‘Big Rio’ to ‘My Rio’ – things I learned from live tweeting

* This post was originally published on UNDP’s regional blog ‘Voices from Eurasia’

Several weeks ago, I helped organize a live tweeting session from a high level conference on sustainable development in Montenegro. This was a first for me, as I’ve only started using twitter few months ago.

In discussing the set-up of the meeting with the Government of Montenegro, which happens to be the firstTwitter government in the region, we thought that it would be important to try and tune citizens all over the country into the discussion. We agreed to have a live tweeting session from the event in order to get a more personal and informal voice to, what often turns out be jargon-filled policy debates.

And so it was. As the debate in the room focused on the development slang – green growth, smart growth, sustainable development – the on line dialogue echoed concerns about rising electricity costs and unemployment, illegal deforestation and waste dumps, high bank loans for private sector and mismatch between education and the job market.

The tweet-discussion exceeded all of my expectations. There were few surprising twists and turns, but overall a very fun and educational experience. So here is what I learned.

Accept the anxiety. I was worried that the on-line dialogue would be slow and that citizens wouldn’t participate.  As we mounted two large TV screens in the conference room for the Twitter Fountain, I thought of contingency plans in case the screens remain blank and tweet-less (one contingency plan: I barely resisted the urge to open up several fake accounts to tweet from, creating an impression of a discussion- how is that for desperation?). In the end, I learned that people want to participate, they want to be involved and they want to have their voices heard. If you are on the organizing side of live tweeting, think up few questions that you would like to know the answers to, sit back and enjoy the discussion.

Be clear on what you want to get out of the experience. Smart cities, sustainable transport, low emissions growth, eco-communities- a whole lot of sustainable development jargon that fills up newspaper columns and blogs across the world but with little consensus on what it all means. People don’t tend to use these words in their regular conversations- they talk about their worries, and problems, and needs. And this is exactly what we wanted to hear- uncensored, unfiltered, 2-way real-time communication about what sustainable development means to an average citizen.

Take the time to talk to people. Writing a web story and a press release about your event is useful. But we wanted to talk to people, to make this issue personal, to show our commitment and personal investment in the effort to allow many different voices to be heard at the event. We managed to engage Montenegro’s growing twitter community (#ekipa) that comprises of people who are not only passionate about social media, but about social good (#bicikloup) and environment.

Set up a wall of tweets. There is something incredibly powerful about enabling people around the country to give real-time feedback to the presenters at the meeting. It raises standards for those who are speaking- they are getting unfiltered commentary on what they’re saying in real time in front of a room full of people. It allows citizens a very up-close opportunity to influence discussion in the room. Don’t put the wall of tweets behind the podium as this is distracting. Place it in a position where each person from the audience is able to view it. We used a free-of-charge version of the Twitter Fountain. The paid version allows for tailoring the background with specific themes and logos, but every third tweet messages is a promotion of the company (‘I got this Twitter Fountain for $24.99’) and this was distracting. And let people know that your event will feature the wall of tweets (we didn’t do this before the event). When @biljanagligoric, an active member of the civic and Twitter community in Montenegro, tweeted about it, the discussion became far livelier.

Think through your hashtag. I learned that #Rio.Me is not a valid hashtag- it stops with the dot.  So by all means test your hashtag before the event to make sure that it is valid and it is not in use already.  It helps if you could get a catchy phrase- #RioMe helped stimulate the title of a blog ‘From Big Rio to My Rio.’ Judging by re-tweets, the title was effective for catching the attention (ht @gquaggiotto). Lastly, identify if any global discussions on a similar topic are taking place and tag on to it in order to generate wider advocacy for your event. In our case the ongoing global discussion was at#Rioplus20. Tagging on to it was effective as it catapulted Montenegro on a radar screen of some high level people (UNDP Administrator@HelenClarkUNDP) and institutions (MIT Climate Lab).

Plan your key messages in advance. Think about key messages, facts and figures that link up to the questions you are trying to answer. Organize them into tweets ahead of time and use them to generate discussion. Turn key note speeches into several tweet-messages with links to major policy documents, research papers, or information that support the message. All in all, we had about 20 pre-made tweets that helped kick off discussion on various topics.

Designate a person for the social media discussion. There should be one person responsible for the on-line discussion during the entire event. Tweeting out key speeches and facts and figures is useful but not enough. The social-media focal point should engage in the discussion, provide commentary and identify people in the room who can provide answers and/or opinions on the different aspects of the online discussion. That person should also feed the on line questions and comments to the moderator of the event on periodic basis in order to ensure a continual link between on and off line debate.

Follow up. Information is addictive. The more you know, the more you want to know- access to technology only reinforces this perpetual cycle of citizen engagement in decision making globally. This makes the follow up to our event all the more important. First, acknowledge that people invested their time, energy and effort to engage in the important dialogue. We did this through Storify-ing the entire discussion and buzz created around the event, which additionally allows for an easier post-event analysis. Two, being the lead users of Government’s policies, citizens are best placed to provide most effective feedback about the impact of those policies and generate good ideas. Some examples from our event include the idea to enable citizens and tourists to crowdsource information about the illegal waste dumps, and to mark bike trails around cities to enable more sustainable modes of transport.

It isn’t about technology, it is about engagement. Some of my colleagues and friends were skeptical about the idea of live tweeting from this event. Some openly told me that technology is not a solution to everything and that I should be more realistic and practical about the work I do (I actually agree with the first part of the last sentence). What I find working in development though (and I imagine this is true for any other sector and business) is that if I’m not able to find out how other institutions are addressing problems I am working on, to engage communities for a more realistic input about their needs and concerns and to adjust my plan of action according to the continuing stream of this information, than I am not doing my job well. Technology allows me to access this information in an effective, engaging and, at least for me, very fun way. Many people still wonder if social media is a buzz word of the year that will fade away to be replaced by the next hip thing. Technology today allows us to engage communities at a level not imaginable just several years ago. It is redefining the way policies are designed, implemented and monitored. It creates connection, turning social media into a biology-like ecosystem that reflects rather than drives human behavior and needs. And it holds immense potential for improving the lives of people around the world. So in short- use technologies to build connection, to facilitate engagement, and to disrupt hierarchies that are not creating value. And have fun!

Read also: From “big Rio” to “my Rio” – making the sustainable development dialogue relevant for ordinary citizens in Montenegro

Milica Begovic Radojevic, PhD

Team Leader

Economy and Environment Cluster

UNDP Montenegro