This year’s Museums and the Web conference (MW2009) marked the first occasion I have attended an event during which the Twitter back channel has been embraced by the conference organisers and by many conference participants and not just the usual early adopters.

At last year’s event (MW2008) we saw many developers making use of Twitter, with a display of the tweets about the conference (i.e. tagged with #mw2008) being shown near the registration area. And as a demonstration of the willingness of the conference organisers (David Bearman and Jennifer Trant) to embrace innovation at the conference a live display of the tweets, which were being aggregated by Mike Ellis’s Onetag software, were shown during Clifford Lynch’s closing talk at the conference. I have to admit, though, that there were concerns about this live, unmoderated display of Twitter posts during a talk: what if personal banter were displayed (“anyone fancy going for a drink later?”); critical comments about the speakers (“this is a boring talk”) or bad language or even spam from people who weren’t at the conference.

Twitterwall Display of MW2009 TweetsBut whilst such concerns may be legitimate, David and Jennifer showed that they were willing to take a risk and “just do it”. So when the conference delegates arrived at the auditorium for the conference welcome and opening talk we found two computer displays: one of the speaker’s slides and the other a display of Twitter posts tagged with the #mw2009 tag, using the Twitterfall software,

And judging by comments made on the conference blog, many people found that this live display of tweets in the opening session provided a valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active participation which continued throughout the conference, with many newcomers subscribing to Twitter, following the more well-established Twitter users and engaging with the discussions themselves.   In fact use of Twitter at the conference was so popular that, during the opening talk, there was a message displayed showing the the #mw2009 tag was ‘trending’ – and was one of the top ten tags used during the day.

Pantygirl Twitter ImageWhich is not to say that everyone found the Twitterfall display useful: some participants, for example, did find the display distracting. And once the tag was included in the top tags of the day it, perhaps inevitably, attracted the attention of Twitter spammers, with a tweet from ‘PantyGirl’ – and an associated image being included in the live buy generic medications Twitterfall display.

But despite such concerns, others identified some perhaps unexpected benefits of such displays of live tweets. After I published a tweet one person in the audience, with whom I had worked with a few years ago but hadn’t spoke to since, spotted my image in the display and sent me a direct message suggesting that we should meet up. The ability for participants at a large conference to make their presence known in this way is a benefit which I hadn’t previously considered.

Someone else, who hadn’t used Twitter prior to the conference, reflected that in plenary talks people often lose concentration, even if the talks are interesting (as the opening plenary talk at MW 2009 was). Having additional channels, in which other participants can share their thoughts and provide perhaps different views can help to provide richer insights into the talks.

But what of the dangers that people might make inappropriate comments. Well at MW2009, apart from the PantyGirl spam (which I suspect most people found inoffensive) I feel that the Twittering participants were aware of the issues and avoided tweets which others might have felt inoffensive or inappropriate.

The benefits of the conference Twitter back channel were also officially recognised in the firanl session at the conference when Jon Pratty provided prizes for the MW2009 Backchannel Stars for Saturday. And I was pleased to be the first in the list of prize-winners for my two tweets:

briankelly Due to lack of unions in museums sector @jtrant& David Bearman have got us working at #mw2009 on a Saturday. Capitalist oppressors.

briankelly: @bsletten is right – photo at (expand) could be me. Waiting for groupies to arrive at #mw2009

But what of next year? Clearly many participants found the Twitter wall display useful, with one participant commenting thatbased on how well tweets were working @ mw2009 I set up a twitter account for our staff intranet. Public site next? #mw2009“. But this wasn’t true for everyone. Should this be managed by better use of the physical space, I wonder – perhaps suggesting that those who don’t wish to be distributed by the visual intrusion should sit on one side of the lecture theatre? Or perhaps, with the growing popularity of iPhones and iPod Touches participants should simply view the communal wall on their own mobile device?

Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]