The Backchannel

I’m presenting at the Meeting Professionals International event in London in April: the Europeans Meetings and Events Conference. (Yes, the meta-ness of speaking at a conference about conferences is not lost on me).

I was invited to do something on Web 2.0 and ‘where is technology headed’. After some thought, I’ve written up some notes about social networking, user generated content and virtual worlds in relation to presentations, conferences and events. Inevitably, I ended up thinking mainly about the Backchannel, in its many current forms. Much of that is catching up with what’s been going on in the past few years.

Photo of the Academy Workshop at the Annenberg Center for Communications at the Unversity of Southern California by Justin

Some of this goes back a long way. In 2003 the New York Times quoted a number of internet thought-leaders…

Some people, of course, ignore speakers entirely by surfing the Web or checking their e-mail — a practice that has led some lecturers to plead for connectionless auditoriums or bans on laptop use. But others are genuinely
interested in a lecturer’s topic and want to talk concurrently about what is being said. They may also like to pass around links to Web sites that relate to, and may refute, a speaker’s point. For them, wireless technology allows a back channel of communication, a second track that reveals their thoughts and feedback and records it all for future reference.

“We’re just moving the corridor into the room and time-shifting it by 30 minutes,” said Mr. [Cory] Doctorow, who takes notes and posts them to his Weblog, or blog, during conferences, enabling people to follow the
speaker and Mr. Doctorow’s take on the speaker at the same time.

“To me, it’s a little irritating, frankly,” said Stewart Butterfield, chief executive of Ludicorp, a company that is developing [Game] Neverending, a multiplayer online game [which would go on to become Flickr]”

Joi Ito: ”I want to make something that I can put in a suitcase and take to conferences,” he said. He describes it as a subversive device that will get people thinking about the significance of the back channel. From the chat
room, he said, ‘”you could send something like, ‘Stop pontificating.'”

That NYT piece also quoted Clay Shirky on in-room chat as a social tool. He has a great paper on the subject on from December 2002:

“once the meeting got rolling, the chat room became an invaluable tool”

“Group conversations are exercises in managing interruptions. When someone is speaking, the listeners are often balancing the pressure to be polite with a desire to interrupt, whether to add material, correct or contradict the speaker, or introduce an entirely new theme. These interruptions are often tangential, and can lead to still more interruptions or follow-up comments by still other listeners. Furthermore, conversations that proceed by interruption are governed by the people best at interrupting. People who are shy, polite, or like to take a moment to compose their thoughts before speaking are at a disadvantage.” … “The chat room undid these effects”

One of the interesting things about Clay Shirky’s work on in-meeting chat was the large shared screen showing the chat to everyone (in addition to the personal window into the chat.) Here we see that happening at a Le Blogs 2.0 panel…

Photo of on-screen backchannel at Les Blogs 2.0 by Bjoern.

Turning the backchannel from a private thing into a public part of the event is something Cote thought about when blogging about the use of Twitter at conference:

“Things get fascinating when people project that backchannel in a public place,if not right behind the speaker. The idea is to weave the “front-channel” and backchannel together as needed. In doing so, the hope is to add even more value to the talk and conference. This kind of thing freaks the crap out of some (most?) presenters, while others are neutral, and some like it.”

Elizabeth Lane Lawley describes herself as a Backchannel Queen:

“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.”

Teachers are getting into backchannels too:

“The backchannel has really become my favorite tool of choice when I’m presenting. I’ve purchased an inexpensive ad-free chat room at Chatzy that is password protected and use it for my backchannels when I present. I like to find two people to help: one to serve as Google Jockey (a/k/a Link dropper) and another to serve as a moderator — posing questions to me”

All of which brings us nicely up to date. I won’t be quoting all of that in the talk, but it’s now safely in my head. For the glimpse into the future, I’ll be bringing in virtual worlds and and their use in the backchannel (and more) too, but that’s a conversation for another post.

11 replies on “The Backchannel”

  1. I think, particularly if you use the LesBlogs 2 pic, you should say something about the potential for conflict that arises, beyond Stewart Butterfield’s comment about it being irritating.

  2. Excellent stuff.

    Skepticism first: Studies have shown that no matter how good people think they are at continuous partial attention, diluting their attention really does lead to worse performance. By contributing to a back channel, you are reducing your own ability to appreciate what is actually happening. Listening is a difficult skill, and it requires attention.

    On the other hand, I’ve long been a critic of the model of the expert sermonising from the front. This is the model that caused the Catholic Church such grief during the reformation.

    Not only that but studies also show that people recall information much better when they have played a part in structuring it. That is exactly the kind of things that can happen over the back channel.

    Another concern is what should happen when the back channel is more interesting than the speaker. Having a google jockey and a back channel moderator is an excellent idea, using the so far uniquely human skill to filter the good from the rubbish, and when it’s appropriate to act as speaker for the back channel and challenge the presenter. An even more radical approach might be to switch presenters, meaning that anyone in the crowd with something significant and interesting to say, could hot-seat into the presentation, taking over from the original presenter, until they in turn are taken over from.

    Notes are less disruptive to the speaker and I believe to the users concentration than typing, so I would recommend back channel software that shares (and hand writing recognises) the doodles and notes that people take on tablet style computers (now that I’ve got one, I want more software that treats it as a first class platform). The “suitcase” is really not what we should be aiming for. Ideally backchannel software should be available on multiple platforms, nintendo DSs, mobile phones, etc.

    What we want is infrastructure to support interactivity without disruption. Not all elements of this infrastructure will be appropriate in all kinds of presentations. It will require more of presenters, and I believe that it may well necessitate a team of people performing different parts of what used to be the one presenter role, in order to perform their parts in a timely manner, incorporating as much as possible from the audience.

    In a good presentation, it’s not just the audience that needs to practice the skill of listening.

  3. I think this is great stuff, particularly the idea that interweaving the backchannel into the event makes it more acceptable. I get frustrated where I’m asked to shut a laptop as I frequently want to share / discuss an event. I wonder if this idea can be brought more into corporate conferences.

  4. Hi (and thanks) everyone.

    Lloyd: I didn’t include it here, but I’ve been thinking about Nikolas Sarkozy at Le Web 3, and when the backchannel become ‘the Finger Channel‘. I wasn’t there for that, but I know his session was not well received. In fact, it was regarded as the equivalent of a ‘pop-up ad‘. There was frustration (and dissent) when the rules were changed depending on the speaker too. Tom Morris said “Apparently, in the next session, laptops are supposed to be shut off. … And, of course, all our questions have to be “on the blog”. For crying out loud, this is mad.”

    This frustration also hits on Andy’s point about being asked to shut laptops.

    Help me out though: did you mean something else Lloyd?

    Kyb: wonderful comment. Thank you. Shared note-taking, active listening, I’m with you on all of it, but especially “In a good presentation, it’s not just the audience that needs to practice the skill of listening.” That is definitely something I want to touch on. The feedback to the speaker, and the fact that they can adjust their message and answer questions without people feeling like they’re interrupting… these are things I’m seeing happening during presentations run in virtual worlds (and other sorts of backchannel too) and feel like a massive benefit.

  5. I came at this from a slightly different angle, but buy into embracing the back-channel 100%.

    I always try to prepare a variety of printouts and backup materials for meetings, because everyone has so much more bandwidth for processing than anyone could possibly present by themselves.

    Last week, I was at a presentation in Atlanta that was targeting presentation skills for senior sales executives. It was done by a couple of sharp academic types that showed simple techniques. One message that came off very clearly was that any attempt by the presenter to “manage” the meeting was sure to result in the audience switching off their attention.

    I love the idea of creating a real time chat environment to provide links, details, and answr questions. It creates a great feedback loop, if nothing else.

  6. “because everyone has so much more bandwidth for processing than anyone could possibly present by themselves.”

    It’s very easy to present things that will max out the processing bandwidth of most people trying to understand them. Most good lectures and presentations actually require concentration to listen to.

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