TEDxSomerville: “Ideas Worth Spreading”

Independently-organized TEDx conferences serve as locally-franchised versions of the greater TED experience, providing the consistent TED branding and format on a local scale. I had the opportunity to spend a day earlier this month at TEDxSomerville, which ran all day long on the 4th at Arts at the Armory here in town. TED’s tagline is “ideas worth spreading”—I won’t talk much about the Ideas part here, but I’d like to dig into the ways we spread them.

I’ve described TED to the uninitiated as “video-twitter for good ideas,” and facile though that is the two formats do share some similarities: short-format, topically-focused, and easily share-able nuggets of information. A hashtag like #TEDxVille can give outsiders a real-time window into what’s happening at a necessarily limited-admission event, and tweets often help distill the already-focused idea of a session into its most pithy expression. A talk about what Somerville can learn from international communities large & small boils down to an anecdote about a Somalian village, where the most under-served or least-represented has first say in the discussion of village issues; the key points of a session about situational awareness can be summed up within a single tweet.

Given how concise TED talks are intended to be, Twitter ends up being a very effective vehicle for communicating those concepts, and the real-time nature of live tweeting can encourage readers to reply to speakers in the moment with comments and questions. However, Twitter is a broadcast tool, and a noisy one at that. The signal-to-noise ratio is never going to be great. Whatever you post will be seen as a tiny part of a long list, crammed together with hundreds of other people’s content. Twitter provides Lists and Hashtags to help you structure this chaos, but lists are only viable when dealing with people you know: Hashtags are the best thing going at a conference like TEDxSomerville, which I attended last week. Being able to quickly “tune in” to a specific topic looks great on paper, but when you’re actually at one of these events, the hashtag runs afoul of the RT. Rather than doing their job to help increase the visibility of funny, interesting or important topic within the chaos of a twitterstream, all RTs do in a conference stream is ensure that you’re going to be reading that particularly quotable sentence from the last talk over and over again for the next two to three hours as the rest of the world shares the thought around.

What I think we need is a way to enhance a stream to filter out RTs from the stream, perhaps by enlarging the RT’d tweet like you would enlarge a word in a tag cloud to show emphasis without repetition. I feel this would be a good compromise between the wide-band sharing mechanic of the RT and the narrow-band purpose of the hashtag at a conference.