that much exclusive information once the slides have been passed around.

In summary, not trying to say you’re wrong. But understand, adapt, and be better speakers in the process.

David desJardins

June 7, 2012
11:52 pm

I’ll pass on the “mental intimacy”. I’m just looking for, you know, information. It seems rather condescending to your audience to explain that they are foolishly giving up the boon of being fired up by you. You know, you might deduce from how they respond to you, whether you’re firing them up. And Twitter’s got nothing to do with it.

Al Gibes

June 8, 2012
2:10 am

Live Tweeting was not only encouraged at the SXSW conference, but several sessions used the screens in the room to display the Twitter feed for the specific hashtag for that session. I thought it was great, and added quite a bit to the presentation. It let those not Tweeting to concentrate on the speaker, as they could revisit the hashtaged Tweets to see the notes they would have taken otherwise.

Welcome to the 21st century!


June 8, 2012
3:42 am

We have lots of stupid poeple around who thinkg that they are `SMART` or `YOUNG` by just playing with a “smart phone”. Some poeple are o consumed by the gadgets , no matter how much they are educated they will follow their desires. This is not just limited to presentations , I have seen people who hold bread in one hand and a smart phone in other hand while eating.I call these poeple “connected but virtually disconnected humans”, a new specie of humans.

June 8, 2012
8:20 am

all ths is true and if you’ve ever read the live tweet stream you’d understand how trivial it is. Still this is the new thing that everybody is doing, just like wearing your jacket wrapped around your bum. Good luck changing people!


June 11, 2012
5:23 am

Complete nonsense

Yes, if we are focused on our smart phones/ipads/etc we are not paying full attention, but you make too much of the rudeness and potential to upset the speaker if they realise you’re not paying attention. It is inevitable that a proportion of the audience are not attending your session to hear your talk, they’re merely sitting through it to get to the next one. There will always be people answering emails, working on their talk for the next day or dozing off after the amount they drank at the conference banquet – not to mention people turning up late or leaving in order to get to another talk they want to see. But no, you have to go after the tweeters, who are at least making an effort to follow what you’re saying.

I recently experimented for the first time with live-tweeting. In the end I found it easiest to make a few brief notes during the talk on what I thought were the most important and interesting points, which I would then quickly tweet at the end of the talk, or during the next one if (to be blunt) it was poorly presented or simply not relevant to my interests. Maybe this isn’t live-tweeting in the strictest sense, but I found that it helped focus my attention on what the presenter was trying to get across. And later on, the conference hashtags gave me the chance to get other people’s take on the talks, as well as a flavour of what had been going on in some of the parallel sessions.

seth godin

June 11, 2012
7:39 am


One thing I’ve noticed is that high powered people who make an impact almost never spend a lot of time live tweeting.

They’re not there to be Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane. They’re there to make an impact.

The other thing I’ve noticed having read live tweets after the fact of a talk I’ve seen is that they make virtually no sense.

Well done.


June 11, 2012
1:27 pm

Sorry to be harsh, but I think the premise of this post is basically rubbish. Live tweeting is a form of precis note taking that just happens to benefit others as well. You wouldn’t tell students not to take notes in a lecture until it was finished, and this is no different. Indeed, rather than distracting your attention, tweeting a talk provides a laser focus as you must dissect out the salient points and repackage them in 140 characters or less, on the fly. It requires constant critical evaluation of what’s being said and a fairly good dose of concentration. Plus, as someone who has been unable to make it to certain conferences, I have experienced tremendous benefit and even a “virtually there” experience from following the live tweets of others. So, drop the condescending “you might just learn something” and consider the possibility that others may work differently from you, with equal efficiency, or perhaps even more.


June 11, 2012
1:29 pm

I sometimes live tweet talks. I don’t mind people tweeting my talks.

How, I see it, someone hunched over a phone or laptop tweeting isn’t functionally different than someone feverishly writing notes on a notebook. The attention is divided between looking down at his/her pen meeting paper and listening to speaker and looking at slides.


June 29, 2012
2:24 pm

Get off my lawn, indeed.

It depends on who is tweeting. I think you are making assumptions and haven’t experienced the power of live tweeting.
I think you are confusing the uses of some live tweeting or blogging with undesirable behaviors where technology is used as an escape from the current reality as a time waster, or to avoid intimacy. If someone were doing this through a college class, a family dinner, an intimate date you might be correct. (Sorry seth godin, you don’t know who to follow)

Here is an example of good tweeting: Nomi Prins on the House Financial committee hearing on 19 June 2012 where Jamie Dimon appeared. Her paraphrasing was divine., I also followed other economists during this.

Firedoglake live blogged the Scooter Libby trial before the advent of twitter. They scooped the whole trial, and also kept the M$M from shaping the narrative because they also followed that blog.

I was introduced to twitter during the mumbai massacre. It was surreal.

If the people that are tweeting are knowledgeable about the subject it adds a great deal of understanding and dimension to the experience by highlighting things that neophytes won’t notice. It also creates a hive mind experience for those in the audience that might take cues from others to ask good gotcha questions if called upon.

Also, the followers on twitter might not be able see the conference or be there, so it’s a way of being there.


June 29, 2012
2:31 pm

A good reason to be against live tweeting is that one or two faux paus, or not cultural or politically correct comments will end your job.
See Nir Rosen, Octavia Nasr, or Anthony Wiener.


August 12, 2012
2:39 pm

Actually, people do add value by tweeting about presentation content. If you don’t agree then you can wait until after the session is over to read those tweets if ever at all. I don’t think that people should stare continuously at all speakers all the time without having an outlet for comments.

Lots of good reasons to live tweet and encourage it.