Backtalk, or, if it doesn’t lead somewhere, it’s not a channel

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?

9 thoughts on “Backtalk, or, if it doesn’t lead somewhere, it’s not a channel

  1. I’m thinking the backchannel, when it’s an organic tool for people to comment on what’s happening (for those who aren’t there and for those who are) that it can be useful.

    As a sniping tool for unsuspecting speakers, it probably gets carried away. Having what amounts to sidebar conversations posted on a board sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me, even if everyone is fawning over said speaker.

    I can see where it would work, say, at an event where you post it at different phases of a long talk to see what people are thinking and to teach some larger lesson.

    It really depends on the event where it’s being used and how they’re using it.

  2. Ron, thanks for your comment.

    In one sense, it’s not possible to avoid having some kind of backchannel. If one individual among the in-person audience shares opinions in real time outside that audience (through Twitter, Facebook, whatever), then in theory you’ve got a backchannel. As I’ve commented here in the past, that sharing can be a vehicle for sharing the benefits or drawbacks of a presentation with folks who aren’t there. Call it the Outside Channel (because it’s not necessarily available to the presenter or in-person participants).

    The Outside Channel has its merits (“I’m at Murdstone Fest 09 and Wally says you can train swans to write CSS!”); I’ve gotten to know some colleagues online because of what I happened to see in their Twitter stream. As you suggest, there’s benefit to both the presenter (or facilitator) and the participants to have the sort of feedback that an Inside Channel can offer.

    I’m mystified by the Danah Boyd situation, which seems like the worst of both worlds. Why such restrictions on how a presenter supports or structures her own work? Why the gigantic distraction of a backchannel that she could only see by stopping and turning her back to the participants?

    I’m working from my own frame of reference, which tends to involve presentations and discussions in more or less homogeneous groups (people in planned learning events within a single organization, attendees at a professional conference). Most of the time, the average participant that I’ve seen does not have a portable computer, let alone a smartphone or similar tool, and thus can’t engage in the backchannel.

  3. Thanks, Dennis. I think it’s easy for those accustomed to some tool (wiki, blog, microblog) to forget about the steepness of the learning curve, much less the disinclination or disinterest of non-early-adopters.

    So the backchannel may seem just good sense to someone who presents in academic or professional settings to people who’ve long since adopted this stuff–though the Boyd case suggests there are a few wrinkles left to iron.

    Revisiting an earlier thought: “one size fits all” doesn’t.

  4. As a participant that’s often challenged by latitude and longitude (I’m located in South Africa) I’ve appreciated how certain presenters, some conference organisers and members of the audience are making a deliberate effort to use the back channel to include others beyond the physical confines of the room. I’ve listened to experts chat real time on topics, participated in the Q and A sessions and added a couple of extra resources into the channel (that have been RT) by people physically there. I have great sympathy with Danah, (I read her presentation and reflections in the foot hills of the Drakensberg mountains on my phone) and hope her thoughts will prompt conference organisers to think more about how they should integrate the back channel into their programme, but I’d be very sad to loose the real opportunity to listen, learn and participate in a way that has never been available to me before.

  5. Derek:

    Like you, I’ve benefitted from comments shared (via Twitter, in my case). They’ve helped me grasp some speaker’s main idea, learn about a presenter I hadn’t heard of, see how someone I’m following thinks, etc.

    I do think it’s possible to over-technify. If more than half the people on hand are not able to use a channel to communicate w/ each other or the presenter, I’m not sure the presenter should give that channel too much weight. At the same time, if the presenter doesn’t know what’s in a channel (as at HEWEB09) and doesn’t ask for or receive…formative feedback, let’s say…that’s not an optimal situation either.

    I realize many presenters don’t necessarily want that, and especially in large keynote events, you’re crossing into lecture-as-entertainment territory.

  6. Hi, Dave…

    Great discussion. I attended Masie’s Learning 2009 in early November, and he experimented with using/displaying the backchannel during the plenary sessions. He quickly stopped using the display, as he found that some attendees used it as a way to market their services to a captive audience.

    Personally I found it distracting. The speaker was often far ahead in the presentation by the time the tweet appeared, making it irrelevant or causing me to miss the speaker’s next point.

    What WAS useful was when Elliott served as a moderator, encouraging questions from the audience in this format, then screening and feeding them to the speaker or interviewee. We got many questions from a wide perspective. And, with the moderator function, the audience also got to HEAR the question, often a problem in group settings. It was also a great way to allow questions while the topic was fresh, instead of waiting until the end for Q&A.

    I think it would be a wonderful way to pull in questions and comments from people who might be connected at a distance. What if, for example, a conference allowed companies to subscribe to a feed of sessions that the company displayed in a hallway or lobby via kiosk, webinar, or vidoeconference with the opportunity to provide comments and questions, again moderated by the conference? It would be a great way to bring in new ideas and engage people.

  7. Ann, thanks so much for both the example and the extension. Both show that the value in a channel is what it connects, and how, and for what purpose.

    Especially at a conference or similar “intentional event” (to make up a buzzword), participants already have some common connection; a moderator / link wrangler is offering a means and a focus for a subset of that connection. It would take a far more gifted presenter than I am to skim a channel, analyze the patterns, and in midflight change course. A moderator / co-presenter / partner can do that, ideally adding to the value of the communication for all.

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