confessions of a backchannel queen

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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 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.

13 TrackBacks

Interesting discussion over at Liz Lawley's blog about conference back channels. Relates to the Continuous Partial Attention discussion.... Read More

Liz has been talking about the backchannel that emerged at the conference (followups here and here). I was an active participant on the channel: indeed, I was one of the few academic participants, actually, on the first day1. Here's my... Read More

Backchannels from Burningbird on April 2, 2004 2:09 PM

Some discussion recently about the new backchannels that are appearing at technical conferences. If you're not familiar with the term, in this case it means that the people in the room, with their wireless enabled laptops, all communicating on an IRC c... Read More

A good discussion of the backchannel phenomenon over at Liz’s, so don’t miss the comment section. I’ve been trying to figure out why the idea squicks me so horribly. After all, I’m a notorious two-tracker myself. I used to while... Read More

Had a brief talk with -g. on the phone. He told me the comment he would have posted, but didn't because he knew mom and the rest of my family read this. The comment was pretty funny. That he didn't... Read More

Had a brief talk with -g. on the phone. He told me the comment he would have posted, but didn't because he knew mom and the rest of my family read this. The comment was pretty funny. That he... Read More

Internet ReCursion from Your Guess Is As Good As Mine on April 4, 2004 10:33 AM

Weblog "conversations" are a way to annotate, to pay attention, participate and learn. Read More

In the last post I introduced the topic of accountability and freedom of expression and tied Creative Commons in with backchannels and comments, and we could even extend this association to the ethics of weblog editing. I find it ironic that some of th... Read More

a rose by any other meme... from unmute: all shrubbed out. on April 5, 2004 12:57 PM

Liz at mamamusings has a huge comment and trackback thread about the concept of backchanneling that has been building steam since March 30th. What I find striking, from a language perspective, is that the linguistic term "backchanneling" is semanticall... Read More

In the last two weeks, i've attended two different gathering of minds that involved a distributed group of academics of all types, designers, pundits, technology creators, businesspeople, etc. I don't have time for larger reviews on the discussions, bu... Read More

I just had a nice hour and a half lunch with Howard Rheingold and a few people from the IT department here at RIT. It started off with chatting about public presentations [conference presenting] and the back channel - which... Read More

In the last airplane trip (love plane rides for reading), I read Shared Minds by Michael Shrage. The 1990 book,... Read More

The backchannel is real, and it's not going away. Liz describes specific ways that backchannels can add value to participants (and to non-participants), as well as laying out some questions about the longer-term effects and understanding of these new e... Read More


Speaking only for myself... knowledge that such a channel would be available and employed would nudge me pretty strongly toward not presenting at a particular comment.

You got intimidated by one person. How is a speaker supposed to deliver her best work knowing that a substantial portion of her audience is looking for stuff to tear down about what she's saying?

I was neutral toward the whole backchannel thing. Now I'm leaning toward the "against" column. There's just something that feels wrong about using the comfort you find in the textual environment to rip into the comfort of others -- especially others who, at that moment, are putting a lot more of themselves on the line than any of the backchannelers.

Gah. Backchannelers commence ripping. "... presenting at a particular *conference*" is of course what I meant to say.

Dorothea, I spend most of my working hours dealing with rooms full of people looking for stuff to tear down about what I'm saying. It's part of being a teacher, or a pundit. And this is a room full of people who are one or the other, or both.

Here's the thing about the backchannel--it doesn't *create* these ideas or comments. It simply reveals them. If it's not there, it's in the whispered comments, the lunchtable conversations, the implicit evaluations of future value.

Speaking for myself, as a presenter as well as a participant, I'd much rather let this stuff out in a semi-open environment than try to pretend it doesn't exist. It gives me a chance to understand how people are responding, and to modify if I think it's necessary. It also forces me to be more realistic about the value of being up in front of a room of people, talking at (instead of with) them.

Most of the negativity I've seen about backchanneling has come from people who haven't actually participated in it--which tends to lead to an inflated sense of its meanspiritedness or ability to do damage. Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing.

Feedback is good, yes. But negative feedback has a certain tendency to snowball, especially in an online, semi-anon context. You yourself hinted that things got overheated. Did they not also get a bit out of balance, negative to positive?

We can agree to disagree. The impression I still get, though, is that yes, these channels *can* create negativity where it didn't exist before, and no, they *don't* improve the presentation for everybody.

(For one obvious thing, the speaker mostly isn't in on the backchannel. How is she supposed to use it to improve, when feedback she might have gotten openly is instead locked in the backchannel? Sometimes backchannels get archived, but not always.)

There's a difference between a challenging room and a negative room -- I do have experience with both, though mercifully little with the latter. If I may be mystical -- in a challenging room, energy flows openly between speaker and challengers. When I've been challenged -- and heck yeah, I have -- I've responded better than I thought I could, because the energy *feeds* me.

That's a far cry from people snarking and laughing. Ugh. I'd be tempted to retreat to my hotel room and not come out until time to hit the airport.

You know, I know they do backchannels at Extreme Markup. Oh, well. I guess I can hope that tutorials are too fragmented to bother with.

Another reaction to the backchannel... this is new to me. I've never done IM/Chat/etc while at a workshop/conference. (I'm writing this as I sit in the Social Computing Symposium.) It strikes me as being a way to keep distance from what's going on, sort of like Spalding Gray talked about all the time. In his "It's A Slippery Slope" book and monologue, he talked about how learning to ski gave him one of the few activities where he was just *doing* life, instead of *thinkink about* or *commenting on* life.

The backchannel has always existed; what is new is the ability for the backchannel to spread not only across the whole of a presentation room, but beyond the presentation room.

I've been to a number of conferences or other presentations where the people that I know will often talk or comment among themselves about the presentation as it's happening, usually sotto voce. Just as with electronic backchannels, the speaker can't benefit from these comments among small groups of attendees.

Fascinating observations nonetheless.

As a student, someone who sits through lectures 4 days a week, I'm going to tell you negativity will happen. As Liz said, backchannel or no, there are still going to be negative comments that you will never hear.

I'm sure Liz deals with this quite often. As there are web sites out there that students can use to either praise a certain professor or put them down. Other students read these reviews and make a judgement before giving the professor an opportunity. I know she's aware of these sites, but none the less, she gets up everyday, puts herself in front of students and presents her material.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is, negativity will exist. It's just a matter of the presenter not concerning themselves with it and giving the best presentation they know how.

Liz, are you archiving the discussions publically?

My only experience with backchannel conference discussions was at a conference I've attended several times before but couldn't get to this year. I joined in some of the IRC discussions, but felt quite inhibited knowing that they were all going to be publically archived. There's a great difference between whispering to your neighbour and typing for permanent web archives.

Allowing people to type in (moderated) comments and questions that are visible to the speaker and audience worked well the one time I tried - you were there in the online bit, come to think of it, Liz :)

Jill, the main backchannel isn't being formally archived, but I'm assuming that it's "on the record." The second backchannel is more like a multi-user IM, and I'm treating it as private. These issues of public/private are hugely important in this medium--in all social media, really.

Does the benevolence test not apply to the backchannel?

I think that, in this case, it's helpful to separate the activity taking place, from the medium it is taking place within. It looks to me (disclaimer: I was not present at either the symposium or the IRC channel) like what was taking place was rudeness, however cloaked in "technology" it may have been. Let's face it: if you go to someone's talk and don't pay attention, it's disrespectful, just like if you were to open up a newspaper while the speaker was speaking.

Having a dialogue about the talk with other listeners is great; it fosters the exchange and critique of ideas. But the critique has to happen in an evenhanded way, and this demands that the speaker be given their fair share of time to say all they have to say.

Wireless net access is great, I would hate to see it become socially acceptable to use net access as an excuse for being disrespectful to a speaker.

Weez, I think the benevolence test absolutely applies. I also think that everything I described passes it. There's an assumption that's been made here that the backchannel involved personal nastiness directed at speakers, which it most definitely did not. What it *did* do was provide an opportunity for people to raise valid questions and criticisms, and have a disalog about them.

It also provided an occasional outlet for shifting focus from the speaker--but I disagree with Scott that that's always rude. We _know_ that lecture mode is an awful way to convey most kinds of information, and hours on end of sitting on uncomfortable chairs listening and not participating is anathema to learning.

Why is it disrespectful for me to comment on a talk while it's going on? To provide a related link? To suggest that perhaps the sampling methods are flawed, and that the conclusions are therefore worth debating?

During a presentation, is it better (or more 'fair,' or less 'rude') for me to have a whispered conversation with a seatmate/tablemate than it is for me to have an online conversation with people in an online channel?

And when audience members are bored or frustrated with the presentations, is it "more polite" (or "more fair" or "more benevolent") for them to tune out entirely, putting on a carefully attentive face that masks complete disinterest?

You can't dictate attention. If you care about having attention, the burden is on you to make what you're saying relevant and accessible. And one of the reasons that many people's presentation skills don't improve is that they don't learn from the responses of their audiences.

When a room full of people doesn't seem to want to pay attention to me, I assume that I'm not telling them something that they find valuable. The burden's on *me* to figure out whether it's my presentation style or my content that's at fault, and figure out how to change it.

In this case, at least, I'm more than willing to "eat my own dog food"--and I do, on a regular basis.

I am pro-backchannel, and I have been on both sides of it. I gave a presentation at ApacheCon last fall and specifically mentioned the address of the backchannel on my introductory slide. It was the one everyone knew about anyway; the backchannel IRC channels were announced in the keynote on the first day. After the presentation, I got a private copy of the transcript from the IRC channel from a friend of mine in the audience.

Thank you for responding, Liz. I think we disagree on the acceptability of not paying attention to the speaker. I'll agree that it may not be always rude (e.g. if you have an unbearable toothache or something), but I think most of the time, it is.

But moving past that, I just don't see the need to have critique/dialog during the talk, when it it just as easy to make notes to oneself to share in discussion with others afterwards. This way has the added benefit of not missing anything potentially of value during the talk.

We've all had to suffer through talks we think are boring or pointless, but I trust the people at MSR to choose speakers of high quality (at least three of them are my friends, and I think they're all brilliant), so the likelihood that the talks are objectively bad seems pretty low.

If one has committed to attending a talk (especially one like this, where one should feel privileged to have been invited), no matter how ininteresting the talk seems, I think there's also a commitment to attend the whole of the talk, at least so as to be able to provide a fair and honest critique afterwards.

If an audience member is "privileged to have been invited", the speaker is doubly so. I don't agree that audience members using their laptop computers are, prima facie, being rude to the speaker. Maybe they're taking enthusistic notes to share with a wider audience in IRC. But even if some laptop-lookers were writing critiques-or (worse) reviewing old email--the speaker would be well-advised to keep on trying to deliver compelling content.

The key point is that only one person can talk at a time, but many people can type in parallel. What would be a rude interruption in speech can be useful context to the audience. One model is to project the backchannel on the wall; this can involve the speaker, though it works better with a panel/seminar than a lecture. Also, if there are remote attendees it works better if they have an audio feed at least, otherwise they are one more step removed from the presentation and have less invested in it.
I've sat onstage while a colleague presents and been in the backchannel with Liz before.

I'm with Dorothea on this one: I'd be reluctant to present at a conference where I knew participants considered it reasonable and not impolite to carry on their own e-discussions (or actual discussions) during my presentation, commenting on that presentation. Particularly if they somehow believed that those discussions, which I wouldn't see (at least not in real time, not without disrupting the presentation), were supposed to be for my own good.

Fortunately, I'm not part of the technorati and am highly unlikely to be invited to events such as this. I guess social norms are different for different situations. Where I am speaking--always by invitation, pretty much always to librarians, never more than a few times a year--I expect that people who bother to show up will at least be listening for the first few minutes, not splitting their attention between me and backchatter. If I don't keep them interested, then that's my problem, to be sure. I'd look for signs of obvious boredom, too many people walking out, or significant snoring as indications that things had gone awry. (Incidentally, I do NOT regard it as impolite to quietly exit a presentation if it doesn't interest you--I regard it as realistic.)

I think one important point is: what social group is the conference made up of? I'd bet all the respondents here that when I say "big conference", we each have very different viewpoints of what that means. For me, it's been things like JavaOne (huge, fun, I wish I knew about IRC then), ApacheCon (small, very fun, very technical, multiple backchannels in multiple formats), and other technical/software-specific conferences.

At those kinds of conferences, I'd say that speakers should expect that there will be backchannels - probably some advertised, and some not. At a librarian's conference, probably not (although I know a number of librarian bloggers that would create one...). The social appropriateness will vary widely depending on the kind of conference it is. Personally, I'd say that it was appropriate at this kind of conference - Microsoft is a giant of software, right?

However the ubiquity of laptops, wifi, easy chatting/blogging software means that online behavior during large group gatherings is probably here to stay no matter what.

And I disagree that the backchannel is specifically supposed to be 'for the (speaker's) own good'. No, it's not necessarily 'for' anything - except a way for folks to share information.

Doesn't downloading antiquated irc clients in a "state of the art" social computing conf seems ironic...? and isn't it telling that after 2 days of amazing folks and talks, that this is what we are talking about...? the back, unstuctured channel --

The back channel always exists during a presentation.. via IM, email, whispers at a table, talks in the hallways... and people have divided attention. Like it or not, there is tension between an authored presentation, and audience reaction and participation & it's unpredictable...

We could choose to discourage the back channel, but would that result in a better discussion? or a better experience for the audience? or the presenter?

Isn't a socially accepted ongoing, open dialog.. sometimes snarky, irrelevant, sometimes extremely helpful, revealing and insightful, better than no audience dialog during a presentation?

"Instead, I want you to stop into the channel to challenge me"

Isn't that what happened, and what prompted you to move to an invite-only channel where you wouldn't have to be burdened by disagreement? Not that there is anything wrong with being exclusive (there isn't); but it just seems very strange to give a detailed description of how you worked hard to maintain your ability to be exclusive in backchannel and then end it by professing a desire for open exchange. And considering the context, an exclusive gathering of people, within which this was happening, the "challenge me" comment is doubly dissonant.

I was on the backchannel,a dn I may have even been the one who reprimanded you Liz. If I offended, I apologize. My recollection is probably imperfect, but I think my point was less that it wasn't fair to criticize behind the speaker's back, and much more that at that particular time the commentary had gone from amusingly "snarky" to downright rude. I was probably oversensitized to it because I was worried that the industry/pundit crowd and the research crowd would just snipe at each other at the symposium and not actually mix, and because as one of the "hosts" of the symposium I wanted to see all attendees treated with respect. The primary backchannel was a very public forum with lots of people, including some who weren't even at the symposium itself. Maybe it's just my upbringing, but I don't think public rudeness is appropriate.

I actually disagree with your characterization what happened to the primary backchannel after the back-back channel got started. I still found it to be immensely valuable, with exactly the kind of information I was looking for: clarifications of ambiguous points and obscure references, more information on interesting points, questions and disagreements. In fact, I think the signal-to-noise ratio went way up.

And... I didn't mind that there was a private back-back-channel. If someone wants to be rude in private, that's fine, and the back-back channel was essentially private.

To Lili's comment: one of the outcomes of the symposium was the conclusion that there is a lot of research we still need to do on continuous partial attention, of which an IRC back-channel is a clear manifestation. So I think it's entirely appropriate to discuss, and very on-topic.

Joshua, you're right to call me out on the dissonance there. There's a disjoint, which comes from the challenges of clearly defining public/private/intimate boundaries in these spaces, as well as communicating behavioral expectations when you have a mixed audience of new and old users.

And Kevin, you're right that the main backchannel came back to life, after a few hours; when I wrote the first draft of this on Monday, it hadn't done so yet. On Tuesday, the balance started to shift, in what you note was a positive way. I'm writing about this a bit on m2m today.

In hindsight, I regret that this post focused so much on the negative aspects of backchannel, and made it seem as though it was primarily an outlet for bad behavior and meanspiritedness. It wasn't--any more than blogs are (though you certainly can find snarkiness and rudeness in the blogosphere, as well).

Just about everything has been said, but I'll make one additional point. When I go to conferences, if it is boring, I'll start reading email or walk into the hallway and have a discussion with someone. I can not force myself to sit through boring presentations and that's why I dropped out of school. The back channel allows me to engage in a conversation that is at least more on-topic than reading my email or walking out of the room. I may be an edge case, but no THAT edge. I know many people who think the hallway is more interesting than the presentations. This allows you to get the hallway people into the presentation room.

Different people, different strokes, but I'm happy to be heckled and if I can't keep the attention of my audience even partially, I think it's my own fault.

I do think an ability, either the hecklebot or some other, to send messages to the speaker would be on an opt-in basis, useful. I would love for people to be able to message me, because as Kevin says, a voice will interrupt me much more than a visual que. A visual que, I can ignore or take into account. It reminds me of the message boards that I get from Assistant Directors when I'm on live TV telling me my fly is open or that I am off-topic.

When someone's participating on a back channel, would it be rude for the presenter to cold call that person? It sounds like that's what's being said here.

Typically it's bad social convention to ignore someone who's physically in your presence for something virtual (i.e. a customer is ticked if he comes into your store and you'd rather watch the end of a TV show instead of answer her question). And I think this is a good thing. We teach children from a young age to pay attention, listen attentively, sit still, don't talk while someone else is talking, etc. etc. etc.

Lots of modern annoyances are 'backchannels' at work. Talking in a movie theater, blabbing on a cell phone in a public space, a cell phone ringing loudly at the office, the embarassment of a private email sent to a wide audience...all backchannels.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with having multiple channels going, but to be a in a physical space with other people but to expect the virtual interactions to be given precendence or to have the intimacy of a private space.

I don't mind the back channel comments, but I do mind inattention. Having people spending the entire presentation writing emails or on IM drives me crazy. If one is not interested in the topic or the speaker, leave the room! I've said it before, I think continuous partial attention/inattention is rude.

I've been a professional lecturer in Scandinavia for a number of years now, and though I do see the advantages of backchanneling my main concern is where to draw the line. The long-term challenge is not going to be the odd Powerbook-wielding academic, but a situation in which virtually everyone in the audience has a mobile phone with net access and multimedia capabilities. Text messaging (including IRC-like SMS chatting) in every conceivable situation is already the norm in Scandinavia, and teachers and lecturers at every level are trying to deal with it.

Of course, banning wireless access during lectures outright is out of the question - if there's no wifi, there's always the cellular network. On the other hand, Joi Ito's take on this ("...if I can?t keep the attention of my audience even partially, I think it's my own fault") is too simplistic for lecturers faced with increasingly stiff competition from portable media devices. In one way or another we are going to need some sort of code of conduct, probably along the lines of the unwritten rules for mobile phone usage.

From a lecturer's perspective, this is partly a matter of respect, as Ralph Poole so rightly points out. But it is also a practical issue. When members of the audience look at their screens, the lecturer loses important visual cues, the interested, challenging or defiant looks necessary to know that she's on course. This unspoken, constant interaction between lecturer and audience is what creates the easy (but oh so fragile) flow of the truly good lecture.

I don't want to over-generalize here, but I think teaching people to pay attention and listen is very close to learn what your are being taught and do as you're told. I really disliked the authoritarian nature of university. A lot of my professors got away with teach us crap and forcing us to memorize their rote drills instead of trying to engage us and make it exciting. Learning should be exciting and participatory. Can't we find a way for the lecturer to get cues from the back channel? isn't 'stiff competition' generally good? I think lecturing as a form of transmission of information has had too little competition and maybe a little back channel will help get rid of the boring drills and ugly power points. Sorry, this is a childhood trauma for me.

"I don�t want to over-generalize here, but I think teaching people to pay attention and listen is very close to learn what your are being taught and do as you�re told."

Ooooohhhhh, Joi, do I ever disagree with you. I mean, I'd agree with the thrust of what you're saying if what people are asking for is *only* being listened to. But, as I read it, that's not at all the argument against the backchannel.

The argument as I understand it is this: I have gone to some trouble to work out a line of argument. It is possible, even, that the entire armature breaks down if I am not allowed to develop my points. If you as listener are gracious enough to let me have enough space to express what I'm getting at, then you can have an *informed* place from which to disagree with me if you are still so inclined.

This goes both ways, of course.

I don't know, I'm finding myself increasingly in situations socially and professionally where there's what I regard as an intolerable disrespect for the basic (twentieth century) conventions of discourse, of discussion. The backchannel is part of this, and I think (I hope) we all agree that the ED panel at SXSW was an example of how it can so atomize attention in the room that coherence collapses entirely.

These conventions are not things imposed from above, at gunpoint; they're things that percolate up from below, again and again, in context after context and culture after culture, over a very long period of time, *because they are an architecture for human communication*. Politesse can, it is true, be used as a weapon, a divider and an enforcer - but don't mistake the practice for the purpose.

hey, i've been described as a mad anti kantian hilbertonian.

how does one start a blog, or an anti blog...

seriously, we are stumbling around these blogs trying to figure out who will help us with our visually impaired artists in new york...

we will photojournalize some art from nyc

how does one know if joi ito read my email to him regarding this interesting protocol on counter surveillence?

when in school, i could never pay attension...alway wondering in thought during lectures...but i alway recreated a mind scape reflective of a type of thought that till now, was kind of un understood by most.

oh..this blog is about bloging about a lecture at hand and the underlining currents...imagine the brain competivitness of and dostevesky like jeolosies posted in a true maddening forum towards a war of emotions that occures when the coffee is too strong???

just kidding; there is always a nut that falls off the bell curve of complicity.

the inadequent views of future conversations with undead artists is only a shadow of what will occur when fragments of our consciousness becomes the gray haze of television.

Such haze being the radient consciousness of retaining the self at the gun point of camera. digital space being our limit, and the finite math of being becomes the feedback of computeres trying to refind the self which left this shadow of a comment on the day at this moment. I imagine being present at the boring meeting ploting a bank robbery...or at least it would make for an interesting excersice in criminality to perform theft as a theatrical exploration of bordom.

rantings? yes

I wonder....if speakers these days were not overly reliant on PowerPoint, and, instead, really related to their audience, would an audience feel as tempted to to be so active on the back-channel?

Linda, I think that's a huge factor. Most of what was negative in the backchannel at this event focused on the presentation aids, rather than the presenter or the presentation content. ("Is that text or embroidery stitches?" "Ack! Red text on a purple background!")

When I'm really talking to my students, making eye contact with them, telling them stories and engaging their attention, they aren't focused on their screens. When I used to dim the lights and put on slides (I made a "no more powerpoint" vow this year that I've stuck with thus far), it was a very different story.

Several presenters used engaging images to reinforce their talks, rather than simply projecting bullet points, and that was very effective as well--it provided visual focus in a positive way.

weez: you win the best, most concise question asked in this slew of comments.

joi--yes there is another way: a conversation, a room where the expert is not other than / separate from the attendees. The more hierarchical, the more the layers down the hierarchy seek to be heard.

[personal attack deleted]

I haven't finished reading the comments. Weez's made me fall off my couch. I'll go back and finish them now.

I've deleted the portion of your comment that constituted a personal attack, Jeneane. Those aren't welcome here.

In that portion, you asked why I hadn't shared the transcript of the second backchannel.

The answer is that I don't feel I have the right to share a conversation in which I was not the only participant, and which several people specifically asked not be made public, any more than I feel I have the option of sharing private email without the permission of the person who sent it--though I realize that many people don't respect that guideline, either.

What your dear Microsoftie friend was saying, essentially, is that you have a right to speak only when the subject is present to rebut you (or, in a typical Microsoft scenario, buy your company or sic Waggener Edstrom on your arse). Within well-established legal bounds, you can say whatever the hell you want.

While I do believe the correct response to the Microsoftie was "Get lost," the subject of your conversation can read about it later and retort. Or the Microsoftie could copy and paste and mail the remarks to the subject, who could then retort. Or the subject could remain blissfully unaware that anything had ever happened.

Defending somebody else's honour can sometimes be indistinguishable from secret schoolboy crushes.

I think that splitting off the snark would help one of my favorite IRC channels tremendously. Your description of how well it worked reminds me of the channel during conferences: people can't snark in two channels at once, so the main channel is remarkably freer of snarking. It has quite a positive effect on things; sometimes I wish there was more opportunities for a backchannel to develop.

Dorothea's post (trackbacked above) is well worth a read, and she raises important questions. She's right to call me (us?) out on whether we're "handwaving away" questions about this process because we enjoyed it.

I did try to turn the lens on the process, and the questions that it raises, in the m2m post. We do need to know how this affects people--on the podium and off it.

However, Dorothea's description of her presentation style (I haven't yet had the chance to see Dorothea speak, and I fear that she may not let me do so now...although I'd happily promise to leave my laptop in its case in return for an opportunity!) leads me to believe that she doesn't have to worry too much about backchannels when she's talking. The kind of energetic, participatory approach she describes is anathema to backchannel--because it allows the audence to engage rather than detaching. That's what Joi's saying in these comments, and Linda. And what happened when we switched modes from purely passive to partially interactive is that the backchannels (all of them) disappeared. They were irrelevant.

There are most definitely down sides to splitting attention. Sometimes it's too much for me, and I have to turn it off. And I have a much higher tolerance for multiple input streams than most people I know.

I would also like to (continue) to clarify, however, that the "snarkiness" in question was never personal, or meanspirited. Nobody was saying "what an idiot," or "look at her ugly shoes." There were comments about presentation formats, or about appropriateness of the topic to the audience. The greatest harm, I think was the tendency (particularly when a presentation was not well-pitched to that audience) to drift towards intense silliness--again, exacerbated by lengthy, enforced periods of sitting without participating directly. I suspect that the people who've responded most negatively to what happened in the backchannel have projected a lot of negativity and meanspiritedness into the interaction that was never actually there.

look, the art of the public insult is key to any true dialectic: imagine oneself stuck on a plane with a gruely person wearing unwashed pants reeking of street living and beer, he begins to speak about your area of expertise only to realize that you have fallen asleep during the lecture and are haveing a jetlag steam of de consciousness...and then you hear the lecture and dream a brillant solution to the discussion at hand to only wake up and see the same grizzly looking professor seating next to you insulting the speaker as being completly stupid...

hey , it could happen that way...

and then you doodle waiting for the coffee to kick in...that morning acid burp from the night of never wake. Its the circadian nightmare of tasted sleepfullness that solves the most complex networking problem when you get that cellphone call from your child wishing you would be home now. Then it hits...the bladder explodes with a sneeze and then a cough as the paranoid lady wispers in german, ouch auft, sars..

hey, I think some plan either bank robberies, or novels while attending these lectures...and some persons play the stock market raking in a cool 10 percent on a penny stock cover the taxes and the trips "extra" expenses that the hubby, or wife needs not to know about...

anyone write poems to dead poets during these lectures?

Invoking the spirit of Whitman?

or some other obscure cat from the NYC poet circuit?

I write in my critique of the lectures notes from the underground revisited...a madman attended this lecture disguised as one of your closest associates...find me, finger print me, save this usless piece of paper as evidence to bring agaist me in the court room of sanity. it is ordinary to seat quitly, and to plot ambitious take overs and hostile buyouts...guess who is the corporate spy...


ok, it makes for a good novel... and this written by the elderly 90 year old polite lady by the bathroom.

dyslexia is an electronic finger-print...yes...that how the case is a speach therapist attending an international symposium on...well, i think you guys are smart enough to get this humor.


I think I need to understand the definition of snarky. I thought it only had negative connotations. My mental thesaurus had synonyms like catty, ascerbic, disdaining...

Sidenote - I have nothing against the backchannel. It was the adjective that set alarms in my head regarding civility. So my gut response isn't the media, but the message.

As a lecturer, when my students are using their laptops, they are not engaged in ME. And they are paying, theoretically, to hear MY take, for me to involve THEM in their learning.

As a deaf person who relies heavily on visual input, if someone is not looking at me when I am speaking, they are not 'listening.' Which is just plain rude.

So where does the responsibility lie?
With the speaker, to NOT be boring, to be attentive to the audience, and to be flexible enough to change streams when one stream peters out? Or with the audience, to be willing to give up a mere 40 minutes, one hour, two hours, to a speaker that we willingly chose to adopt as our own?

I don't know. But I DO know that I am guilty of backchannel chatter in meetings. Guilty, meaning I FEEL GUILT!! I am not fully attending to the speaker. Old school or not, I believe that by taking a chair in the audience, I have entered some age-old agreement that I will at least LISTEN to what you are saying. And when I am IM'ing or chatting, I am not attending the speaker.

Because the communication mode is silent, it does not give us the right to indulge in it at our leisure. Would it be acceptable to pick up a cell phone and chat to a companion three seats over from you at a lecture? NO! Would it be acceptable to talk out loud at a lecture to a buddy in the chair next to you? Probably not.

So what is it that makes backchannel chatter or IM acceptable? I dunno. And as soon as I learn how to stop doing it myself, I will be sure to write everyone and let them know how I achieved epiphany!


Joi, I have no quarrel with competition per se, but it does require that the terms of competition are reasonable. An audience member using a computer or mobile could be preparing a brilliant response using a back channel, but could just as well be reading BoingBoing or planning next week's party. I have no way of knowing while I am lecturing, short of confronting the user (which I am reluctant to do, of course).

This lack of information makes for ambiguity and interpretation. For instance, the open and blatant use of technology during a lecture could easily be seen as a demonstration of power: "See how little I care about what you say, and how powerless you are to stop me".

A librarian recently told me a story which demonstrates this point. As a union representative in a small Norwegian town, she is trying hard to stop the inevitable cutbacks in the library budget. Her main opponent in negotiation is the mayor from the Conservative Party, who types text messages on his mobile when she's talking during their meetings. This behaviour may be the result of the mayor being overworked - he simply _has_ to use every available second for communication - but she sees it as a sign of disrespect, contempt even, for her views.

And why shouldn't she? Even though the technology and its pattern of usage is new, the basic act - consciously ignoring someone who is addressing you directly - is a classic of rude behaviour (and male domination, which also applies in this case). I'm not saying that it will always be this way, but until there are workable technical solutions I believe that it's up to audience members to excercise some restraint.

Not just audience members either, Eirik.

I recently sat on a panel with someone - no names - who felt it necessary to surf, chat, or email during all those moments they themselves were not speaking. I can think of no greater sign of disrespect for an audience.

My two thoughts on this are -- (1)if all of this virtual conversation is going on during a presentation, why are people bothering to attend? Wouldn't it be more productive to do something else? and (2) Why bother doing a live lecture under these circumstances? Why not just give the whole thing virtually, and that way the presenter can be part of the conversation?

Passing an occasional note to a colleague I can see, or even writing a letter or outline for something else, but to hold a separate, on-going conversation? It's a bit like the difference between answering a cell phone call while with friends with "I'm with someone -- can I call you back?" versus ignoring the person next to you for a long conversation with the person on the phone. It raises the question of why you bothered going out with the person at hand in the first place.

Backchannel is. Spontaneous feedback loops are intuitive and natural.

It's not different on the screen. People converse. Negative comments happen, privacy issues are raised, and bad presenters/participants make for bad conversation. Backchannel is all here already, but the screen narrows the focus, joins everyone, and ultimately makes the conversation better and clearer and more powerful. That power requires more discipline from the participants, which sometimes causes problems. But backchannel is and should be encouraged.

Does it join the presenter too?




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 30, 2004 11:52 AM.

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