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May 22, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

How Amy O’Leary live-tweeted her own speech — and won the #backchannel

The New York Times reporter anticipated people on Twitter missing the nuance of her ideas, so she came prepared.

Ninety-nine years ago this month, when Igor Stravinsky’s violent and inharmonious “Rite of Spring” debuted in Paris, legend has it a riot broke out. This, this! — the dissonant chords, the grotesque choreography — was unlike any performance the crowd had experienced before. There was shouting. Then fist fights. The police came. Chaos.1

That’s pretty much exactly what happened when New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary live-tweeted her own speech in Boston last month. She was talking at BU’s NarrativeArc conference about digitally addictive storytelling, a topic itself interesting to Nieman Lab readers. As slides appeared on the big screen behind Amy O’Leary, @amyoleary would somehow — magically — tweet out expertly compressed summaries of her ideas, right on cue. They were live footnotes, a real-time narrative surprise.

Okay, it wasn’t a riot. But “I was surprised by how many people said they were freaked out by it,” she told me. “A bunch of people just thought it was some kind of crazy mind control. To me it wasn’t terribly complex.”

But it was pretty smart. How she did it: The night before the talk, O’Leary tried to configure a simple script for Apple’s Keynote that would fire a tweet as soon as a slide slid. Wrap the desired tweet inside a [twitter] tag in the presenter’s notes and voilà. But the hotel wifi was shaky and she couldn’t get it to work. (Actually, the problem was probably this.) So she pre-wrote all of her tweets and handed them off to a couple of friends in the audience, who fired off each one when the corresponding slide appeared.

O’Leary did not explain what she was up to. “It was funny because I had inadvertently left the Twitter beacon sound on my iPad on during the talk,” she said. “So at one point I remember laughing, thanking people for retweeting me because it was making so much noise.”

As long as speakers have given speeches, audiences have talked about them in the backchannel. In the olden days, the backchannel might have the Parisian elite whispering to each other in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913. Then Twitter came along and it was like everyone looked around and realized, whoa, we can all whisper to each other now. Now matter how well-composed a speech or sound the ideas, people are bound to utterly mischaracterize you on Twitter.

Some speakers got hip to the backchannel and decided to embrace it. They might begin a speech with “The hash tag for my talk is…” The most intrepid display the backchannel conversation on a screen behind them, sometimes with disastrous results.

O’Leary took the next logical step: She got into the back channel.

She gives a lot of these talks and often finds herself with this sinking feeling that people will have missed the point. “I just feel like the public record of it was much more blunt and less subtle than I’d intended,” she said. “So this was basically my stab at trying to correct that record in advance.”

It’s hard to capture subtle ideas quickly, and in 140 characters, especially if you’re listening and composing at the same time. O’Leary had the luxury of crafting each tweet in advance, serving the audience a sort of template for retweets, a framing for the live blogs. It worked. “This is the first time I left a speech and felt like all the tweets I saw afterward were a good reflection of what I was trying to say.” (See her Storify compilation.)

She also sees it as a service to people who are engaged and want to learn more. “It’s a way to kind of show your work and provide people with a record of your sources while you’re talking,” she said.

O’Leary says she’ll try this again at her next talk, in June, at the Reporter Forum in Hamburg.

And, by the way, she’s totally fine with people disagreeing with her work or thinking she’s full of it. O’Leary just wants representation in the backchannel. If only Stravinsky had had been able to jump into the #rite13 conversation…but then, he probably would have started the riot.

  1. It’s quite possible none of that actually happened.
POSTED     May 22, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
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