Friday, March 13, 2009

Twitter for Conference Back-Channel Chat

In the all-day symposium on Web 2.0 this past Tuesday at the always thought-provoking annual conference, I was lamenting the degree to which the format of the event didn't actually reflect the participative nature of the topic.  Wondering how I was going to stay alert with only four hours of sleep the night before (flight delays), I decided to see how it would be to take my conference notes in Twitter as a form of live-blogging.

Like many others, I have had a love-hate relationship with Twitter. I find I am appreciating it more and more as the tool is being shaped by good uses, and I'd recently determined that keeping multiple Twitter accounts for different kinds of communication purposes is a "good use" practice for me. I use a NetVibes page with widgets for each of the accounts I have, and when I need to make an announcement in any one, I can do it directly from my one Netvibes page without having to log specifically into a particular Twitter account. Since I thought it would be hard on those following me to receive a live-blogging stream in my regular account, I created an new account just for conference tweeting at shconferences.  It felt a little brilliant at the time, I have to admit, although I'm sure I'm not the first person to do this.  

In each tweet I used the #cosn09 hash tag that would allow others to follow not just my particular conference tweets but any others from the conference with the same tag at I also tried to include the speaker's last name in each tweet so that it was clear I was quoting them (I put my own few comments in parentheses). It was fairly easy to type their name and the tag once, ctrl-c copy it, and then just paste it in before each message. By the end of the conference, there were 38 followers of this new account, and I'd sent out 430 tweets (so for any of my regular followers I think this was a good idea!).  I kept one browser page open to my shconferences Twitter account, and one page open to the Twitter search for #cosn09 (which does a great job of updating the feed and letting you know how many new tweets have come in.)

Having allowed others to follow the "thought-bites" of the conference sessions I was in, the task now that the conference is over has been to turn those public notes into a document that would be useful to me to review and for future reference. My goal has been to put them into regular chronological order (not the reverse order--most recent first--that they now appear in the feeds or pages from Twitter), then automate the process of getting them into a Google document.  I've gotten pretty close, but still have a step I need help with.

First I got the RSS feed from an advanced Twitter search for "#cosn09" from shconference. Jim Klein helped to find the API parameter notes for Twitter, so that we could pull more than just the most recent dozen posts into an RSS feed, and it turns out that we can get 100 at a time and then use a "page" parameter to go through all of them. Twitter's help page indicates that you can't go back more than four months, so all of this would have to be done fairly soon after the actual event. I also used the parameter to take out the user information since it's just my own notes.  My RSS feed ends up looking like this:"%23cosn09"+from:shconferences&rpp=100&page=1

And I have five feeds, with the page number incrementing to 5 in order to cover all the posts.  I finally spent a few minutes (much less time than I thought it would take) to learn how to use Yahoo's Pipes to aggregate the five feeds and put them into ascending date order (the opposite of the Twitter feed).   Here is the link to the "Pipe:"

This is terrific, and it's so darn close I can taste it...  But when I try to bring this feed into any document converter (RSS2PDF or xFruits) I have a 60+ page document, and each tweet is duplicated both as title and content.  I've tried to use the "sub-element" function in Pipes to just get one field or the other, but for some reason that doesn't work (help?!).  

I am hoping someone else can pick up this ball and run just a bit further with it.  For me, this was much better for back-channel chatting at the conference than my experiences with Chatzy and CoverItLive--not because the technology is any bettter (it's arguably worse), but because Twitter has become so ubiquitous that we didn't have to spend any time trying to figure out what tool was going to be used and who was going to set it up.  And that's usually so hard to do at a conference that you end up with more than one and it's just a hassle...  The potential downside to my using Twitter this way is that if you had even a few people being as prolific as I was, I'm thinking you'd maybe want to have session tags, and then we're back to the whole "organizing" dilemma.  I guess it will be interesting to see how valuable such a backchannel would be with a lot more content.