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Communications of the ACM


Social Media and the Twitter Backchannel at CHI2010

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Ed Chi

Ed H. Chi - Google Research Scientist

Some ~2400 of us are packed into a huge hotel in Atlanta for the CHI 2010 conference, which is the premier conference in Human-Computer Interaction research.  One major trend this year at CHI2010 is the number of sessions and papers on social media and social computing, such as the study of online communities in China, the study of social computing tools in enterprises, and the use of sentiment analysis and recommendation in Twitter.  In fact, there are so many sessions on social computing and social media, I am having trouble attending to all of the latest research.

A major trend this year is the use of Twitter as a backchannel for information distribution and commenting during and after the talks.  People are also following the conference from afar using the #CHI2010 hashtag.  Conference attendees are using room designations to report on specific activities in different parallel tracks, and using it to decide whether to hop over to a different session.  Interestingly, they're also using it to comment on the talks and to spread these comments.  For example, when Ben Shneiderman made a particular heavy remark, it spread amongst the attendees.  


These practices are enabling conferences to be less about one-to-many lectures on the latest research and more about peer-to-peer interactions.  Other kinds of information diffusion include travel disruptions to Europe due to the Iceland volcano eruption.  There is even an inside-joke-viral video about Hitler's fake comments about research in CSCW and CHI communities spreading, somewhat at my expense. 

Twitter, having started as a backchannel tool at SXSW, seems to have made inroads at academic conferences.  It has enabled backchannel commenting and info distribution.

Ed H. Chi is an Area Manager and Principal Scientist in the Augmented Social Cognition Group at the Palo Alto Research Center.  You should also follow him on Twitter (username 'edchi').



Keith Instone

I have been to several conferences with a strong Twitter component, but this year's CHI was definitely the largest (for me, I avoid SxSWi). I left a day early but still have a sense of what is happening today.

I also found it humorous that once I replied to a tweet from you, then looked to my left, and you were sitting a few feet from me.

Joseph McCarthy

Following along remotely, I found the signal-to-noise ratio of tweets in the #chi2010 Twitter stream< to be relatively high (modulo the number of retweets). It also seemed like there were far more tweets than at other recent academic conferences I've either attended or followed remotely (UbiComp & CSCW).

It sounds like there were at least 5x as many people at CHI as UbiComp or CSCW, but it seemed like there were far more than 5x the number of tweets. I wonder how much different factors influence the use - and impact - of backchannels at a conference ... the content (e.g., proportion of social media papers), the number of participants, the age and/or gender distribution of participants, the number and distribution of sessions, and the level of WiFi support all come to mind.

Ed Chi

That's the beauty of the back channel. You can tweet and respond to me even when we are suppose to be silent during the presentation. The commenting is now peer to peer.

I also find many of the back channel tweets very funny, especially the ones that are not normally expressed in professional settings. @climpefake was a great example.

Ed Chi

Joe: The wifi support at the conference was not very good. The upper level of the conference space had spotty coverage, while the bottom levels were much better. Many of us resorted to using our iPhone or smart phone with 3G coverage, and that worked fine for the backchannel. I became very good at using the two-thumb-typing with my iPhone.

Curiously, the chatter was much stronger this year than last, and the number of social media papers also increased dramatically, so it would seem that the two are somewhat correlated. The # of participants stayed about the same, as well as the gender balance. The number of tracks (parallel sessions) did increase.

Overall, it would seem to me that it simply reflects the penetration that Twitter has made in the general HCI researcher and practitioner circles.

Tessa Lau

I tweeted from IJCAI 2009 last year, and I was one of maybe five people live-tweeting the conference. I think the HCI community is just beginning to achieve a critical mass of social media users, which is still far less than the proportion in non-HCI fields. As always, students lead the way.

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