mamamusings: March 30, 2004

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Tuesday, 30 March 2004

confessions of a backchannel queen

I’m enjoying this symposium quite a bit. (For more detailed coverage of content than I’m providing, try David Weinberger or Danyel Fisher.) More than I expected to, actually. I was more than a little surprised to be invited, since most of the invitees are people who have achieved great prominence in their fields, and for good reason. They’ve written books, started companies, shifted opinion. On the academic side, there are people whose work has been enormously influential, people whose work I’ve followed and been influenced by for years, like Lee Sproull and Sherry Turkle. On the non-academic side, there are people who have written books that I love (Steven Johnson, David Weinberger), and others who have started amazingly successful companies (Scott Heiferman, Joi Ito).

As if I was feeling inadequate enough in this heady company, during the breaks and meals, people keep asking me things like “So, what are you working you on now?” Seems like a simple question, no? But I’m realizing that I don’t really have a “thing” that I’m working on. What I’m best at (and I’ve reflected on this before) is integration and commentary. I’m great at assessing what’s going on, finding the key components, and putting the pieces together into a big picture. But integration is very different from creation, and my sense was that this was mostly a gathering of creators. So I came in expecting to feel a bit out of place.

In a pre-WiFi world, I would have sat quietly at my table, listened a bit, doodled a bit more, maybe contemplated (but not acted on) introducing myself to some of the luminaries in the room during breaks (I wouldn’t have acted on it because that always seems to end up with me feeling awkward and goofy and inarticulate.)

But today the room was laptop-enabled, with power and Wifi to spare…so I headed straight for IRC. Several of my colleagues in the social computing arena have talked about IRC channels like #joiito as becoming very much a “third place” for their participants, and that’s been very true for me. I don’t spend a lot of time in IRC when I’m home or at work, but when I travel it becomes a wonderful “home away from home” for me. A place that provides familiarity in new settings, and friendly voices when I’m feeling isolated.

At the last few tech conferences I’ve been at, there’s been an IRC channel specifically to talk about what’s happening in the presentations (I’ve blogged the various modes I’ve observed in conference IRC channels over in M2M), so I set one up for today’s symposium, and people started trickling in.

Now, in a face-to-face conversation with most of the people in the channel, I would have been reluctant to share a lot of my opinions about what I was hearing (good or bad), or my thoughts on related issues and links. But in IRC I feel much more in my element. It’s a text-based environment, and text is my friend. It’s a “space” that I recognize, unlike physical room that I was in. As a result, I was an active participant in the ongoing backchannel as the various speakers presented their information.

After lunch, however, an interesting thing happened. I posted some critical comments about a speaker’s presentation, and a Microsoft Research employee who I knew only by name called me out on it. He expressed concerns about whether it was “fair” to criticize someone who wasn’t there to defend his or herself, and pointed out that we were a scary audience, and should be more generous. While he was right in some ways, the comment had a chilling effect, and it made me reluctant to do the kind of stream-of-consciousness chatter in the channel that I find often sparks the best responses and conversations. Context is everything, of course. People who’ve interacted with me over time know not to take my snarkier comments too seriously, and also knows how much respect and admiration I have for all the people who are speaking at this symposium. But this person didn’t have that context, and when layered on top of my existing sense of “I don’t belong here,” it significantly changed my willingness to participate in the channel.

That could have been the end of it…I could have stopped actively participating, monitored the content a bit, and done other things. But I like the IRC banter—and not just for its entertainment value. I find that particularly when a presentation might be rough, or something I’ve heard before, that the feedback loop provided by the other participants, snarky or not, often helps me see the content in a new light, and immediately increases the value I take out of the experience. (I plan to write a bit more on that process triangulation and feedback loops in conference presentations later today on M2M.)

So you’ll be shocked (shocked!) to know that I didn’t take that path. Instead, I set up a new channel specifically to house the smart-ass remarks. I didn’t announce this one publicly. Instead, I invited a few people to it directly—people who were physically at the event (or listening over private audio chats), and who I knew well enough to know that they (a) wouldn’t think less of me for my running commentary, and (b) would participate actively in a more rough-and-tumble exchange. The back-backchannel was immediately successful.

But when the snarkiness left the original backchannel, there were some interesting side effects. First, the original channel nearly died. The level and quality of content dropped off significantly as the most high-energy participants shifted their action to the new channel. Second, the level of “bad behavior” in the new channel escalated dramatically. By drawing attention to it, and pushing it out of the mainstream environment, it was focused and amplified. That’s not necessarily a good thing. There were times when went a little over the top, to the point were people were noticing the ripples of laughter at times when laughter seemed inappropriate.

For all that, I still found that my “take-away content” from the backchannel equalled or surpassed what I got from presentations directly. I have two sets of notes from today; one is a SubEthaEdit shared notes document that’s focused on the content being provided. The other is the transcript of the IRC channel(s) during the talks. I can already see that there’s more I want to go back to and digest, discuss, and extend in the transcript than in the notes.

So yes, I’ll be back on IRC tomorrow. Maybe in more than one channel again, maybe not. But I’ll definitely be there. And if I’m being snarky about you or someone you admire, I apologize in advance. But I don’t plan to stop. Instead, I want you to stop into the channel yourself and challenge me. Tell me why I’m wrong, not why I shouldn’t be saying you’re wrong. Or if I’m not wrong, use it in the spirit that it’s intended—to help make your presentation better. Your audience isn’t your enemy, especially not in a gathering like this.

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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna