Microsoft’s Danah Boyd spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo the week before Thanksgiving. As she says in her own post, she “did a dreadful job at delivering my message.” She was giving a new talk, though the organizers told her she wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) have a laptop with her.
(I wonder what kind of tech conference they run that they can’t manage that. Can’t have your computer? Is there a dress code for speakers? A loyalty oath? Are you allowed in if you don’t own an iPhone?)
Nor was the podium the kind normal people would use, with a slanted surface suitable for holding notes. It was level, like a table.
Shortly before her talk, Boyd also discovered there’d be a live twitter feed–behind her. Which mean that she had no way of knowing what was in the feed, and no way to be sure what the audience was reacting to.
You can (and should) read her full post. She has what I think are legitimate critiques of the backchannel. If the speaker can’t see it, what’s it for? How does it aid a conversation?
Further, she suggests that the public-facing backchannel forces the audience to pay attention — at the very least, it competes for attention, like the television set that your friends don’t ever turn off, even when you’re visiting.
And, you know, public-facing means the comments are available to everyone except the speaker. Which isn’t a whole lot better than the outside criticism-channel at HeWeb09, which sparked the term “harshtag.”
Vicki Davis posted about this at her Cool Cat Teacher blog. I think her biggest points are worth repeating here:
- I don’t like the backchannel on the big screen. Period.
- All presentation backchannels should have moderators.
- Backchannels should be part of the presentation from the speaker.
- Vicki shares some slides she uses to set the backchannel in context.
- Twitter makes a poor backchannel.
- Backchannels should be intentional.
I’ve seen posts implying that the backchannel’s always and everywhere good. I think that’s optimistic at best, and irrational if not destructive at the worst. There’s no way to prevent people from using an outside channel like Twitter, but I’m ambivalent about its value if more than half the in-person participants can’t join in.
I realize there are circles where everybody (and his cousin Steve) has a smartphone or some other way to instantly dive into Twitter — but they’re not circles I’m in. So if you’ve got an organized course or an in-person presentation, the people most relevant to engage are the ones there in person. I don’t quite see why someone listening in via Twitter should grab the attention of a presenter more than someone who’s sitting 20 feet away.
I don’t have an answer for this, let alone the answer. Lately I find “the” answer’s pretty hard to find, and certainly doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all. So the key question is probably Vicki’s last point, above: what’s the comment channel for? Why have it? What are you going to do with it?