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Writer, storyteller, optimist

Confessions of an over-the-shoulder Twitter reader

I’ll just come right out and say it: I am an over-the-shoulder Twitter reader.

Or at least I was last week.

Before you think I’m a horrible person or that I don’t respect others’ digital privacy, hear me out. You would have done the same thing.

Last week I had the chance to attend the 2010 Online News Association conference in D.C. The days were jam-packed with panels, break-out sessions, keynote addresses, catered receptions and nice, energetic people handing out free things. I had a blast. Thinking about the conference, a particular panel stands out. Not so much for its content–which granted, I was interested in–but for how others in the room seemed to be interacting with what was being said.

The panel, called “No Comment: Rethinking Online Commenting,” was led by NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard and Facebook community manager Andrew Noyes. Early in the panel, Shepard encouraged anyone with reader engagement success stories from their newsrooms to join in and share advice. Shepard seemed eager to know how the news folks in the crowd were moderating online discussions and what kinds of results they were finding. Much of Shepard’s discussion was about nasty reader comments on the web, and she gave several examples.

At some point my attention drifted from Shepard and Noyes to a gentleman sitting in front of me. Like most in attendance, he had his laptop open on the table. He was clicking back and forth among a Word doc with what looked like panel notes, email, Twitter and other sites I don’t remember.

At first I tried not to pay attention. Let the man Tweet in peace, I thought. But I quickly rationalized that his Tweets would soon be broadcast to his followers and the rest of the Twitterverse. There really wasn’t any harm in reading his Tweets-in-progress. What was one more set of strained eyeballs?

What I found was interesting: The evolution of several Tweets. Mostly negative. Aimed at one speaker on a panel about negativity on the web. The Twitterer in front of me was unhappy with the way the panel was going. After establishing where he was (thanks to the ONA10 hashtag) and what panel he was in, he Tweeted that Shepard was dripping with contempt for her readers.

I was hooked. I continued listening to the panel discussion but with my eyes fixed on the Twitterer’s computer. He wrote and edited, rewrote and rearranged words in the tiny confines of Twitter’s “What’s happening?” box. Twitterer drafted a Tweet about puking if Shepard said one more thing about negative reader comments. Then I watched him substitute “puke” for something about leaving the room. As with previous Tweets, this one sat waiting in the box, trailed by a blinking cursor, for several minutes before publication.

Was he second-guessing his words, or worried about their impact? Was he trying to come up with a different way of saying the same thing? What exactly was going on here?

A good deal of Shepard’s discussion did focus on web negativity. Not much panel airtime was given to the productive and thoughtful comments readers are leaving all over the web–except by those in the audience, who seemed happy to offer examples of reader positivity happening on their news sites.

I left the panel wondering why the man sitting in front of me (and others in the audience who no doubt shared his sentiments) chose to Tweet his criticisms rather than raise his hand and take a shot at redirecting the conversation. Instead of engaging with the panelists and others in the room, he chose to add to the web negativity, and more specifically, to the journalist-on-journalist negativity that seems to be all too present in the industry and all too easy to contribute to. With this, an opportunity for live, face-to-face engagement was missed. And that’s a shame.

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Filed under: events

One Response

  1. […] about or speaking about online journalism: “Information is alienated experience.” A blog post from one of my students at UNC has done a nice job recording an anecdote from the 2010 Online News […]

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