Will Twitter Kill Conference Q&A?

A couple of years ago, Twitter exploded onto the scene during the SXSW conference a couple of years ago, it added a new and exciting wrinkle where people could have an active backchannel about what was happening on and off stage.

During the first day of mesh yesterday, the use of Twitter during a conference took a new and interesting twist as a way to handle Q&A. As a way to solicit questions from the audience during our keynotes (Mike Masnick, Jessica Jackley), we asked attendees to send their questions using the hashtag #askmesh.

It was an interesting way to pull questions in a large venue when some people may be reluctant to raise their hands and stand up. The questions via Twitter started to flow in, letting us pick and choose the most interesting ones. All in all, it worked really well.

What we learned, however, was #askmesh didn’t work as well during the panels when there were fewer people. In a more intimate setting in which asking a question lets attendees connect with panelists, the use of Twitter seemed to de-personalize things.

It was funny, for example, to pull a question from Twitter, only to discover the person who sent it in was sitting behind the person on the laptop handling #askmesh. And when panelists were answering #askmesh questions, they didn’t know whether to talk to someone in the audience or the person processing the #askmesh questions.

One thing I wondered about is whether you could do a panel without a moderator by using Twitter as your Q&A mechanism. The questions from the audience would appear on a large screen, and the panelists could pick the most interesting questions or perhaps the questions that trended the biggest.

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  • Wayne Dawe

    I think people are shy and worried that they will embarrass themselves. The bigger the crowd, the more shy they become..

  • Bastien

    I remember that Carsonified does sometimes the same at their conferences fowa or fowd. Maybe it helps to get more question, and the moderator is able to filter useless questions.

  • Trevor

    re: moderation. I had a conversation with April Dunford about how relevant the moderator was to a good session. We both agreed that they were ESSENTIAL. Why? Because the moderator, in a perfect world, has a macro, 10,000 ft. view of the subject under discussion. He or she is also experienced enough to know when to reign in both questions and panelists. This is a skill and an art and has been true at Mesh since its inception.

    What I do like about Twitter-based interaction is that it can act to screen 'questions' from people who mostly want to get up on a soapbox or tout something personal to them and irrelevant to most everyone else.

  • Daniel Rose

    Agreeing with Trevor…to build on the point I would say that a moderator should have the ability to not just "reign in" participants and panelists but to actively fuel the conversation by suggesting links between comments and challenging panelists to expand on their ideas if they're not complete enough.

    • markevans

      I'm in the moderator camp. I would argue that a good moderator is as important as good panelists. Without strong moderation, a panel can lose its focus.