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Live-Blogging Conferences, Sketchnoting, Live-tweeting: What's Best?

Last week was SXSW. I wasn’t there, but I saw my twitter stream fill up with livetweets, sketchnotes, storifys, and the odd blog post. Over the last few years, I’ve tried them all and even made my own twists on them. It seems like a good time to reflect on them and the pros and cons.

At the beginning: Blogging

It’s funny to think of blogging as an old format, but in relation to some of the trends in ways to share information, it is.
I’ve done blogging on and off for ages. When I moved to the UK I told myself I’d never attend an event without writing it up (whether this was an act of insanity, I’m not sure. But I have generally done it!).

The biggest problem with blogging is time. I came to the conclusion that if you didn’t write about an event that evening, or at most 24 hours after it happened, you’d never do it. (This is particularly had with Newcastle events and the expectation of drinks afterwards!) I also had a particular baptism of fire after taking on the crazy task of doing conference blogs for Johnny Holland starting with UX Australia 2009—with the caveat that the daily report needed to be up the day before the start of the following one. (I did one other conference solo, but thankfully  was part of a team for the others ).

Looks Good: Sketchnoting

Sketchnotes have been around for a while, but recently started picking up steam with Eva Lotte-Ham’s beautiful examples and subsequent books.
I started flirted with sketchnoting in my pre-iPhone days back in NZ, when I was often stuck at a lecture without a wifi connection.

Sketchnote from Sustainable Outreach 09

It is fun, particularly when you start messing around with media. I later found a way to do digital sketchnoting, and had a lot of fun with making a typeface of my own handwriting and then making Illustrator PDF sketchnotes with type and a Wacom. (You can see the results in my posts from BHCI 2011)

Notes from BCHI

However, no matter which way you skin it (physical or digital), there’s a lot of double handling and extra preparation involved (be it having a Wacom and space with you, or a good camera and lighting to snap shots of your sketchnotes).

I’ve also come to realise that they are, as per the name, sketchnotes, beautiful looking notes, but notes all the same. As great as they look, it can be difficult to pull out the overall gist of a talk beyond the illustrated pullquotes, and near impossible to see the flow of the story if you didn’t see the talk.

Live-tweeting: great with a computer, but watch for that 140.

I’ve been doing live-tweeting since Web09 in 2009 (which I did also blog about). I even did a writeup in 2010 about live-tweeting.

It is a useful way of pushing info out, and if you’re fast on your fingers you can also grab links for later. Still, part of the struggle becomes keeping an eye on character limits. And up until recently, you were keenly aware that your tweets would effectively disappear after a couple of weeks. This is where storify became useful….

Storify: great with many voices, a bit silly otherwise

I’ve also compiled presentations with storify (both as myself and other people). These are particularly interesting when you start to have a backchannel discussion about what’s going on.

Example of Storify reporting, here for two doctoral students

But when used lazily, they are just a collection of tweets, and I find that the effort used to give context between tweets can sometime be better used just writing a blog post, particularly if you’re the main person doing commentary on a piece. Still, it can be a useful means of pulling information together, particularly when there are a number of talks one after another. On one particularly insane conference, simultaneously live-tweeted and storified talks, which I then used later on to write short reports. Suffice to say I was pretty shattered after the event.

What I Do Now

So, having done all of these things, what do I do now? If I’m at a meetup or something without too many talks, I tend to tweet salient points and images, and then write a proper report after. If I have no wifi I’ll just write notes in Evernote and then write it up (as many of the meetups I go to are in evenings, I’ve had many an occasion of my iPhone dying on me!). If I’m at something that’s pretty intense (i.e. a full day conference) and have my laptop, wifi, and power, my workflow consists of simultaneous twitter and storify (particularly if others are tweeting as well). Depending on how interested I am in writing up the event, I’ll either just give some narrative structure to my storify links, or use them as a basis for writing blog posts.

I still admit that this is a pretty torturous process, probably as I’ve never really done journalism training let alone live reporting. I’ve seen at two pros (Ben Kepes of Idealog at Web09 and Martin Belam of Emblem at EuroIA11) live-blogging conferences and consistently publishing posts about a speaker by the time the next speaker was about to start (from what I saw, Kepes wrote as he went and published during the talk, whereas Belam listened and then wrote a succinct summary in the coffee break).

What I Haven’t Tried

I’d be the first to admit that this isn’t a complete list by any means, I can name a few other means of reporting that I haven’t tried.

I’ve kept an interested eye on the communal notes that have been taking place at Webstock for the last few years. While they’re interesting (particularly during the conference, when you see the document literally shifting before your eyes), what I have noticed is their similar resemblance to sketchnotes: they’re notes, not a commentary, and often with questions as they go along. They also suffer from the feeling of not being cleaned up as say a Wikipedia article might be.

There are audiovisual options as well. I’ve seen people excel at doing vox pop style interviews (Christian Payne aka Documentally’s use of Audioboo comes to mind). It could be that there’s a niche for short audio/video summaries of talks and the like, particularly as the videos from conferences usually take a few months to appear.

Finally, there is a growing redux culture in local areas after a conference, or more recently, to wrap up a conference (though in regards to the latter, a talented plenary speaker will often weave in comments based on what has already happened in the event—Bruce Sterling is pretty good at this). I’ve never been a fan of five-minute madness style endings to conference, but was interested in this year’s Interaction conference getting three people to give summaries/slidedecks of what they considered the conference themes.

My Concerns: We’re Losing Narrative

One thing that worries me with the ever growing popularity of sketchnotes is the triumph of note taking rather than reporting (or at least an attempt at it). Of course, people have always taken notes, just keeping them to themselves in the past. My worry is that we’re creating a mass of data without much reporting—how many people really look at all those sketchnotes/unannotated storifys after an event?

As it turns out, I’m not the only person worrying about disappearance of blogging in relation to design events and the like. In a recent interview, Jeremy Keith spoke of the change:

Nowadays, most people have given up on blogging and just tweet stuff, so now is the perfect time to be establishing yourself as someone who can write. When I think about all the people I admire as designers, they tend to be really good front-end developers (and I don’t think that’s a coincidence) but also great writers. When we’re hiring at Clearleft, I always look to see if someone has a blog. If someone writes about design – or whatever they’re interested in – that’s always a few bonus marks in my book.

If I had one plea to the design and tech crowd, it’d be that as amazing as tweets and sketchnotes are—in fact, they’re an amazing way to find out about and follow events you aren’t able to attend—they are no replacement for making sense of what you’ve heard in some sort of redux, be it a blog post, audio recording, or presentation afterwards.