An Act of Heresy

Bless me father, for I’m about to commit an act of heresy. Whenever I say what I’m about to say, I get a reaction that ranges from raised eyebrows to outright hostility and arguments. But I’ll say it anyway.

I don’t like the hashtag chat format on Twitter. And I don’t like the timed presentation format used for Teachmeets. There. I said it.

Maybe I’m just becoming a cranky old man as I get older, but I don’t like either of these formats and for much the same reason. I find they dumb down the conversation.

I know that both of these formats are very popular at the moment, and I know that many people seem to like them. But I just can’t warm to them, and I wanted to write this post to explain why. Feel free to condemn me in the comments.

Let’s start with Twitter hashtag chats. That’s where you pick an abbreviation, slap a hashtag in front of it, set aside an hour or so, and off you go. Instant “conversation”. I know this form of conversation on Twitter is insanely popular right now, but I just can’t seem to work out why.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Twitter and think its impact on the world has been absolutely seismic. I joined it in early 2007 and have used it regularly since the very beginning. I’ve written a lot of very pro-Twitter posts about how wonderful Twitter is and how important it is that you should be using it too. Twitter is awesome. No argument there. It’s great as a backchannel at events, or as a way of distributing information quickly, or as a tool for building professional and personal connections. It’s a communications medium with self imposed limitations, but if you work within the bounds of those limitations, it’s absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. I like Twitter a lot.

But as a means for having deep, meaningful focussed conversations on specific topics, I struggle with it. It always feels to me like it’s being wrangled into doing something that it was never really designed to do, and consequently it feels like it does it poorly. Whenever I try to have a meaningful conversation broken up into 140 character chunks (less by the time you include the hashtag, the Q&A numbering and any @replies you might want to include), the “conversation” feels decidedly stilted, fragmented and superficial. I’ve participated in many of these hashtag chats over the years and I always find them frustratingly tedious. I can never say what I want to say in the space I have available to say it, so it ends up getting fragmented into disconnected chunks spread out over time, with no really functional way to reassemble those chunks into some semblance of a real conversation.

Hashtags chats usually start out with people saying hi, where they’re from, etc, which takes up the first 10 minutes or so, then the host/moderator throws a question into the ring (Q1, Q2, etc) and everyone has a go at responding with their own tweets (A1, A2, etc). As people respond, then respond to the responses, the conversation fragments even further until there is a confusing collection of truncated half-thoughts littering the timeline, waiting to be mentally reassembled into a thread that hopefully makes some degree of sense. For an hour or so, questions are added to the mix, replies are made, popular tweets are favourited and retweeted, and there always seem to be a whole lot of chatter that ends up in a confused, non-archivable mess. Which is a shame, because the actual ideas that were either poorly expressed, or hidden in that mess of messages, is potentially brilliant. But I think it’s far too much work and far too inefficient to be used like this.

I should point out that this hashtag chat idea is not the same thing (to me) as using a hashtag to aggregate tweets around a theme or meme. The latter is organic, and percolates naturally. People can contribute on the hashtag over time, and it is pulled together with a hashtag search query. This feels like a natural use of Twitter. The hashtag chat, on the other hand, where structured questions get sent out to a group for responses in a specific window of time, always feels contrived to me. It feels like a school project, where people are answering questions in response to the moderator, who artificially keeps the “conversation” moving. There’s nothing very organic or natural about it.

I’ve tried to give this form of “conversation” a go, but I just can’t warm to it. I know many people who love it, so hey, more power to them. If it works for you, knock yourself out. It just doesn’t work for me. I find I have to dumb down my contributions to stay under the character limit, or figure out how to say something so simply that it no longer conveys the meaning I intended. I end up writing in sound bites that become glib and superficial. And then I get frustrated because I wasn’t able to communicate what I wanted to communicate. I know, long form writing is not what the kids do these days, email is dead and Google+ is a ghost town.  Whatever. I’ve been told that anything worth saying should be able to be said in a Tweet-sized package, but I just don’t see it. Some ideas are worth more than that.

Which brings me to my second bugbear, the timed “Teachmeet style” presentation where each speaker gets a few minutes to speak and share a tool or idea. (The fact that there is even a “speaker” at what is essentially supposed to be an unconference style event should be the first clue that something is out of whack). For much the same reasons as I struggle with the idea of hashtag chats, I find this is yet another format with a self imposed artificial limitation that can easily ruin the potential value of the content. I don’t know if you recall the historical evolution of this format… the Teachmeet format was originally an unstructured get-together of teachers talking shop and sharing ideas over a few beers at a pub. Then it grew and spread and morphed into a range of formats, until every Teachmeet I go to now uses this same format where each speaker gets a short time limit to share an idea. Originally this time limit idea evolved from the Pucha Kucha style of presenting, but has now grown into being a standard Teachmeet thing.  It’s totally unnecessary. The Pecha Kucha style was designed originally to force presenters into a rigidly structured format – half the fun of giving a Pecha Kucha talk is about meeting the challenge of the format while giving an interesting talk. – but there’s really no reason that Teachmeets should continue to do the same. I agree that having some form of “lightning round” presentations, where you get a strictly timed few minutes to share an idea, can be a lot of fun. I think the 3 minutes Demo Slams at Google Summits can be a good example of this.

But when every Teachmeet becomes nothing but a series of rigid timeslots, it feels to me like we’ve jumped the shark. Making presenters squeeze their ideas into a few minutes might be good for keeping the program moving, but it can be counterproductive to real conversations and authentic sharing of ideas.

Some ideas cannot be distilled down into a soundbite sized presentation. Some ideas take more time, and need an opportunity for questions and deeper reflection. But when the only format for conveying ideas is this kind of short, sharp blast, the only ideas that get talked about are the ones that  fit the format. And I happen to think that there are many ideas worth sharing that need more time, more depth and more nuance than either a 4 minute talk or a 140 character tweet can do justice to. I think we are dumbing down the conversation far too much if this becomes the dominant means of sharing. If I’m going to spend time participating in real conversations with other human beings, I want to hear what they have to say, and not just to hear what they managed to squeeze into an artificially limited timeslot. I think we all deserve better than that.

I’m know I’m supposed to just agree with the status quo and go along with what’s popular. I’ve publicly stated my feelings about both these formats before and have been told all the reasons why I’m wrong. One of my favourite pushbacks is that sharing in this way is still better than not sharing at all. I think that’s a specious argument. Of course it’s better than nothing, but it’s still no replacement for rich, deep conversations or subtle, nuanced sharing of ideas. I’m tired of the shallowness and the superficiality of these formats. I think we can do better, and we can start by reminding ourselves that some ideas are bigger and bolder than a stopwatch or a character limit will allow.

Understand what I’m saying. There is still a place for this kind of rapid-fire sharing, but it should’t be the only place. Right now, every Teachmeet I go to uses this timed format, and the use of hashtag chats on Twitter is more common than ever. By all means, let’s use these formats, but let’s also be aware of their limitations and shortfalls and don’t fall into the dangerous trap of thinking they are the only formats in town.

Featured Public Domain Image – The Witch, No 3,
Wikimedia Commons


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Teacher. Blogger. Podcaster. Asks way too many questions.

24 thoughts on “An Act of Heresy”

  1. I agree. I enjoy many things about Twitter, but can’t really get into the ‘chats’. My mind’s in too many other places and I lose the gist of it all. Each to their own though I guess…

  2. Yeap,

    The frenzy of hashtagged tweets coming at me is more like spam than meaningful conversation or anything close to enlightenment. A hundred people agreeing with each other doesn’t enrich my world.

    Any benefit I get from a hashtag may well be after the ‘event’ where I can take the time to read and connect #gtasyd or #slide2learn tick along quite nicely without the tsunami of the event.

  3. Agree on hashtag chat Chris…but also agree with Allanah – it is a good curating tool. I don’t participate in the chats but can be known to search using a hashtag to see the gist of things.

    Also agree on teachmeet style presentations….limiting to 2 or 3 speakers, giving them moretime and then having an open floor conversation and networking time works much better for me.

    No matches in my pocket!

    1. Agreed… And to be clear, it’s not the use of hashtags I have an issue with… they are like the glue that holds Twitter together, and as an aggregation tool they are ideal. … as I mentioned in the post about the use of hashtags as an aggregation tool… “The latter is organic, and percolates naturally. People can contribute on the hashtag over time, and it is pulled together with a hashtag search query. This feels like a natural use of Twitter.”

      It’s the contrived use of hashtags to have time limited “chats” that I can’t warm to. This feels unnatural and confusing to me.

      Thanks for not having any matches in your pocket! I’m actually encouraged by the positive responses I’ve received here… good to know it’s not only me that feels this way.

      PS: Those with long memories will recall that Twitter was originally released without a search function, and did not have search for a long time. It was a third party tool that Twitter eventually bought (can’t think of it’s name now)… hard to imagine a Twitter that was not searchable!

  4. For me the pull of Twitter has subsided a little (took a little over 12 months). I tend to agree with you regarding the scheduled chats. Of late I much prefer to engage in conversation with someone who posts an article, a comment or a blog (as you have done)……and it’s even more fun if others eventually join in. I like Twitter to be like this because it mirrors a natural conversation, where someone brings up an idea and you can contribute or not. Much like a real staffroom where casual professional conversations can occur over lunch or a coffee.

    My pet hate with regard to the hashtag chats is those that are promoted ceaselessly. I have unfollowed a few who fill my feed with continuous advertisements for their chats. While I enjoy ‘meeting’ educators from across the globe on Twitter, I will resist swelling the ranks of those chat hosts/hostesses whom focus on getting as many participants as possible (do they equate this with success?) Being connected is fabulous, but I have learned to be discerning.

    My favourite people on Twitter are those who throw out an idea, share something they have found interesting or make a contentious statement and then wait for a response. Very engaging.

    Thanks for your post. Enjoyed reading it 🙂

    1. Thanks Alison! Interesting to hear your thoughts about the subsiding “pull” of Twitter… I feel the same way. I remember back in the mid 2000s when blogging came onto the scene in a big way, and regular people found their “voice” online. It was a revolutionary moment in time as so many regular, non-techie people found that they suddenly owned their own printing press and could share with a global audience, all this a low barrier to entry.

      Now, we almost have too many avenues for sharing… between Twitter, Facebook, LInkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, and so on, we are all now posting constantly, sharing constantly and as you have seen, promoting constantly. It’s a bit of a glut!

      I still love Twitter a lot, but I would never want to lose the option to blog in a longform way, write as much or as little as I want, however I want. I’m not a big fan of the Facebook for many reasons, and as the novelty of Twitter subsides I find the limitations of the platform more and more tedious. For me, Google+ has emerged as my social platform of choice because of the way it allows people to gather around ideas rather than personalities, and to them engage in meaningful archivable, searchable, threaded conversations. It’s a much better place to actually converse. I can’t help think that these hashtagged chats on Twitter would be far more effective on G+, as people could still contribute but in a more flexible, grokable format. But that’s just my own opinion.

      Thanks for your comments and it’s been encouraging to hear from so many people that I’m not on my own on this thought.

  5. Interesting points indeed Chris. I have to say I agree with your thoughts about Twitter however hashtags seem to work for those who use them and if it engages teachers in conversations about best practice, who are we to complain. Two weeks ago I recommended Twitter to a new scheme teacher, I caught up with her last week and she was buzzing with its discovery. For a new teacher to Twitter, hashtag conversations can be a way of curating the random conversations that can seem to clog it up these days.
    As to TeachMeets there is no right or wrong way to hold one. Last week TM Manly had six presenters, who each spoke for between 3 and 10 minutes, those amounts interspersed with conversations and networking took two and a half hours, which was a perfect time frame. Some people prefer to be specificly structured, so what?
    My challenge to you is go ahead and run one yourself, it’s easy, hold at school, in a pub, a park, anywhere. Do it anyway and in any format you like. Your name alone will draw the crowds. Teachers meeting, networking and sharing what can be wrong with that:)



    1. Hi Henrietta,

      Just to clarify, it’s not hashtags themselves that bother me…hashtags are critically important to the value of Twitter and are the way that ideas are aggregated together across the Twitter network and for communities to form around those ideas. Hashtags are vital.

      My concern was with the use of hashtags for these brief, ephemeral “#chats” that typically take place at a specific time. For an hour or so people flood the timeline with disjointed tweets that have little in common except a hashtag. There is typically little by way of actual conversation, in that everyone is speaking and hardly anyone is listening. A question goes out, a flood of truncated responses come back, there is rarely any responses to the responses, (there isn’t time) and the majority of responses are usually shallow and trivial (there isn’t space). After an hour, all you’re usually left with is an echo chamber of people agreeing with each other, high fiving each other with retweets, and all with very little actual content or pushing of thinking.

      I see this as a VERY different situation to a hashtag that is not time dependent and that just exists for continual aggregation purposes. Hashtags seem to work wonderfully for aggregating tweets around a theme, but not so well for aggregating around a conversation.

      As always, these are just my opinions and may be completely at odds with what others think. And I’m fine with that.

      As for Teachmeets, while there may be no right or wrong way to hold one, every Teachmeet I’ve have ever attended uses this format, so it’s all I’ve ever experienced. I certainly think there is a place for the short, sharp demo-style sessions for idea sharing, but I don’t get much value out of spending a couple of hours where this is the ONLY format. For me, it just feels like it’s trivialising ideas by distilling them down to an app, and extension, or a web 2 tool. Maybe I just need to get to more Teachmeets to try to find one with a different format.

      Thanks for your thoughts

    2. Henrietta, you are well respected for your work, and involvement in Teachmeet. That said, there are other people who believe they “own” teachmeet, and have the right to tell others how to run things.

      I don’t support the teachmeet format, as I feel conversations should be centre stage. Teachmeet was never designed to be an “all about me” affair, but in some places in Australia, that is what it has become. A pity really.

      Thank you for all that you do to support teacher professional learning in Australia. It is deeply appreciated. Like Chris, how you model your practice, lifelong learning, and collaborate with others is what helps me learn.

  6. Chris, From the very start I had a sense that Twitter was for those who wanted the 3 second ‘sound byte’ (as it used to be called). All very titillating and shallow and gave the participant a false sense of participation. In fact I had difficulty respecting colleagues who used this form “communication”. At least your blog took longer than 3 seconds to read. It also has a ‘humane’ ring to it. Unfortunately BOSTES don’t recognise the conversations held in the pub towards accreditation. The last surviving precious moments are now dedicated to the BOSTES tick box. Thanks though for your illumination.

    1. H Mark,

      Thanks for your comment and the feedback on my blog. I’m glad it comes across as human(e), because that’s certainly what I try to be.

      I’m not dissing Twitter per se… I still like Twitter a lot, but I find it frustrating when it gets twisted into being something it’s not designed to be, and that’s a conversation platform for meaningful, thoughtful , ongoing discussion. It does that fairly badly. For other things it’s awesome.

      At the end of the day though, there are no right or wrong rules to how people use it. If this format works for some, then good for them. I’m just saying it doesn’t work for me, and by the look of the comments here so far, I’m not alone.

  7. Hi Chris, great to catch up with you today at ACEC and chat. I think I can really relate to the “cranky old man” feeling and your post here really resonates with me on a number of levels. I find Twitter to be alluring and frustrating – sometimes at the same time – and people are free to use the tool as they see fit. I’m apt to leave it completely alone for weeks on end and dip in when I see something interesting or when I want to connect with a specific individual. I can’t say that I’ve even tried to participate in one of the hashtag events as I find it difficult to pull the threads together in a coherent manner. There are some topics and ideas that only a well written post somewhere can do justice to.
    As for TeachMeets, the format as you have experienced does seem to go against the participatory intent of the original concept (or at least from what I read from people like Ewan McIntosh). I remember going to a TALO Swapmeet back in 2007 put together by Leigh Blackall, Alex Hayes, Michael Coghlan and Stephan Ridgeway which was my style of learning – no preset agenda, bouncing from one idea to another, Alex trying to connect in other people like Nancy White using Adobe Connect, some topics misfiring and being abandoned and others getting extended buy in because the group got keen on the ideas being explored. Maybe, it’s a bit of the blog vs Twitter mindset – the blog being the place where you write for as much as you want on whatever you want and the comments flow out, while Twitter seeks to set limits, organisation and structure – more in line with the Teachmeets you describe. And sometimes, people just follow the crowd because it’s where they think the cool kids hang out. Me, I was always a bit of a loner and a heretic, anyway.

  8. Oh, the heresy! A great blog post, for which I love your honesty. The comments are all so well thought out that they’re a credit to the blogging format.
    That being said, I disagree with you. Shock, horror, I know; I’m not impartial as I run one of the one hour #chats. Here’s my thoughts anyway.
    I see twitter #edchats as an important part of the current ecosystem. They’re an ‘in’ for people to discuss topics that are new to them or that they don’t get to discuss with people like those in the edchat. For instance, teachers who are already implementing ideas from the topic, researchers, new and experienced educators. It’s one hour in 168; although not great for deep thought, this might be a plus for those not connected 24/7.
    I’ve been hearing similar complaints from many of the vanguard on twitter, so I’m not surprised by your insights. I’m going to make a leap and say a big part is because you’re across most of the new and old ideas in education. Being a connected and leading educator, no topic is new to you so of course you want depth to the conversation! A one hour edchat is totally the wrong format if you’re looking for that!
    The echo chamber thing has me a little confused and it’s a term I’ve seen come up a bit about the #edchats. Can you explain it? There is disagreement. Okay, not a lot. The 140 character limit means when you challenge an argument it’s difficult to not come across as a bit of a prick. Still, people seem to learn after a while to respond to others’ ideas and start side conversations. These might not be deep conversations, but will often lead to finding out about new ideas (links to blog posts and websites), and resources. I’ve seen a lot of new connections made this way that can lead to some very cool collaborations. The RT’ing might seem like high fiving, it sort of is, but it’s also because many ideas come up that are worthy. Teaching can be such an isolated job in many schools, I wouldn’t discourage such shenanigans IRL or online.
    Allison made some very reasonable comments about promotion of chats and also focus on numbers. That’s a fair call. I just want to put forward that big participation in an edchat can lead to more side conversations (the juicy bits), more varied ideas, greater resources and ideas to find out about, and more people to make further connections with. All good things.
    Twitter is an amazing place to start. So many voices! So many ideas jumping around! It seems like people eventually graduate from it. They’ll go on to blogging, Google+, LinkedIn (no, scrub that). I don’t know, where else? Some will stick around as well, thankfully. In this way, this network of educators is just like a MMORPG.
    We both know Google+ isn’t a ghost town. It’s awesome. I hope more voices get on it. It seems like a great middle ground between Twitter and blogging. It’s most blogs that are ghost towns. People don’t seem to comment.
    As for Teachmeets, I hear you. I went to a great one recently that followed the 7 minute talks with food and networking and then attendance in a 1½ hour workshop of your choice. Variety is cool. More variety would be fantastic, so what other formats have been tried? What could work?

  9. 🙂 Thanks Rob…

    I think what you meant to say was…

    A1 @chrisbetcher 1/37 Oh the #heresy! A great blog post for which I love ur #honesty. The comments are all so well thought out that they’re #edchat

    A1 @chrisbetcher 2/37 a credit to the #blogging format.That being said, I #disagree with you. #edchat #burn

    A1 @chrisbetcher 2/37 Shock, horror, I know; I’m not impartial as I run one of the one hour #chats #rebuff #takethat #edchat

    A1 @chrisbetcher 3/37 Here’s my thoughts anyway. #edchat #runningoutofcharacters

    And so on.

    I rest my case your honour.

    I LOVE Twitter. I love how I can dig into it at any time and extract value. I love how it’s like a river of wisdom flowing past 24/7 that i can dip into any time I like.

    But I don’t love it for meaningful realtime debate or discussion

    Each to their own. 🙂

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?