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Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Back[stab]channels

Posted by lpearle on 26 November 2009

The idea of a back channel is still relatively new to conferences – for those of you who don’t know what one is, it’s the ability for the audience (and I’m using the term loosely, because it includes both those actually at the session and those following it from afar) to interact with each other and with the presenter. This can work well, or it can be a disaster (see danah boyd, Web 2.0).

danah’s post sparked a conversation between @buffyjhamilton, @activelearning and me and led to Buffy’s post here and Kristin’s post here. My thoughts are complicated: we need a discussion about professionalism on-line (twecklers take note) as well as a new paradigm of what happens at a conference.

As someone who presents (and is planning future presentations), I’m mindful of both sides of the podium. On the one hand, I would like audience feedback. On the other, I’m wary of the Mean Girl syndrome, where a mob “get ‘er” mentality takes over. Yes, one could argue that the better the presentation, the less “mean girl” the audience. But I’m also guilty of that type of twittering, albeit not when there’s an obvious backchannel (because that’s not the presentation set-up or because I don’t tag my posts). So this is definitely the pot calling on the kettle!

To be honest, this isn’t something new. I remember years ago, during a 9th grade pep rally at my school, chatting with my friends about the ridiculousness of the event: who really cared about our Division III football team? And those cheerleaders? please. What a waste of our time to sit and cheer and have all this faux school spirit. I’m sure some much younger version of me was texting the same thoughts to her friends in the same stands at a similar event in SmallTown this past September. Is that ok?

It’s the leap to public that changes things. I can comment to friends within earshot… text to a few friends at a time… or tweet and get retweeted to hundreds (or thousands).

I’m also wary of the quality of the tweets. As I mentioned to Buffy before Conference Season began, this is the type of tweet that I really don’t want to see:

  • Waiting to hear (speaker)
  • (Author) is signing books
  • “pithy quote from wonderful speaker” with no context
  • RT “pithy quote from wonderful speaker” with no context

I much prefer tweets that allow me to link to a presentation, a blog post or something meaty and I’ve been known to use TwitterSnooze to block posts that are coming too fast, too furious without that pause for reflection. Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but, well, that’s my viewpoint and I’m sticking to it.

Ultimately, if a backchannel is going to work, the audience needs to make their comments valuable to the presenter and to the audience (“hey, (presenter) is an idiot” doesn’t cut it, “what does (term) mean” or “is there a link to that study?” does). Presenters need to be aware that even if the backchannel isn’t obvious, it’s there. It’s going to happen unless the room has no wifi and cellphone dampening attached. It may mean upping our game, or it may mean rethinking how we interact with the audience.

This two-way street needs to be negotiated carefully. I’ll do my bit as both audience and presenter. Will you?

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