Monday, December 05, 2005

Backchannel Boredom

Tara is at Les Blogs 2.0 and giving us little snapshots of the IRC conversation going on in the background during the conference.

Although Tara claims that "...the IRC conversation was tres interesting", I have to say that the snapshots she provided only confirmed my existing opinion: have a backchannel, but for God's sake don't project them behind the speakers. (I might also add that I might not have the same definition of "interesting" as Tara.") Seriously I don't think it says much for the program content if a chat about the WIFI being down and the need for more coffee is more fun than listening to the speakers! And I sure hope to avoid spending the hundreds and hundreds of dollars it typically costs to fly somewhere, stay in a hotel and pay a conference fee only to essentially IM with my buddies.

I'm clearly an old-school Web 1.0 fuddy duddy or something.

You could also think of it this way...the #1 goal for many conference participants is networking. Sessions kill networking. The IRC actually added that layer back into it. I've made some amazing connections goofing around there.

#2. They are publishing the back channel conversation on the screen off and on. It adds an extra layer to the presentations, especially since some of the actual speakers are participating WHILE they are on a panel.

#3. The IRC acts to the panels (positions of 'authority' on a subject) akin to the way the blogosphere acts towards big media (other positions of 'authority'). It's actually quite disruptive and gives the conference a rich layering.
I know those are the reasons people give, and I'm sure they hold true for many, especially at tech conferences. That's why I think it's absolutely requisite to provide a backchannel at a conference (as we certainly did at BlogHer.)

But I also think there are different ways of processing information input, and it's a small subset of people who are skilled at managing so many different streams of input, especially while speaking on a panel, but even when watching one. So it strikes me as just elitism of a different kind to want that backchannel projected and processed by everybody.

And the reason I think it matters, because I can see a response being, "well, if you don't like to read the projected backchannel, then don't" is that once it's there it creates that visual distraction whether I intend to try to read it or not.

Of course it's a personal thing. I consider myself a multi-tasker who often sits on conference calls doing email and blogging etc. But projected IRC behind a panel has always just put me over the edge. I'm not sure why!
Class V just psoted a funny little post on the topic:
Elisa sent me over her, by commenting on my blog (thanks Elisa!)

It's amazing how little IRC has changed in terms of its tenor, since its earliest days: I believe it was established in 1988, and I probably used it as "early" as 1990. Even then, it was filled with sexual innuendo, a lot of verbal diarrhea, and plain silliness. Sure, there are meaningful gems just as there are in any communication channel ... but it really is a small percentage of the overall volume.

To that end, I do not see a compelling reason to project the IRC room behind the speakers. Those in the audience who want to know what is going on in there can simply open up their laptop ... 95% of the attendees at Les Blogs had their laptops with them.

However, for those who not only do not care what is going in the IRC room but purposefully want to avoid reading it ... well, to some extent, they were out of luck. It really could not be avoided, as it was often in the line of sight with the speaker. (There is a picture of this up in my blog.) It's almost like each student being forced to read the notes being passed in the high school classroom among one clique, and I am not sure that the forced element is a good thing at this point.

Is the backchannel a tool that could potentially enhance the conference experience? I see potential. But now that I have experienced it first hand at Les Blogs 2.0, I would recommend either not projecting it at all, or projecting it in a relatively small corner away from the speakers, so that those who want to ignore it can more easily do so.
Yeah, you've pegged it for me Class V, thanks!
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