Live-tweeting a political event: what worked, and what didn't

David Gewirtz shares some of the lessons he's learned about doing a live-tweet event, and some tips you might want to keep in mind if you do one yourself.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

One of the nice things about the Internet world, as compared to the media space I grew up with as a kid in the Sixties, is that we can all talk with each other. When I post an article here on ZDNet, for example, you can comment and I can respond. Sometimes those comments are fascinating and deep, sometimes they're rude and shallow, but they turn this into a two-way discussion and always add value.

A few months ago, when the iPhone 4S was announced, we ZDNet bloggers planned to participate in a live discussion using a web service we subscribe to. Apparently, there was so much traffic, the service went down. Since I was already following the announcement, I'd already brewed a fresh cup of coffee, and I'd already put on my fancy office sweatpants, I decided to turn to Twitter and live-tweet the event instead.

What I found surprising and gratifying was that as I tweeted my observations, others retweeted them, still others replied to me, and I was able to retweet their observations as well. It became much more of a social gathering, an actual event, rather than just me, sitting quietly in front of my computer screen, talking to pixels.

Saturday night, I was comfortably on my couch getting ready to watch the South Carolina election returns, and I decided to try tweeting my observations. Because I was on the couch and comfortable, I didn't want to bring over my laptop or even the iPad. I just wanted to talk. So I decided to see if Siri on the iPhone 4S was up to a night of live-tweeting.

It worked surprisingly well. Of course, there was one point where I tweeted something that made no sense, because what Siri heard and sent out was quite different from what I intended. Our own @JPerlow responded "Siri is like having an autistic howler monkey as your personal assistant" -- and, to some extent, that's true.

But I again had the very interesting feeling of sharing the experience of the event with lots of friends. So, as I started thinking about how I wanted to cover yesterday's State of the Union, my wife recommended I invite all of you to join me in the live-tweet event Tweet of the Union.

Last night, too, turned out really well. I again had that feeling of being part of a conversation, part of a gathering, rather than just opining on it from afar. I could also weave your comments into the discussion, so I was able to effectively "publish" a stream on the topic that contained many voices, many ideas, and many perspectives.

Over the space of about two hours, I tweeted a message about once every 90 seconds or so. By the time I was done, I'd shared about 100 individual thoughts, on all aspects of the discussion, and from a lot of individual voices besides my own.

What follow are some of the lessons I've learned about doing a live-tweet event, and some tips you might want to keep in mind if you do one yourself.

Next: Live-tweeting tips and techniques »

« Previous: Event overview

Using Siri

I liked using Siri for this. I was able to actually speak my comments. Since I love commenting about politics verbally (my wife once told me I was qualified to be a political commentator because of all the years I spent shouting at the TV), this was a great fit.

But Siri did mangle my words in a few places, it did skip punctuation, and it didn't have the normal presentation polish I like to have in my published work.

It also took too long. I paused the speech (on my Tivo) every time I dictated to Siri and by the time I was done watching the speech on my Tivo, it had actually been over for about 45 minutes. What this means is as time progressed, my tweets were slipping further and further behind the flow of actual events.

Following the narrative

On one hand, I now have a substantial body of notes, because I can go back to all my tweets. On the other hand, because everything had to be under 140 characters, I wasn't able to make notes in the depth I normally do for many of my analytical pieces.

I also found that sometimes I was paying more attention to the other Twitter users and the Twitter stream than I was to the President's words, and while that's fine for election coverage, it's not great for a speech of this level of importance. I felt like I missed some of the nuance because I was interacting more than I was analyzing.

Interacting with the audience

This rocked! It was just so cool to be able to talk to you all in near real-time, and to get and share your comments and impressions. The downside of the Twitter stream architecture is that it's hard for a third party to see the entire thread. So if I replied to one of you, you might know what I was answering, but other readers would have to visit your stream to try to figure out which message it was that you sent to me, in order to get context.

I also found this difficult when readers would tweet an "I agree" or "I think you're wrong" because I didn't know which tweet they were referencing and which point they were agreeing or disagreeing with.

Lack of reference-ability and archive-ability

You'll notice I haven't provided you with a link to go ahead and read the entire discussion or twitter log for the Tweet of the Union event. That's because there really isn't any to provide. Oh, sure, you can go to @DavidGewirtz and scroll back to read the comments in reverse-chron order.

That'll work reasonably well if you're reading this on January 25, 2012. But if you're visiting at some later time, it'll be nearly impossible for you to find the full event coverage.

I could have used a hash tag, but entering hash tags with voice recognition bites. Besides, hash tags are universal, so #sota wouldn't have worked; that would get you all the State of the Union discussion. I'd have to go to something like #dgzdnetsota2012 to make it universally addressable and unique, and that would have used a lot of my 140 characters, been a pain to enter, and really unpleasant to read.

So while an event like this is a great way to connect, it isn't necessarily something that leaves easy tracks for later review or reference.

Follower impact

I normally tweet once or twice a day. I tweet my articles, a few comments about coffee, and -- every few days -- comments about my daily morning reading (usually determined by whether the coffee has taken effect before doing my reading).

I might do an average of a fifty tweets in a month -- at most. But events like Tweet of the Union are events, and I tweet a lot more in a short time. Unfortunately, because I'm tweeting and retweeting using my own @DavidGewirtz account, and because I have followers interested in a lot of things (not just politics), some followers didn't appear to like the considerable increase in flow coming from the event.

Although I gained quite a few new followers, I also lost some. When I started, I had exactly 7,000 followers. At the end of the evening, I had 6,980, a net loss of 20 followers (or about 0.28%). It's not a big price to pay, but it was disappointing that all that work resulted in a net followership loss.

Amplification effect

On the plus side however, in addition to the comments themselves, I had a whole bunch of people retweet my messages. I went through and did the math, looking at the followership of each of the retweeters, and all told, they had a followership of something on the order of 279,000 followers, providing a considerable amplification to at least some of my tweets. To be fair, most of that amplification came from a few retweeters who have an enormous following, but it's still quite a reach.

It'll be interesting to see if that amplification effect gains me further followers in the coming days.

Next: What I'd do different »

« Previous: Follower impact

What I'd do different

I think I'd like to do this kind of event again. I felt far more connected than I normally do when analyzing these sorts of political events. Because I was able to get comments from people while the event was going on, I had more dynamic interaction than I do, even when I give a meatspace speech in public.

It was also more sane than a chatroom, because I could control which comments I wanted to retweet, and so I could leave out some of the more inappropriate comments. It felt a lot safer than a completely open chat and I didn't have to expose my readers to some of the more, shall we say, outspoken of the bunch.

I posted my invitation to ZDNet readers on ZDNet Government at about 6pm for a 9pm event. In the future, I think I'll post that in the morning. I did get some attendees who saw the announcement, but I could have reached a lot more if I'd posted earlier in the day.

Finally, I don't think I'll use Siri next time. I'll probably use a netbook, propped on my lap. I'll see whether or not that causes quite as much delay in the flow as pausing the Tivo to speak (and then correct) Siri.

Which is better?

Reader John Ries asked, "Wouldn't it be better to take notes and then make whatever comments you care to when the President is done talking? My understanding is that Twitter really doesn't lend itself to that."

I did that last year. In fact, I Tivo'd the speech and then worked through the night and into the next morning going through the speech, line-by-line, extracting notes for analysis and finally publication. The resulting article was very good, but the process was somewhat brutal for a mere blog post. All told, it took more than 9 hours to complete.

The note-taking process is very different from a tweet-event. I did get a list of notes I could use (but I chose to write this article instead). What the Tweet of the Union event did was help me connect with my readers and participate in a shared event, something that's a completely different beast from note-taking and analysis.

There's no doubt I'll use the note-taking and analysis approach again. It's what I've done for many years. But now, I think I have a new tool in my communications arsenal, and I definitely think I'll be taking it out for a regular spin.

The bottom-line benefit isn't the work product. It isn't even the followership count. It's that it's often so very hard to really connect and interact with a worldwide audience. This is one way to do so in a pleasant, productive, and positive way.

Did you participate in the Tweet of the Union? If you did, what was your impression of how it went? Have you done other live-tweet events, and what have you noticed about how they've worked out? TalkBack below.

Twitter bird image courtesy Flickr user Creative Tools.

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