Not even remotely present …

It’s seven and a half years since I attended my first TeachMeet; at least I think it was my first. When a tweet dropped in my timeline on Thursday night announcing TeachMeet Midlands 2017, I was delighted to see that this long-standing event was on, and still in the same venue. I followed the hashtag #TMM17 for a while, but soon recognised that I wasn’t getting as much out of it as I had expected. In the past, I’ve often felt (and said) that being able to tap into a conference backchannel using Twitter could help to make up for not being able to attend. I started to wonder what had changed – me? Twitter? The backchannel? Now that I’m conducting research into how Twitter contributes to teachers’ professional lives, I was curious whether I had become more critical; less evangelical about the virtues I might once have claimed for Twitter.

With my curiosity piqued, I needed to do something about it, so I started by using Martin Hawsey’s TAGs to collect tweets including the TMM17 hashtag. When I set the script running at around 10:00 on 13/01/2017, it collected around 1500 tweets, so the first step was to establish what criteria I would use to reduce that to a manageable number. Firstly I took out all tweets made prior to the event; I was more interested in what was happening in the backchannel and what that might do for absent friends. This reduced the dataset to around 1200 tweets, of which around 800 were retweets. Now that is in itself interesting behaviour; two thirds of all the traffic is … well, is it acknowledging? Repeating? Sustaining? Increasing reach? boyd, Lotan and Golder (PDF) discussed this at greater length in 2010, however, I’m not sure to what extent their data from the public dataset can be extrapolated to educators, a much more homogenous group.. But I was more interested in the content of the original tweets, so removed the RTs, leaving 397 tweets remaining, which I then went through one by one to try to find what they were doing and what need they might be fulfilling.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that around 100 of these tweets were @replies, indicating that approx. 25% of the traffic was to some extent discursive – someone said something and someone else responded. It was more difficult to establish whether those exchanges were connecting people at the event and those elsewhere, or between co-present TeachMeet participants. I guess I’m asking here, to what extent information exchange was conducted beyond the National College venue. It’s not obliged to do that of course; one of the functions of the backchannel is to serve the needs of those physically present. But to return to my original concern, what effects was the backchannel having for those of us not present?

Whether or not there was dialogue across the physical/virtual interface is only one indicator. It is perfectly possible to gain value from lurking (Crawford, 2011 PDF; Nonnecke & Preece, 2003) and so I turned to the content of the tweets to explore how that might be. The open coding process I adopted revealed a few significant themes:

  • Describing – around a quarter of the tweets were descriptive in nature. Essentially the authors described what they saw and heard e.g. “@JaneBrown up now talking about reading strategies“. There would often be multiple tweets in the same vein from different tweeters in the room. Other than being aware of what was taking place, these tweets didn’t have much value for me. However, I’m not saying this type of tweet has no value at all. They provide a chronicle of events, perhaps for a wider audience, or possible solely for the author to refer back to later; a reminder of what they saw and experienced.
  • Content – a substantial number of tweets shared some of the content from the talks and by content I mean information with sufficient detail for someone reading it to act. That might provoke their thinking or stimulate a course of action i.e. they’re able to do something as a result of reading the tweet e.g. “Making pupil whiteboards for only a pound using materials from Poundland” (with an accompanying illustrative photo). These were potentially more powerful tweets which spurred you into action as you considered the potential for your own context.
  • Celebrating – equally as popular as the content tweets were ones which celebrated the ideas presenters/speakers were proposing e.g. “Fantastic ideas from @JaneBrown. Inspiring and humbling in equal measure“. Once more, I’m not sure what these tweets do – do they show alignment with the ideas? Respect for, or gratitude towards the speaker? Maybe they help in establishing and sustaining ambient affiliation (Zappavigna, 2011), whether intentionally or not?
  • Including – a small number of tweets actively brought in people from outside by ‘@’ing them e.g. “I know @JohnSmith would be interested in hearing how @JaneBrown uses plenaries as discussion points“. Just a couple of these attracted replies from the people concerned (during the time period the tweets were collected of course)
  • Extending – on a similar theme, some people introduced resources or information from beyond the event and thereby expanded the knowledge exchange to some extent e.g. “@JaneBrown’s feedback practice reminds me of this departmental process we recently introduced” (and including a link to the document concerned)
  • Thanking – of the 58 people whose tweets included the #TMM17 hashtag, 20 expressed gratitude in some way, either for a particular presentation or resource, or to those involved in organising the event.

There were also a raft of tweets which hint at the positive feelings that those present had for the event itself, or maybe being with like-minded people? “Excited,” “fabulous,” “amazing,” “inspired,” “enthused” and “awesome” are indicative of the ways in which people responded to the experience and confirm the findings from other studies (Kimmons and Veletsianos, 2016). There may of course have been less enthusiastic views, but they didn’t make their way into the set of tweets. Was everyone at the event so positive? Possibly. You don’t give up three hours of a Thursday evening (and in some cases travel some distance) if you aren’t intent on being fulfilled. Perhaps here then, I’m beginning to get a sense of the disposition of people who attend these events, and are often active on Twitter. But now I’m beginning to stray beyond the original topic of the post; what did Twitter do for absent friends?


Well, I did try asking

And I also asked a similar question about those who were present, but after 24 hours had no response. Maybe people stopped following the hashtag. Maybe no-one for whom this might have been pertinent saw my tweets. Maybe I should have retweeted my tweets. So what I now present are merely my thoughts as an ‘absent friend.’

As I said at the outset, I found the backchannel on this occasion largely unhelpful. I saw little of the multidirectional communication routes that Ross et al (2011, PDF) identified, nor indeed any discussions of what was being presented. However, there were definitely people “establishing a clear individual online presence,” either for themselves or others and either intentionally or not. I actually found this helpful and was able to follow a number of people I might not have come across otherwise. I thought the sharing of resources (Reinhardt et al, 2009 PDF; Ross et al) was limited, but there was some and there may indeed have been folks out there who drew benefit.

I have (only briefly) considered the tweets from a single TeachMeet here and unless the rose-tinted specs I used to wear at TeachMeets/conferences have faded somewhat, perhaps there are things we, as TeachMeet/conference participants could address when we contribute to a backchannel? In addition to those present, there may be others following along who are unable to attend. If we’re so inclined, then we might consider whether what we are sharing has sufficient detail to be useful, or enough information to stimulate discussion. Essentially, give a little more thought to what we are tweeting than I did at the most recent TeachMeet I attended and think instead ‘what would I want to get from a tweet if I wasn’t here?’


boyd, D., Golder, S., & Lotan, G. (2010, January). Tweet, tweet, retweet: Conversational aspects of retweeting on twitter. In System Sciences (HICSS), 2010 43rd Hawaii International Conference on (pp. 1-10). IEEE.

Crawford, K. (2011). Listening, not lurking: The neglected form of participation. Cultures of participation: Media practices, politics and literacy. Berlin: Peter Lang, 63-74.

Kimmons, R., & Veletsianos, G. (2016). Education scholars’ evolving uses of twitter as a conference backchannel and social commentary platform. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(3), 445-464.

Nonneke, B., & Preece, J. (2003). Silent Participants: Getting to Know Lurkers Better. From Usenet to CoWebs: Interacting with Social Information Spaces, 110-132.

Reinhardt, W., Ebner, M., Beham, G., & Costa, C. (2009). How people are using Twitter during conferences. Creativity and Innovation Competencies on the Web. Proceedings of the 5th EduMedia, 145-156.

Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., & Welsh, A. (2011). Enabled backchannel: Conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Journal of Documentation, 67(2), 214-237.

Zappavigna, M. (2011). Ambient affiliation: A linguistic perspective on Twitter. New media & society, 13(5), 788-806.


3 thoughts on “Not even remotely present …

  1. Hi Ian,
    An interesting analysis, I wonder if it would be possible to gather a similar set from ‘back in the day’ and compare the ration of Content & extending tweets to less useful ones.

    Twitter is now very much part of the main event rather than fringe (perhaps like the Edinburgh fringe has become part of the main event). Perhaps in the past,being an alternative it might have ben less positive at events (Thinking of conference rather than TMs in this instance).

    It is great to see some thought and analysis on this.


  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for commenting and for contributing those useful points.
    You’re on the money in that this is definitely just scratching the surface. Has our backchannelling behaviour changed over time, and/or was this particular backchannel representative of ‘normal’ (whatever that might be) backchannelling?
    I also agree that the ‘fringe’ event of backchannelling has definitely become more mainstream, although (based on this limited single observation) feel it offers untapped potential. I guess I’d like to see more being made of it than simply offering up an event hashtag and perhaps subsequently archiving the tweets. But for that, we’d need to think carefully about how it could best be used … a bit like chucking a few iPads into a classroom won’t make magic happen, unless we’ve first thought it through.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Teachmeet itself started as a fringe/non-mainstream event so this is a complicated tangle;-)

    Your breakdown of the tweets untangles this, showing multiple purposes of tweeting. Each 140 char package might have several purposes and varying degrees of success for these purposes. Throw in unintended consequences and you have some fascinating stuff.


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