A blog about the new generation of work

Sorry but I might just twitter during your presentation


Twitter, the micro-blogging service that sounds stupid until you use it, is hitting the mainstream, with all sorts of celebrities and politicians piling on. (See also my big Twitter at Work post.)

The celebrities are amusing but benign. The politicians are more interesting, but already their twittering is causing controversy. They’re being accused of not paying attention.

The Globe & Mail reports:

Edmonton — Alberta’s Speaker of the House Ken Kowalski issued a stern warning to provincial politicians yesterday to stop using their BlackBerrys during Question Period.

“There’s something going on in virtual wonderland called Twitter-ing. And it seems that even as the Question Period goes on, some honourable members have been accessing their BlackBerrys to put some messages in the virtual world before the question is even answered by another person,” he said.

Some notes on this.

  • Question Period, for those who aren’t lucky enough to live in a Parliamentary democracy, is the time when politicians are allowed to yell at each other (including the Prime Minister) with tremendous vigor.
  • “Virtual wonderland?” Is that connected to the series of tubes?
  • How many decades will we have to wait before the majority of our elected leaders across the globe actually understand the most important innovation since the internal combustion engine?

Regardless, there’s some wisdom in the Speaker of the House’s words, at least as it pertains to Question Period — it’s good practice to at least wait until you get an answer before you start flinging crap into the virtual wonderland.

The article continues:

It’s not the first time he’s made the request in an attempt to restore decorum. Mr. Kowalski recently sent letters to MLAs asking them to refrain from using any electronic devices, including laptop computers, in the legislature.

This is where I start getting more annoyed. There’s something inherently backwards about this sort of “no technology” policy1 that starts to push my Generation Y buttons. Why the anti-technology bias?

A Quick Story

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in an all-day workshop held in an auditorium with theatre-style seating. The content was actually really good. I was into it.

Midway through the afternoon, I was joined by someone who was kind of my boss. I didn’t directly report to him, but he certainly could have gotten me fired if he wanted to. That kind of boss.

We sat for a while and listened to a keynote. Part-way through, I realized I had no idea what time it was. I don’t wear a watch, so I pulled out my cellphone from my pocket to check. My pseudo-boss looked at me with a gigantic look of disapproval, tapped the phone, and literally wagged a finger.

I had a similar experience this past year at another conference, when I brought out my iPhone, opened the “Notes” application, and typed a couple of points I wanted to remember. The lady next to me looked at me like I had just wronged her personally.

That’s the anti-technology bias in a nutshell. It’s the belief that this device in your hand means you’re not paying attention. That you’re being disrespectful. That you’re just a big insensitive jerk.

Why We Twitter

The notion that people in the audience using twitter (or blogging) during presentations is quickly shot down by the amazing benefits that liveblogging or an active ‘backchannel’ brings to conferences, workshops and other events. These kinds of communications bring the content and messages of a small, in-person event to a much larger audience online. Everyone benefits.

Web people, marketers, anyone at Unconference or ‘camp’ suffixed events already understand this: an audience twittering or typing away as you talk is generally a good thing. It means you’re saying something that people want to share. Hopefully it’s something smart.

The anti-tech bias is motivated by two forces. The first is the belief that technology is inherently distracting and there is no way for people to overcome that. The second is the really weird belief that this is one instance where multitasking is impossible. Neither of these things are true.

The benefits to increased real-time communication through twitter and other web-based means are innumerable. There are THOUSANDS of them for business and for government alone. We should not sacrifice these in favour of some outdated notion of proper manners.


I have some misgivings about writing all of this, if only because I’ve been annoyed by people using their Blackberries under tables at conferences, checking their email every two minutes. There’s often a look about them that seems disengaged. Despite all I’ve said, I still find that rude.

There is a balance, I believe, that must be struck. We owe it to ourselves to be responsible users of technology, and that includes using common sense. Twittering “In a great presentation on Google Adwords – what’s your ideal CPM?” is great. Composing an email to your mom about the new car you bought is bad.

The biggest worry, I suppose, is that the technology is almost invisible. When someone takes notes, at least you can sort of see that they’re writing. A computer or especially a smart phone gives a kind of anonymity to your activities. There’s no real visual evidence that you’re not just screwing around.

But I really think that’s something we’re just going to have to get past. The anti-tech bias must die.

Photo by Julian Bleecker. Licensed under Creative Commons

  1. or attempted policy, to be fair []

Similar Posts:November 2, 2008: Twitter’s place at work + March 23, 2008: Opposing organization + March 23, 2008: Five Rules for PowerPoint Presentations That Don’t Suck + more...

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