#Tweetcamp: my takeaway lessons…

Last Saturday, I was one of maybe 150 people who made it to a rather shiny new school in the East End for Tweetcamp – a BarCamp-like unconference on Twitter. Since I like the unconference format (I’m off to another next week), I signed up and went along, and had a great day talking to old and new friends about Twitter, mostly, but also London, music, chocolate and many other things.

The conversation is the thing. The morning was taken up answering some deceptively simple questions posed by the ever-present Benjamin Ellis (@BenjaminEllis and Farhan Rehman (@farhan) as we moved around tables. These simple questions led to some deep discussion about why and how we use Twitter.

The first question was “why do you use Twitter?” (I said they were deceptively simple questions!) Sitting around the table, there were a huge number of answers. The ones which resonated with me were: learning; sharing; communicating; discovery; and conversation – all big headline uses, undifferentiated – there is a lot more in there. Others came up with trolling and stalking (and I won’t be following her!); managing, advertising and sharing events; creating community; connecting; collaborating; news (reading and gathering); following celebrities; branding; finding work; dating.

My takeaway here: Twitter users use Twitter in many different ways, simultaneously – and most of the time we are probably not conscious of the way we are using it: it is simply a tool, integral to the way we use the internet, and we switch from one mode to another. I think we could have spent much of the day exploring the issues that came out that session – but we only had fifteen minutes or so before…

The next question was actually more interesting: “what DON’T you tweet about?” Some people in the group had very firm views – no real names (leading to a rich debate about persona and identity, privacy and anonymity), no food tweets (that rules outs #breakfastofchampions and #dinnertweet), no work tweets, no swearing, no locations, no cross posting between Twitter, Facebook or any other service, no relationships…

I realised that though there are things I rarely tweet about, there is little I would never tweet. I made a decision when I started using Twitter to use my real name, because I wanted to use it for work as well as socially, and I reckoned that running two accounts would just be confusing: the easiest way to solve my Twitter identity problem was simply to be myself. Clearly others strongly disagreed, keeping their offline identities separate from their online personas (and sometimes have more than one online identity).

Whilst I rarely swear on Twitter or tweet about food, neither is completely unknown. Similarly, I actively try to avoid giving away my location – and neither FourSquare nor other location based services have made sense to me – though I do tweet about events I attend (like #TweetCamp!), where Twitter creates a richer experience.

Someone said they used the “mum” test: don’t put anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t want your mother to read. I think I use a similar filter – don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want someone else to see, and which you wouldn’t like to be recorded – for ever: because once something is on the internet, it stays there, however hard you try to remove it, sitting on someone’s server, somewhere.

The last question of the morning was perhaps the easiest and hardest to answer: “Has Twitter changed relationships with others?” The easy answer is a resounding “yes!” Harder was working out in what ways. Twitter has brought people (and things – events, for instance) closer: it has made connections easier, facilitating online meeting across distances, and offline face-to-face social get-togethers. For me, it has made learning social (albeit undirected and serendipitous). Of course, as with the first two questions, everyone’s answer to this was different; and in the heat of the discussion, I didn’t take notes on what others said…

TweetCamp London 2011

photo: Benjamin Ellis, on flickr

The unconference sessions held a lot of interest – and a lot of clashes. My chosen schedule featured the use of social media in organisations, with discussions on connecting virtual teams, knowledge sharing and learning, and internal communications. There was much cross-fertilisation between these three sessions – many of the same ideas and attendees cropped up in each (creating a great spirit of camaraderie!). They also incorporated thoughts generated before lunch, too – the role of communication in organisations reflecting its place in society as whole. Through making connection easier, social media may facilitate flatter organisation structures and matrices. But they need to be included in the workflow – within the established processes.

Cultural issues – within organisations as well as societies – came to the fore, as did issues of power and control: do flat organisations use social media because their use makes the flat structure workable, or will their adoption by more hierarchical organisations result in them being flatter? A bit chicken and egg, perhaps, and the answer is most likely to be both; but rigid hierarchies dominated by managers control the way work is done seem unlikely to take to social media. The ability of social media to create networks across organisational silos seems to be very powerful and empowering.

In learning and knowledge management, we talked about knowledge-sharing and communities of interest, and how social media can mediate these processes, promoting “just in time learning”. We decided that there was a great difference between the impact of social media on learning as opposed to training – the former about discovery and community, the latter about tickbox and control, for instance. What social media can do is help develop peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing, maybe reducing the value of offline networks in which knowledge is power. The use of Twitter as a personal learning network – the whole network, that is, not just a select few within it – could be very useful.

The overriding theme of the last two sessions I went to, the first on the impact of social media on central government, the civil service and policy making, and the second on the adoption of public and private profiles, and how we might manage them, came back to issues of identity (at least for me!). Mediated by the online avatar of @Puffles2010, we discussed the impact of social media in breaking down the links between ministers, journalists and the public, such that structures of policy-making established in Whitehall for decades (if not centuries) are likely to fail. Social media cut out the middlemen – the civil servants whose main role may be seen to protect their ministers – and can illuminate the spin that ministers use in speeches as crowd-sourced fact-checkers can identify waffle and hypocrisy before the speech is even over. Just follow the #BBCQT hashtag to see how people on all sides of political debate challenge and engage with political and public figures. (The hashtag is much more interesting than the TV programme it responds to, in my view!)

Those same civil servants can also become targets of the media, as the oft-told tale of Baskers shows. Without an upfront policy on social media use – a vacuum that directly led to the creation of @Puffles2010 for a civil servant to participate anonymously in social media – indulging in social media can be risky.

Tweetcamp had a busy schedule. Much of what was discussed didn’t feel new to me – for instance, many of the organisational issues around social media were covered during last year’s ConnectingHR unconference – and I’ve had conversations around many of the topics discussed during the day, so I didn’t feel I learned as much from the day as I had expected. But then I had deliberately chosen to attend sessions in which I had an active interest, so that shouldn’t really surprise me.

And I wasn’t surprised either by the great warmth and degree of participation that everyone I spoke with –old friends and new – brought to the day. Just like Twitter, really…

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