Live-tweeting Experiment at the Critical Issues Forum

On April 7, 2011, the University of Michigan-Flint hosted journalist Gwen Ifill as a Critical Issues Forum keynote speaker. This year’s Critical Issues Forum incorporated Twitter for the first time, with the @umflintCIF account created to keep followers up-to-date on speakers’ activities and event developments. The hashtag #CIF2011 was implemented before the beginning of the five-part series to help followers tune into what was happening during each forum. It wasn’t until the April 7 forum with Gwen Ifill, however, that we attempted to make Twitter a part of the event.

The morning discussions with Critical Issues Forum speakers are open to the public, and set up for question-and-answer. As with the forums prior to April 7, tweets from @umflintCIF captured memorable quotes from the presentation. Followers were encouraged to join the conversation using the #CIF2011 hashtag. This time, a live stream of these tweets was projected on a screen placed behind the speaker and panel on the Theatre stage.

Photo Credit: The Flint Journal

Before the event, I was apprehensive. I’d seen this sort of thing done at conferences, but I wasn’t sure that we’d get much activity. I was afraid that an unmoving screen of tweets would be embarrassing–especially given the fact that our speaker, Gwen Ifill, is pretty active on Twitter herself (@pbsgwen). To help make sure things kept moving, we asked some students and staff members to use the #CIF2011 hashtag when tweeting during the event. And in the end, the tweet stream during the April 7 morning discussion was pretty active! There were even tweets from totally unaffiliated attendees, as well as people not in attendance that day.

So, hooray! We did it! But was it truly a success? I posed this question to three students.

Paige Plant, UM-Flint senior, University Relations intern, and the administrator of the @umflintCIF Twitter account said, “Live-tweeting from the Critical Issues Forum was a definite success. It allowed the audience members to truly let their voices be heard and expressed. It also helped our campus showcase its social media presence, and the importance it plays for us. Because our speaker, Gwen Ifill, is an avid Twitter user, it was the perfect event to experiment with live-tweeting. She also complemented the idea, and told us how excited she was to take the time later to read the discussion that happened on Twitter. Through live-tweeting, we were able to repeat important aspects of the open discussion, link to subjects presented, and give our audience a place to talk about it all. Because it was live, there were bound to be errors, but overall it was an extremely positive experiment.”

Another student, Marcus Papin, hadn’t used Twitter much before April 7. “This was my first real experience in tweeting. So as a new Twitter user, it was very exciting to learn how to use the hashtags and then see the live feed come up.  It was fun and exhilarating–I was able to absorb more, I think, because I was listening for things to tweet about.  I was able to post images as well, so that if someone was following they would be able to not only read what was going on, but they could also get a visual which would make them feel more involved.  I have become addicted to Twitter and I have been looking for new ways to use it! I really appreciated the opportunity to be involved in this experiment and I really want to implement it into other aspects of the students’ experience on campus.  I’m planning to do live feeds of student government meetings next year because of this experience.”

Student Robert Burack, while quite familiar with Twitter, voiced concern. He said, “After the panel with Gwen Ifill, I tweeted: ‘Dislike the tweets projecting behind the speaker at #CIF2011. We have a world class journalist here. Don’t we owe her our full attention?’ …I’ve come to believe that social networking should only serve as a compliment to life and human communication. [The] live-tweeting behind the panel concerned me. At the front of the stage sat one of the greatest current American journalists. Behind her was the distracting Twitter feed. I don’t see how the stream added to the conversation. The tools which are forcing journalists such as Ifill to redefine their work served, in this instance, to only take away from the experience. I worry, how will social media continue to show up in our everyday lives? Will the day come where I’m at the movies and I find a Twitter stream at the bottom of the screen? While these tools have undoubtedly allowed us to share and collaborate in unprecedented ways, they also cripple our ability to avoid immediate reactions, to reflect. There are surely ways in which social media and networking could have enhanced the panel experience–for example, Twitter could have served as a medium for those not present to send in questions.”

Perhaps the definition of this experiment’s success or failure depends on how one views the role of social media. Before employing a live stream of tweets or another social media aspect into any event, it’s clear that we have to consider the audience. Will the incorporation of social media enhance the experience?

The few others I spoke to after the April 7 morning discussion either appreciated the contribution made by the Twitter activity, or were unaffected by it. The anecdotal evidence, at the very least, indicates that it was a good addition to the program. We’ll likely try something like this again. Robert’s suggestion of using Twitter as a channel for questions is one we’d like to pursue. And his points about the opportunity for distraction are well-taken. However, we can’t overlook the value that some might find in the ongoing, very-public dialogue.

Alaina Wiens
New Media Communications Specialist