The Big Tweet Theory: The Evolution Of A Conference Tweep

Since 2007, people have gazed at Twitter and wondered how the Twittershpere developed into what it is today. It’s been the subject of much philosophical, religious and scientific discussion and debate.

People who have tried to uncover the mysteries of the Twitterville development include such famous researchers as Danah Boyd, Chris Brogan, Beth Kanter, Charlene Li, Brian Solis, and Dan Zarrella. Many of these researchers have developed their own Twitter birthing theories as they watched the tweeting continue to evolve.

Soon Twitter invaded conference, events and tradeshows. Albert Einstein, Steven Hubble and Stephen Hawking could not have predicted this social phenomenon. Yet, one of the most famous and widely accepted models for the Twitterdom’s development is The Big Tweet Theory.

Although The Big Tweet Theory is famous, it is often misunderstood. A common misperception is that Twitter, tweeting and the conference backchannel is mostly spread by geeks and Gen Y. That’s not quite right. It’s often some of the most influential thought leaders in your industry. People that can help make or break your conference.

Another misconception is that the Big Tweet Theory was a sudden explosion of blue bird tweets. Something that happens only in the wilderness by wild unruly Tweeps and that Twitter is unused by cosmopolitan, sophisticated conference attendees today. That’s not accurate either.

The Big Tweet Theory is an attempt to explain how it developed from the minds of some smart people and into many conference and tradeshow venues today.

Summing up The Big Tweet Theory is a challenge. It involves concepts that contradict the way we perceive traditional meetings and societal norms. It goes against the grain that attendees must sit passively in a ballroom, looking forward, listening to the presenter. The earliest stages of The Big Tweet Theory focus on a moment in which all the separate forces of the conference environment were part of a unified force. There, the attendees begin to experience similar emotions, feelings and thoughts. They turned to the backchannel to share those insights with others. They were dissatisfied with talking heads, script readers, no time for Q & A and boring lectures.

The Big Tweet Theory explains the various phases of what happens when people begin using Twitter for the conference backchannel.

Phase 1 – The Birthing Announcement: Hello Twitter. Look what I can do.
A conference attendee posts their first few tweets. The attendee experiences a range of emotions about using the backchannel. It seems new, odd, fearful, fun, stupid and exciting. People step into their first conference tweets with mixed feelings of apprehension and exhilaration. Many write their first tweets about their earliest impressions of using the tool. The Big Tweet Theory has begun.

Phase 2 – Sharing The Blue Bird’s Kitchen Sink: Here’s everything that’s happening.
As Tweeps become more comfortable with the Twitter tools and the backchannel, they post every detail of everything they hear and see. Their tweet flood overwhelms many that are following them. Tweets of conference foods, sights, smells and sounds along with word by word note taking of presenters may seem daunting to some. The Big Tweet Theory expands.

Phase 3 – Restraint And Insight: Communicating the good stuff
Tweeps have perfected the use of the backchannel and post bite-size highpoints from the conference. Often their tweets contain links to more detailed conference blog posts, additional resources and provocative thoughts. Followers begin to realize that their missing out on great education and networking. The Big Tweet Theory matures.

The Big Tweet Theory describes the development of the conference Tweep from the birthing announcement to a refined and eloquent communicator. It describes the development of conference Tweep as he or she came into existence in the Twittersphere and evolved into what it is today.

What’s your experience with The Big Tweet Theory? How have you seen conference attendees evolve into conference Tweeps today? Should we encourage or discourage The Big Tweet Theory?

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  1. Ellen says:

    Jeff — The progression sounds natural to any new convert and certainly fits here!

    I couldn’t help a verbal “YES!” when I read this: “It goes against the grain that attendees must sit passively in a ballroom, looking forward, listening to the presenter.”

    That’s the heart of the matter, don’t you agree? We’ve been demanding that our “learners” (if these are, indeed, educational events rather than news reports, then this is more appropriate than “attendees,” right?) sit down, shut up, and pay attention for far too long.

    Twitter — with the cell phones that make its use possible — set learners free to stand up and be heard, even if they weren’t allowed to do that in the formal setting of the event.

    Those of us who have long advocated for facilitated, more interactive educational events, stood up and applauded when we heard that learners were making their needs heard.

    After all, no one was listening to us. Our content leaders found it easier and faster to create Powerpoint presentations than interactive discussions, despite our urging and coaching.

    Now learners can make their experiences relevant, transforming what they’re seeing and hearing into learning nuggets of their own making, filing them away, sharing them, and interacting with the content in a way that we have been trying to implement from the outside in for a long, long time.

    Power to the learners!

  2. Maddie Grant says:

    Jeff, great analysis/summary of the Big Tweet Theory. This is EXACTLY how I’ve experienced learning how to use Twitter and how I’ve seen many, many people learn. What’s also interesting is how those in phase 3 can interact with those in Phases 1 and 2, since the whole progression happens in public. As more an more people are on Twitter, I see usage maturing overall – meaning people can get from 1 to 3 faster than before – but I also wonder how things will change going forward. I’ve even started to see a bit of a sense of conference tweeting having jumped the shark – people getting tired of it (I know I don’t live tweet the way I used to) so it will be interesting to watch how Twitter continues to be integrated in the conference experience.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  4. Barbara Palmer says:

    Thanks for a great post Jeff, Interesting thought about conference tweeting jumping the shark, Maddie. I’d love to hear examples of that.

    I actually think people get fatigued by the Kitchen Sink phase, tweeting every twitch in the room. But those tweets that crystallize or tweak a speaker’s point — those are really valuable. And as Jeff points out, as Twitter users mature, those become more prevalent.

    It will be very interesting to see how the relationship between Twitter and F2F interaction at conferences evolves, including the relationship between speakers and audiences. Jason Falls talked at Event Camp about looking out as a speaker and just seeing the tops of people’s heads .. will we adapt to that or will that behavior change?

  5. As usual, very insightful post, Jeff. I find the evolution of Twitter and tweeting endlessly fascinating and indicative of the way human communication in general seems to evolve.

    I would suggest that in the future, phase one will frequently take place before the conference. Maybe even before the conference has been conceived. The tweet, in a sense, is the seed of the conference. First there is the tweet, then a community of like-minded tweeters, then the overwhelming need for them to meet face to face spawns the conference itself – ala #eventprofs and Event Camp.

    I think its important that we event professionals pay heed to this overwhelming need that a virtual community has, to meet face to face. If we can create this virtual community before the conference begins, imagine the attendance level, excitement and buzz that our events will have harnessed.

  6. Ellen says:

    Feeling a compulsion to jump back into the discussion here, which continues to be a real page-turner!

    Maddie — I’m with Barbara and am curious to see what the early bird Tweeters are jumping to.

    Jenise — I agree with one exception. I don’t believe people always need to meet in person or that it should be considered logical or inevitable that virtual communities have to meet FTF. (Sorry to step on toes here, but I really think that’s a meeting professional’s natural reaction and — if you’ll excuse — biased from that perspective.)

    Here are two additional thoughts around Twitter and education that I haven’t seen mentioned yet:

    — If we rely too heavily on the Twitter (or similar IM options), either as note-taking or sound-bite capturing tools, are we encouraging fragmented learning?

    — Are we encouraging learners to abandon making connections within and around the content?

    — Are we encouraging multi-tasking at the risk of losing needed practice in maintaining a focus, of delving deeply into something rather than snagging the high points and letting the rest float away somewhere?

    In short, does anyone know whether those who are using Twitter are retaining more than those who don’t? I don’t have the data in front of me, but little of a 90-minute presentation ever sticks… However, if sending tweets about key points increases that “stickiness” of the content, then bring it on.

  7. Maddie Grant says:

    Hi all, thanks for asking about examples! I will say this has been only hearsay, added to my own experience of how I use Twitter at conferences (more on that in a second), but the biggest example I have is from talking to lots of people who went to SxSW last year. Several people said that there were so many people on Twitter that it became basically useless – hundreds of people repeating the same good quotes from speakers, and everyone “talking at once” about where to meet up etc – that people said they were reverting to texting their friends one-on-one.

    From my own experience as an avid Tweeter in Phase 3 of Jeff’s theory, I would say that I am very aware now of trying to provide content for virtual attendees, MORE THAN to connect with people in the room with me – though of course there’s still some of that banter. But I find myself more aware of not wanting to add to the noise and trying to provide more signal. Consequently, volume-wise, I think I tweet a lot less than I used to during actual sessions.

    On the other hand though, if there’s a session where I am really learning a lot, I WILL use Twitter as a note-taking platform – I don’t know if that’s “fragmented learning” but it definitely works great for me, especially if I want to come back and write a longer blog post on that particular session later – and I would also say to Ellen’s questions that using Twitter definitely helps with the stickiness of great content, in my experience!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Maddie @Ellen @Jenise @Barbara

      Some great insights, comments and questions here. Thanks all for sharing those.

      I believe that tweeting from conferences has only jumped the shark for the first wave of adopters. I think we’ll continue to see it evolve as the second wave of adopters start using it and as people learn how to use it more effectively during events. Like Maddie, I use it to take notes and just happen to be sharing my notes with the world. If someone sees my tweeting as noise, they’ll unfollow me. And, I’m ok with that.

      I don’t think tweeting from conferences leads to fragmented learning any more than someone writing notes leads to fragmented learning. When people are engaged in hands-on interactive activities during a session, then tweeting doesn’t make sense. However, how many conferences really provide that?

      John Medin’a Brain Rules has a lot to say about how something enters from short term memory to long term memory. It must be repeated, and repeated several times along with retelling of the story. When I tweet from an event, I find myself paraphrasing what the presenter said and adding links to other resources. I print my transcript later and save it as a PDF. I often find that I then am discussing my notes with others. That’s where the real learning occurs and moves from short term memory to long term memory–in that repeating aloud of what I heard and saw.

      As for resources about online learning, texting, etc here are some former blog posts with links to research and links to two Brain Rules posts.
      Virtual Meetings Vindicated
      Since When Did Virtual Not Become A Live Experience
      John Medina’s Short Term Memory: Repeat To Remember
      John Medina’s Long Term Memory: Remember To Repeat

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  9. […] 3. Jeff Hurt’s got a developmental model, where we become better Tweeters once we figure out what we can offer… and then settle into it. His “Big Tweet Theory”: […]

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