Michael Feldstein at e-Literate muses about off-topic chatter in live backchannels. Barry Dahl analyzed the comments from a discussion and determined that only 31% of the posts were on-topic.
Setting aside the question of what makes something on-topic, I think Michael’s thinking about a worthwhile issue. In the specific instance, he says “the audience treated [the backchannel] like an experiment because we [presenters] treated it like an experiment.”
I’ve seen high-value backchannels — by which I mean that so far as I could tell, most of the comments clearly connected to the topic. And I’ve seen backchannels filled with non sequiturs, wisecracks, and what seemed to be private jokes shared via a public medium.
In a way, the back channel’s like spoken comments in a live session, like a workshop or a free-flowing presentation. Even a wisecrack, well-timed, can contribute to the experience.
Imagine a session on Six Sigma. The facilitator wonders if people need a break soon. Someone calls out, “What are our CTQs?” (Six Sigma jargon for critical-to-quality, meaning the things the customer wants.) To me, that’s not off-topic; it’s an application or a reinforcement.
At Michael’s post, commenters like Gillian offer nuanced approaches to the backchannel. For example, she suggests telling people it’s fine to use Twitter or do email, “but keep it off the big screen.”
She also says that announcing ahead of time that the backchannel transcript will be posted can help discourage randomness — though she may be more of an optimist than I am.