I’m involved in the planning of an annual, national meeting (that will go unnamed, for now) in a slightly `new way’. The meeting has been happening for several years, and one of its goals is to give participants a chance to make connections with one another in the context of the organization’s primary goals. Past meetings, which have been structured in a conventional manner, have been successful in this regard. But recent advances in social networking have opened doors that might allow the conference organizers to realize their goal at a higher level. This post is about what I’m trying to do to help add a dimension of social networking to the meeting. I invite your comments, hints, advice from past successes and failures, jibes, jokes, and other sorts of feedback in the ‘comments’ that follows this post. Your connecting to my work will help us evolve this meeting.
CONNECTING AT MEETINGS
Professional workshops, meetings, and conferences offer professionals a chance to share ideas in the form of presentations to one another and network at breaks and dinners. The way a meeting is structured and the context in which it operates contribute the degree to which ideas can be shared and who shares their ideas. For example, a regional meeting is likely to draw people from only a small area around the meeting location. But a regional meeting is likely to be less formal, less expensive to attend, and therefore presents fewer social barriers for sharing ides between attendees. By contrast, an annual national meeting can draw people from long distances, be more expensive (especially if one includes the cost of travel in the total cost of attendance), and be larger. The latter means more ideas are being shared at the meeting, but each idea is less likely to percolate through the attendees.
Meeting organizers will facilitate the sharing of ideas by creating a program, or one sort or another, that gets distributed to all registered participants. A typical program lists all talks and posters by time, location, talk title, and speaker. Sometimes there is also an abstract for the presentation or a short speaker biography. These allow each participant to choose talks that related to ideas of interest and value to them. Sometimes, a meeting program is event published online and available to non-participants. And when such a program is accessible to robots that are indexing the web, allowing content to appear in web searches like Google and Bing, then the who world can be exposed to information in the program while program is posted.
In the last year, I’ve been reading about conferences who have been turing the web-accessible dial to eleven by using social networking tools. These tools complement the static content of the printed program by allowing participants who are engaged at the meeting (e.g., attending talks, reading posters) to use social networking to share their thoughts and questions with others. It’s like the conversations between people in the meeting hallways and over dinner, except the new tools extend those conversations into the internet-dimension in a way that invites broader participation.
People use social networking tools to do everything that people do at a meeting: ask a question about a point made in a presentation, ask for clarification on something, provide support for or against a points made by a speaker, debate an issue, points out related ideas, and so forth. All this happens while the meeting is occurring, but unlike the conversations that are happening in the meeting hallways, these electronic conversations can be followed by people who are not at the meeting. (Think of people who couldn’t afford to make the trip for time or financial reasons, who are prohibited from traveling for health or family reasons, or who didn’t know the would be interested in the meeting until they stumbled upon its dynamic online extension.) It also allows the conversations that began at the meeting to be continued electronically after the meeting. If the social networking conversations that occurred during the meeting can be archived and made accessible electronically, then they might continue to inspire conversations after the meeting indefinitely.
WHAT WE’RE CONSIDERING
Recognizing that adding social network to our meeting has the potential to improve the chances that attendees make connections that can continue into the future after the meeting, we’ve weighed a few approached to doing this. Though there appears to be few HOWTOs out there on enhancing a meeting in this way, I ddi find a couple blog posts useful. For example
and its comments provided an idea that I think has legs.
I think we’ll make a Twitter account for this annual meeting and make a meeting hashtag. We’ll also prepare a HOWTO for meeting participants that will give careful instructions for how both to set up a Twitter account for participating in the online conversation and to use the conference hashtag for searching and posting. The basic guidelines would be,
all meeting-related comments should have the official hastag so that others can see your posts, and
all meeting attendees should follow the official meeting Twitter user (thus creating what I think is called a TwitterRoll for the meeting), and the official meeting Twitter user will follow all meeting attendees; this will make the official meeting Twitter user’s Twitter stream an approximate archive of the meeting discussions.
Twitter feeds can also be exported via RSS, and that RSS feed can be displayed in a web portal dedicated to the meeting so those who do not sign-up for Twitter accounts can follow the ongoing conversation. (Alternatively, one can do a search on Twitter for a hashtag, then save that search and export that search as an RSS feed. This latter approach might be a better, more meeting-focused way to go.)
Wiling participants with laptops would follow (and hopefully engage in) the online discussion as it unfolds during the meeting. If the resources are available, we who are organizing the meeting might erect screens and use data projectors to display the electronic conversations as they unfold in real-time. The screen and its dynamic content would be something of a distraction from the speaker(s), but it’s an important manifestation of (and invitation to) an aspect of the meeting that might otherwise be invisible to many participants. Several meetings have used this type of projected conversation to satisfying effect. Or so say the blog posts and tweet that I’ve read.
SOME ALTERNATIVES, LIMITATIONS
Other social networking tools/media for conducting online conversations at meetings include Facebook (http://www.facebook.com), FriendFeed (http://www.friendfeed.com), and Google Wave (http://wave.google.com). At minimum, each of these requires a user to make an account. Some people are hesitant enough to make an account for such a singular and short-lived purpose that meeting organizers should not expect everyone registered for the meeting to participate in its social networking aspect. (But not every registrant participates in a meeting’s person-to-person networking and idea sharing aspect, either.) So the organizers should be sensitive to this and, perhaps, approach the social networking aspect of the meeting as a value-added activity or experiment that will be reported on after the meeting concludes.<p />One limitation of using the aforementioned social networking tools to augment conversations at a meeting is archiving those conversations. Archiving is important if you want to use the conversations as an historical document, if you want the conversations to turn up in relevant web searches, or if you otherwise want those conversations to be available to people after the meeting ended.
At present, Twitter only yields tweets to web searches for a week after they are first tweeted. Google and Twitter forged an agreement to make tweets searchable and in real-time, but nobody knows how far back those searches will work. There are analogous problems with Facebook (the proverbial walled garden) and FriendFeed, and Google Wave is locked-up more than any other service right now. What this means is that a meeting either needs to be prepared to someday say goodbye to the conversations started at its meeting, or it needs to take steps before the meeting to archive its conversations in a way that continues to be available.
How are WE going to do this for OUR meeting? I’m not sure yet. But enough people are doing this that I’m sure we can find a way.
So. The above is just about the sum total of what I understand about making a meeting semi-officially live-bloggable in a way that deliberately adds long-term value to the meeting (each year and, hopefully, over time). Please weigh in in the ‘comments’ section, below, with you hints, advice from past successes and failures, jibes, jokes, and other sorts of feedback. My putting these thoughts to paper is more to support other people’s effort in this direction than anything else. Please contribute.