Tweetwalls: The Good, The Bad, The Possibility

Posted on 12/7/09 by Whitney Shaw

When we at Clockwork launched Tweetwally we had no idea it would come at such a controversial time for tweetwalls, but since it did, it only seemed right that we add our two cents.

For us, the idea of creating a customizable tweetwall came completely out of need. As Twitter has taken off, we've looked for ways to combine our face-to-face conversations with the digital ones. At our company party last spring, we built a custom tweetwall and projected it in several spots around the party. Since then, tweetwalls have become a centerpiece to our events. People crowd around it, they smile a little when their post makes it up on the big wall, far-flung friends who can't attend the party get to say hello publicly, and ultimately everyone has a good time with it.

Then clients started approaching us about creating custom tweetwalls for their events, and we started seeing them pop up at local events like Ignite Minneapolis. And so Tweetwally was born as a way for us to allow anyone, anywhere to create their own tweetwall on the fly.

But, tweetwalls aren't always used for good. Recently, at the Web 2.0 Conference, the audience (unhappy with the presentation) turned the back channel into a nasty conversation literally behind the presenter's back. The presenter, Danah Boyd, had no idea any of this was going on and — because of the tweetwall's placement — could not respond to any of the chatter.

This event has led to a number of debates on what place (if any) a tweetwall has at a conference. Recently Jen Kane wrote a very comprehensive post on the tweetwall, calling them "the hottest new accessory for events in the digital age." Her number one piece of advice: "Tweetwalls do not belong behind presenters. Never. Never ever."

I know from personal experience with both attending and speaking at events that it's nearly impossible to deliver a solid presentation and interact with a tweetwall (and I can't even imagine how it would have gone had the wall been behind me)! Even at Ignite, the tweetwall quickly became a sideshow and — in some cases — started to derail or detract from the presenter. Like Danah Boyd's experience, at some points the audience hijacked the presentation with the tweetwall instead of paying attention. At an informal event like Ignite, one could argue whether or not that's "okay" — but, whether we like it or not, it's true that a tweetwall can allow the audience to steal the show and sometimes emboldens people to make cutting remarks about the person on stage (remarks that it's hard to imagine anyone making to the presenter's face).

At the last MIMA Summit I was asked to serve as a "Twitter host" for a session and I found myself thinking, "This is the smartest thing I've ever heard of!" A Twitter host is exactly what it sounds like: a dedicated person, who's not speaking, who watches the Twitter feed for questions and comments, responds when necessary, and intervenes when something is going astray. Brilliant.

The Geek Girls recently spoke at an event in LA. In addition to the live audience, it was webcast to over 10 US cities and multiple countries. A few things seemed to contribute to the successful use of the tweetwall at this event:

  • The tweetwall wasn't the center of attention. It was projected in a few side areas at the event, and users could also access it on their local machine or mobile device.
  • Some of the webcast locations had a "leader" who tweeted the questions from the group, and there were two Twitter hosts in LA that watched the tweetwall (powered by Tweetwally, of course!) and relayed questions and comments to the presenters.
  • After the presentation, Nancy and Meghan reviewed the tweets and, where necessary, sent follow-up tweets to audience members.

So, what do you think of tweetwalls? Like them? Hate them? Do they have a place at conferences and events or should they be checked at the door with your coat?

Whitney Shaw is a Project Manager at Clockwork Active Media Systems and also works with Her focus is primarily social media, though she likes making all types of technology accessible to the masses. Follow her on Twitter: whitneytaylor