Friday, December 09, 2005

Backchannel Smackdown continues: Is it really honesty vs. civility?

I've been reminiscing about the days when Tara and I started our little conversation and courteous disagreement about the value of conference backchannels...ah, those were the good old days before a holy war started about Les Blogs, and now in the blogs.

The war started over a conflict between Mena Trott, presenting on civility in blogging, and Ben Metcalfe. You can read their own sides of the story here and here. You can also read the text of her speech here. For the record, not being there I can only offer these general comments on that specific incident:

-Why, exactly, is a blogging conference not the place for a discussion of ethics and civility in blogging? Have to agree with Elizabeth Albrycht that this is as good a place as any to discuss it, and some people's unwillingness to have that conversation reminds me of small children sticking their fingers int heir ears and thinking that therefore whatever is being said isn't really happening. Now, I would argue that a blogging conference doesn't need one "authoritative" figure up there lecturing about civility, but rather a conversation about it, like the one Nancy White is planning to lead at SXSW. But nonetheless the topic is perfectly apropos. (And in fact isn't so different from the Flame, Blame and SHame session we had at BlogHer.)

-If Mena's point was about anonymity helping people avoid accountability, then, although I might not have called the guy an asshole myslef, she certainly stood up and delivered her critique publicly and openly. Likewise all of Ben's "I was shocked, shocked I tell you!" to be called on what he said seems a little bit overdone given his own words were being projected in big huge letters right at the front of the room. Dude, it became public, and you could see it was public. Much as he might have thought Mena was being patronizing in her talk to the crowd, I think it's equally patronizing to think that the speakers should just stand up there like lambs to the slaughter, and have all of these slings and arrows thrown their way, looking all serene like Saint Sebastian or something. [Yes, I just mixed my Christian metaphors. You get 10 points.]

-Side note: exactly what is subversive about the backchannel once it's projected anyway? People's behaviors defintiely change once they know they can be observed by a crowd...some will get more shy; some will become performing monkeys. None of it strikes me as very "authentic."

But the larger issue I'd like to comment on is a theme I've seen running through numerous comments on a number of posts, this being only one example. People cite a false trade-off, "honesty vs civility."

That's the easy way out. And one in which I don't believe. I am constantly amazed at who actually finds the stuff I blog about them and responds, whether in comments or via email. While I may be critical, even sometimes snarky, I definitely write knowing that the object of my post could read it. And yes, that influences the language I choose because I do see a difference between arguments over ideas vs. clashes over character.

What amazes me is when people can manage to turn disagreements over topics such as blogging, business, PR, technology etc. into flame wars. I mean we're talking business here folks, how can it possibly warrant such personal, vitriolic exchanges? If you think people are idiots or evil because they disagree with you over the best OS or browser or comments policy, then you need to take a step back, take a deep breath and keep it in perspective! Oh, sorry, am I sounding all patronizing? with's my opinion, and I get to share it at will here on my blog ;)

There is nothing about this interaction that does anything but solidify my belief that making the backchannel a front channel by projecting it behind speakers is a bad idea. I agree with Shelley that the backchannel is the outlet for people who are not sufficiently engaged or impressed by what is going on with the conference program. By that definition it makes sense that the backchannel is not going to add to the discussion, but rather detract or diverge. As I've said before, I'm fine with people who are not getting their money's worth out of the content finding a way to channel their mental energies and even frustrations. And then I hope they actually fill out the damn post-conference surveys being brutally honest about what content was good and what wasn't. Seriously when I see some speakers on conference rosters again and again, I just know that no one is telling the organizers what they think about their presentations!

When I go to a conference, however, I sign up after looking at the program offered, and that's what I shell out my cash for. I don't want nor appreciate the sensory input overload of trying to follow the session content (visuals and spoken word) and trying to follow a backchannel. And I shouldn't be forced. (Of course, I'm so old school I still like to take notes on paper while at a conference.)

Finally, If people so object to the hierarchy represented by conferences with "speakers " and "audience", then just stop going to such conferences. That'll send a message more economically powerful and with more civility than snarky critiques delivered in a backchannel.

Lastly, I agree with Tara, in the end, when she says: "The only issue I take is that some people take stuff WAY too seriously."

Updated: Here's one more link on the subject, from someone was there. I agree with everything Shel Israel says in this post.

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