Why Twitter is useless for covering conferences

[Update 9.40pm: It’s only 40 minutes since I posted this, but discussion has already turned to the topic of the government’s role in developing new services rather than the original Twitter-as-Chinese-whispers theme. Hey, join the discussion!]

Twitter bird cartoon by Hugh MacLeod

Even though I’m one of Australia’s most prolific Twitter users, and even though it seems like I’ve spent half the week defending it from half-arsed criticism, I’m also well aware of its limitations. Like tonight.

Earlier this evening I attended the Government 2.0 Taskforce‘s Road Show in Sydney. At one point, I tweeted:

Nicholas Gruen seriously says that the government should have created community good like Google, Facebook and Twitter. #gov2au

That was soon picked up by people who weren’t in the room, who hadn’t heard the context. Hours later we’re still seeing tweets like this one:

@skaye: “The Govt should have invented twitter, flickr…” LIKE WTF?? #gov2au *shudder* (via @NickHodge) They struggle with discounts on utes!

Notice how the content mutated as the message was passed on? “Created” becomes “invented”, Flickr is added to the mix, and the “community good” qualifier has vanished.

Here’s what really happened…

The conversation was about the kinds of online services government should be building versus what comes out of the private sector. The example was FixMyStreet.com, a community-based service which allows UK citizens to report and discuss local problems like graffiti, illegal dumping, broken paving and faulty street lighting.

An audience member said she was uncomfortable with this service being outside government. “These are core services for which governments collect rates and taxes,” she said.

Nicholas Gruen, the Chair of the Taskforce, agreed. This was the business of government, but they’re not actually doing it.

“It think it was the government’s job to build Google, Facebook, Twitter. I’m quite serious about that,” said Gruen. “It’s the government which is funded to build community good public goods for the community.”

There ensued a healthy debate about the boundaries of public and private enterprise, with Gruen concluding, “We certainly have to be enthusiastic about the government doing their job better, but we also have to ask why the private sector seems to be better at innovation.”

Note the nuance. It’s the government’s job to build the community’s services — just like it’s their job to build roads, sewers and street lighting. But they didn’t, because they’re behind the pace.

Gruen never suggested anything akin to the nationalisation of Twitter. I’m sure he’d agree that the government wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to go about running it. But that’s how the Twitterverse interpreted his comment.

Twitter is about short, punchy messages. Only the short, punchy conference soundbites get tweeted. Out of context. And only the funny, wild or ridiculous ones get retweeted, drifting even further out of context as people re-edit them to allow room for their own editorialising.

Using Twitter as an in-conference back channel is one thing. But trying to “tweet a conference” to an external audience is, in my opinion, futile.

[Credit: Cartoon Twitter-bird courtesy of Hugh MacLeod. Like all of Hugh’s cartoons published online, it’s free to use.]

10 Replies to “Why Twitter is useless for covering conferences”

  1. Agree 100% about twitter and conferences.


    This: “It think it was the government’s job to build Google, Facebook, Twitter. I’m quite serious about that,” said Gruen. “It’s the government which is funded to build community good.”

    He really thinks that the government should have (let alone could have!?) built those services? I think he is mistaking services that run on the physical infrastructure of the internet with the infrastructure itself.

  2. @Ben Kraal: I don’t know that he is mistaken there. Google indexes information like a public library, or maps the world like a government surveyor. Twitter provides a public square where we gather and talk.

    Now Gruen did say he was being deliberately provocative, prodding us to think. But I tell you what, I’ll call him in the morning and ask!

  3. Even with the full context, it’s still a rather silly point to be trying to make. Government simply is not capable of being innovative to that degree, because the innovation comes on the back of huge downside risk.

    I *want* a risk averse public service, although not one as hamstrung as we currently have. Private sector companies, particularly startups, are much better placed to push the boundaries of what’s possible, because they are risking their own time and money, or at least that of willing investors. The government need to be accountable to the population for how it spends its funds – if 9/10 projects failed I can’t see the public being too pleased.

    This is the same problem that large organisations face – the downside risk from failure is too great. It’s only small, agile companies with not much to lose that can really push the boundaries.

    That’s no excuse for public service slothfulness and the general fear of uncertainty and change. The public sector can certainly be *more* innovative that it is currently.

    But it cannot, and should not, ever expect to be truly innovative in the way that is possible in the private sector.

  4. Hey Stil,

    I agree with your point about the “crazy whispers” effect of twitter and retweets.

    However I don’t think this example is quite as clear-cut as that.

    1. That comment was formed in a really inflammatory way. I was there and heard Nicholas say it…and I still had to question the total meaning of it.

    2. This is a very fuzzy area…and after reflection…I really don’t think I agree with this point…even the fully nuanced one. There’s a fundamental difference between roads and twitter. Roads provide unique utility in a non-competitive environment. For example nobody is going to build another tunnel right beside…or even straight through the Sydney Tunnel. In fact as a metaphor this doesn’t even make sense. Yet with web applications like twitter, there’s a massively competitive environment and the key determining factor is “adoption”. Roads and powerlines and water systems simply don’t have this diffusion component. This is why I believe it’s NOT the Government’s job to build these type of “adoption” driven “community good”.

    Government departments (and for that fact corporations) simply aren’t equipped to create innovative services like this. They can build beheamoth stakeholder driven franken-services and spend millions of tax payer dollars on promoting them…but this just doesn’t guarantee diffusion.

    So in terms of this comment…I think it was “born” out of context in a fuzzy environment and is naturally just taken as “wrong”.

    I think I agree generally with what I “think” Nicholas was trying to get at…but I just simply can’t agree with that specific point or metaphor.

  5. I’ll say this without getting into the specific topic of what the Government should or should not do…

    My bad. I read your tweet, and not being at the conference certainly out-of-context.

    I apologise.

  6. I mistook the commentary exactly as you describe, as I tracked the hashtag on my phone while fighting through evening pedestrian traffic along York St this evening.

    Reading your post makes me think that something as moronic as the CH9 worm during a political debate telecast effectively has minimal signal, but in a sense, no noise, where as Twitter has comparatively more opportunity for signal and yet also much more risk of noise.

    I dunno. I am persuaded by your conclusion that it’s probably futile to twitter a conference, but I am also wondering whether that’s a conceptual set up. Because it’s not quite the same conclusion as saying there is *no* outward use for a tool like twitter at a conference?

    Perhaps it is all just babble after all….

  7. The message mutation you’re describing isn’t unique to twitter — Exactly the same thing produced “Al Gore thinks he invented the Internet.”

    It’s a product of a soundbite mentality. Twitter enforces soundbites by limiting contributions to 140 chars, but there are lots of other ways that the same phenomenon can occur.

    Should have used Coverit Live 🙂

    – mark

  8. Fatigue at this hour says that I’ll respond more meaningfully in the morning. However…

    @Nick Hodge: Nothing for you to apologise for, Sir! Nicholas Gruen started it. Or I did. You were just exhibiting human nature, and I don’t think you want to be apologising for that!

  9. @Ben and @Rob Manson: You both touch upon common points. What is the government’s role in creating new things for The People? When is something more appropriately done by the private sector? Is about the level of risk? Is it about whether the the level of competitiveness required?

    Is it about tradition, where we assign the tasks on the basis of “This is how we’ve done it before”?

    See, I have questions and not answers.

    After sleeping on it, I realise that one of the core points is that Government 2.0 is truly revolutionary. Things will be different after it comes to pass. Some institutions and processes simply won’t be there, because they’ll be replaced by something else.

    Mechanisation didn’t mean we ended up with our sacks of wheat being moved by lots of little mechanical cranes. No, we ended up with no sacks at all. Wheat is now sucked up by vast machines and poured into bulk carrier ships, ten thousand tonnes at a time — with the whole thing operated by one or two people.

    Yet I felt that most of last night’s conversation was about replicating existing government structures and processes in the digital realm, rather than creating new ones.

    But how can we expect the existing public service staffers to run the processes which will result in their own unemployment? No wonder they’re fearful, filled with negativity and come up with reasons why we can’t release the data or relinquish control.

    I have questions and not answers…

    @Mark Newton and @Sylmobile: Correct, every medium will end up with a Chinese Whispers effect of some sort. Our daily news media do it all the time. CoveritLive is indeed the tool for longer-form liveblogging.

    But there is a role for Twitter yes, in creating colour and providing personal commentary rather than attempting to summarise the discussions. Or simply annotating the discussion. That’s why I stopped trying to quote the speakers and instead added tweets like:

    I can hear a barrow being pushed. #gov2au


    Ref UK Cabinet Office: “Power of Information Taskforce Report” Feb 2009 http://tr.im/wK5R #gov2au

    I’m writing a piece for Crikey today about all this. Thoughts are still tumbling over and over…

  10. Two more additions to this:

    I did a piece for Crikey today, Government 2.0 Taskforce: seeding a cultural revolution. It’s behind the paywall, but non-subscribers can get a free trial. After two weeks, it emerged from the paywall.

    Nicholas Gruen is in a meeting in Canberra today, but he did pop out to phone me and we’ve corrected his quote slightly. The phrase he used, or at least intended to use, was “public goods”, as that has a specific meaning in economics.

    He also emailed:

    My compliments to Stil,

    I leant over and looked at Lisa Harvey’s PC next to me and saw the first tweet that is mentioned. I shuddered at the way in which it combined literal accuracy with the complete reversal of what was clearly my meaning.

    I’m very pleased to have the record set straight by such astute journalism.


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