Twitter, #ldconf and Heidegger

At our autumn conference last year, this blog introduced a reluctant world to the concept of hashtags. We coined a cumbersome phrase, “hashtag taxonomy” which has dogged us around the political and technical worlds ever since.

By the end of the conference week, I was regretting the phrase utterly. We’d made a simple technology sound complicated, and in doing so had hidden its value from many people who could benefit.

That bad taste in the mouth was extant up until the start of our Spring conference – and brought home to me once more in the words of our founding editor:

A little jealous of #labour20 – if LibDems attempted similar one-day conf the whole day would be spent giggling about “hashtag taxonomies”

From my dimly remembered German degree, Heideggerian terminology has two terms for tools: Zuhanden and Vorhanden. Vorhanden is when something is strange and new. You can see it, but you’re not sure how it works or what it does. It’s that strange feeling when you are learning to drive of a number of controls in front of you, and no sense of how to use them. But once you have been driving for a while, the car becomes Zuhanden: a tool so familiar that you use it without a second thought. It fits your hand comfortably and has become a part of you, not a separate, strange tool.

And that’s exactly what happened with hashtags and twitter at Spring conference.

Helen Duffett announced before Spring conference began that there would be one hashtag for all future Lib Dem conferences:

#ldconf is the hashtag we’ve adopted for this, and all Liberal Democrat Federal conferences. All tweets with this tag can be viewed together at sites like Twitter Search. It’s handy to bookmark the address and refer back to it to see the story developing, through the contributions of many people.

That last sentence of advice proved truer than I guessed. For when conference got underway, we were staggered at the extent to which people were availing themselves of the service. A brief calculation while I write this suggests that there very nearly 1,000 individual messages.

There has been a big increase in the use of Twitter in recent months, fuelled mostly by newspaper reports of celebrities such as Stephen Fry using the service to keep in touch with their fans. One of the clearest indications of just how many people are joining in is related to Fry: at the start of 2009, he launched a competition to celebrate 50,000 followers. Before the competition concluded just days later, he had over 100,000. Although not on that scale, this week both I and @libdemvoice breached the 200 followers mark.

As a result, there’s a wider community of people to talk to each other on twitter, and this weekend, using the hashtag, that’s precisely what they did. The previously strange technology is now so zuhanden that dozens of people used the hashtag during the conference, generating hundreds and hundreds of short messages. The hashtag even “trended” – that is to say it became so popular that it was amongst the most widely used tags in the world.

There were some notable successes. @mattraines warned us of poor restaurants – three nights in a row. (Although interestingly, he and web business partner Tim Prater seemed to eat together one night and twitter contradictory reviews!)

At least two fringe events twittered most of their proceedings – our Obama fringe (which you can also hear in full in our podcast) – and the Social Liberal Forum‘s inaugural fringe meeting, tweeted in full by James Graham using the @soclibdem account.

But for me, the most striking use of twitter during the weekend occurred during the 5-19 Education policy debate – which was referred to by many as the faith-schools debate. During the two hours the debate lasted, a separate mini-debate raged across Twitter, with many of those involved in the conference hall listening to platform speakers and immediately responding by twitter.

Here’s a comprehensive selection:

tomstubbs: Will be flying this time tomorrow! I need a holiday!!!!!!! Vince needs to be promoted to god! #ldconf
jamesgraham: @tomstubbs Vince as God? That would explain why he likes faith schools. #ldconf
ExtraBold: Speaker claims Am 3 is compromise offering equality. Rubbish! Am 3 perpetuates discrimination. Vote F12 unamended. #ldconf
BridgetFox: #ldconf listening to schools debate. Packed hall, real debate. How to give choice while banning some choices?
theChristophe: listening to 5-19 Education debate at #ldconf so many amendments, so many points, wondering how to vote.
ExtraBold: Farhana Hoque supporting F12 Equity and Excellence, unamended, pls. #ldconf http://short.to/1t5d
BridgetFox: #ldconf farhana from Islington makes point that class and wealth the real enemies of fairness in schools, not faith.
JonBall: stonking pro-secular intervention at #ldconf
ExtraBold: F12 unamended has a broad coalition of liberal beleivers and liberal atheists behind it http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/ #ldconf
duncanhames: slamming the LSC’s failure to fund the teaching of dozens of sixth formers and colege students in Wiltshire at Lib Dem conference. #ldconf
imrankhan85: amused at how everyone thinks theirs is the ‘compromise’ option on faith schools. #ldconf
snapesbabe: #ldconf the whole education motion has been hijacked by those with a religious agenda. Ffs
nickjbarlow: Schools debate very interesting – lots of different views and can’t work out how the final vote will go. #ldconf
jeremyharg: #ldconf Is the passion of St Vince really going to push the party – for the 3rd time – into simply having no policy in this major area?
ExtraBold: Vince appears not to have read the motion. It allows people to choose faith schools. #ldconf Support unamended
tennanta: The education bill must be unamended. Let’s have debate in schools. Any other option is a vote for intolerance or injustice. #ldconf
nickjbarlow: Some of these arguments are straying into ‘don’t do what’s right, do what won’t offend the Mail’ territory #ldconf
jamesgraham: Seeing atheist friend go to church just so they can get their kids into local schools. Amazed so many LDs are okay with this. #ldconf
jeremyharg: #ldconf How many times can you put off a decision about this? Thank goodness Lib Dems today resisted the temptation to do so AGAIN…..
tennanta: Tim Farron – reactionary much? #ldconf
jamesgraham: Farron’s language was ridiculously over the top in terms of personal invective. Would vote his amendment down on principle. #ldconf
imrankhan85: @jamesgraham go on, vote 2. intellectual and social freedom for children is more important than parental choice. edu is abt students #ldconf
davethehowarth: Evan harris has just asked Conference to support David Laws’ motion.. Never thought i’d see the day #ldconf
jamesgraham: I don’t remember the last time I was here for a count. Exciting! #ldconf
jamesgraham: I also don’t remember the last time Vince Cable was on the losing side of an argument. He must be mortal after all. #ldconf
willhowells: Tense voting taking place in the hall. I’m busy scripting a zombie stewards horror film. #ldconf
ianeiloart: Amendments 1 & 2 fell. Now counting a close vote on part 1 of amendment 3. On selection in faith schools. #ldconf
caronmlindsay: @willhowells This is really exciting – let us know the result asap #ldconf
ianeiloart: I voted against 1&2, in favour of part 1 of 3. Will vote against part 2 of amendment 3. #ldconf. 4 defeated awaiting count. #ldconf
jeremyharg: #ldconf Impressive performance by Laws. Interesting day for the party’s relationship with him.
BridgetFox: #ldconf result: We’re keeping faith schools but with local authority control of admissions
libdems: 5-19 education policy has been passed by conference with the first part of amendment 3 #ldconf

A final footnote – the easiest way to watch this was at the time.  I can’t immediately find a place that will let me link to an historic hashtag debate.  Neither can I find a site that will quickly summarize for me exactly how many people used a hashtag in any given period.  But it certainly felt at the time as if more people used the spring hashtag before spring conference even began than used the autumn conference hashtag in the entire week that conference lasted.

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