Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Backchannel Debate

Jeremiah Owyang has a post up about his experience yesterday speaking on two different panels at the Web 2.0 Expo (where I will be speaking on Friday.)

In each case a backchannel, in this case Twitter, impacted the session. In the first session it was unplanned, in the second, it was part of the plan. I'm glad I wasn't there in either case. I left a long comment on Jeremiah's blog post, which broke my personal rule that comments longer than 3 paragraphs deserve to be posts. So I'm also blogging it here.

Now, maybe I'm biased because BlogHer crowds are so diverse, but in both cases it sounds like an elitist exercise that give preference and priority to those people who live on twitter and the like, instead of giving equal time and attention to ALL the people who showed up in the room, whether they want to play on Twitter or not.

As an attendee and speaker I hate slavery to the back channel. Or, as I call it, the Tyranny of the Backchannel.

In the first case, Jeremiah was on a traditional panel and noted via following Twitter that people were starting to zone out being talked at. So he moved right into Q&A with the attendees. So, first of all I might venture to say that paying attention to the body language and expression of the live people right in front of you would be a good thing to do anyway, but in any case, there's a simple solution: If you simply plan questions and interactivity with the attendees into your panel outline from the very beginning, rather than planning to wait until every speaker speaks for 20 minutes, you won't get boring to begin with. That's our general m.o. with BlogHer sessions...after BRIEF intros we try to alternate between questions to speakers and questions both from and TO the attendees right from the beginning.

You don't need a backchannel. You just need to talk to the people who are there. What is unique about a conference? For most people they paid money and showed up to be in the same room with other people. Why are we trying to find ways to make the face-to-face experience virtual? Instead I'd rather speakers really leverage the face-to-face opportunity.

In the second instance, the panelists "crowd-sourced" the agenda to the crowd by using Twitter. I suppose if the panel was billed as such then people who were interested in that sort of experiment would show up. That'd be fine. But if it was billed as a panel about something featuring specific people, and then I showed up to find what Jeremiah describes, I'd be hella annoyed. Now, we don't just have the tyranny of the backchannel, but the tyranny of having to use twitter to interact with one another. Sounds like, again, there wasn't really a point to being there in person. I can stay home and follow the various random insights and nuggets of entertainment and wisdom on Twitter.

And why do I personally feel so passionately about it? Because as an attendee and a visual learner, I absolutely cannot hack the distraction of projected backchannels. I start reading and stop listening. I get distanced from what is right there in the room with me and stare at the screen. Why attend in person at all?

I also get distracted when the inevitable rudeness, sexism or flames pop up. The few can get the many to focus on the negative that we may not have even felt or picked up on. I find it oppressive. And disrespectful both to speaker and to my time/money as a paying attendee.

Yes, that's just me...although I don't think I'm highly unusual. I've talked to lots of people who feel the same, but they've bowed to the tyranny of the backchannel.

My final thought is this: Organizers who insist on projecting a backchannel during sessions are simply afraid that their programming isn't interesting enough. As a frequent speaker my observation is that, more often than not, they're right to be concerned, because it seems to be the fashion these days to have speakers wing it...or at least to take very little interest in guiding or directing or even knowing what's going to be going on during the session. No amount of backchannel actually solves that problem. They're just hoping the backchannel is more interesting or entertaining than the session.

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This is just brilliant observation, Elisa, and not something that I probably would ever even have given any thought to! Thanks for putting it out there.

You'd better believe, if I could afford to get to BlogHer this year, I'd for sure be putting in face time. I can Twitter from home (and will be, during this year's BlogHer)!
THANK YOU! :) You said that way more eloquently than I could have.
I think the appeal of the backchannel may be a guy thing. Guys are not as good at reading body language, especially geek guys.

I did suggest on JO's blog that you have someone else monitor the backchannel (they can watch for body language to) and then intervene as needed.
You make some extremely interesting points. Like Belinda, I'm not sure I would have given this any thought before, at least not in these terms. I enjoyed following BlogHer Business and the infamous J&J Camp Baby via Twitter, but that's because I wasn't at either of them. If I had been, I think it would have been a tad overwhelming to pay attention to both the live event and the backchannel.

I wonder if what Luke says is true: that the appeal of the backchannel may be a "guy thing." Or, I wonder, if it's the result of people being so hooked into technology that we forget how to maximize human interaction without needing technology to assist us.

Either way, the irony is that I came to this post after reading about it on Twitter!
Thanks for the comments everyone. I should make clear that I'm not opposed to the existence if the backchannel, but to the idea that it should be projected behind the speakers or that they should slavishly follow the whim of the backchannel voices rather than reading the entire crowd who's physically there.

Having a monitor to throw in questions from the BC could work as long as you also listen to people who aren't asking via the BC too.
Yeah, I get it, and you're right.

And I can address the deal with the MAD Twittering that went on at the J&J thing, because I was there, and was very guilty! In that case, we hadn't signed on for sessions that we were really interested in--they were just putting on a program that we all had to go to, and parts of it were...well, less than riveting. So there was a certain amount of Twittering and texting that went on out of boredom, and then there was some more that was a reaction to what was being presented, or the way that other moms were reacting (like the "Mommy Wars" author declaring that she NEVER trusted the opinions of other mothers over information from big corporations--*cough*).

And then there was the pelvic floor lecture where we were pretty much all just trying to project ourselves to our happy places, and Twitter was handy for that! ;-)
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