Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Some discussion recently about the new backchannels that are appearing at technical conferences. If you’re not familiar with the term, in this case it means that the people in the room are communicating with each other on an IRC channel while the presentation or talk is happening.

Liz Lawley started an invitation only one at a conference she attended, and others such as Clay ShirkyDavid Weinberger (whose permalinks are broken), and Sam Ruby have all chimed in, favorably, on the concept.

I have been talking in comments about this, but wasn’t going to post until Mark Pilgrim came out with his two cents:

I can not be any clearer: I wholeheartedly support this. Despite hysterical objections from the usual suspects, I have seen the benefits of the backchannel firsthand. At ApacheCon last fall, Ken Coar announced during the initial keynote that there were IRC channels set up for the conference (one for each presentation room, and a main one for the conference in general). When I presented, I went so far as to put the address of the IRC channel on my first slide, to remind people where they could talk about me behind my back for the next 45 minutes. A friend in the audience forwarded me a copy of the channel transcript afterwards, and I discovered that several of the best questions came out of discussion in the backchannel.

I’m not going to repeat what others have said in support of this, you can read this yourself. But I am going to repeat what I said in comments.

No matter how well intentioned, an unauthorized backchannel at a conference is going to elicite reactions from the audience not synchronized with the presentation, and this is going to cause confusion and disruption. Someone quietly online reading their email, or browing the internet, is unlikely to react in such a way to disrupt the atmosphere of the room.

As for whispering and note taking at conferences, I�ve rarely seen that. The only this occurs, usually, is at interactive panels, or in larger presentation rooms. Never in the intimate presentation rooms that most presentations are given in.

Within an intimate presentation environment, a backchannel can�t help but be disruptive, unless, it was specifically designed to be part of the environment.

An unauthorized, invite only, �friends� only, backchannel in the midst of a presentation given by a person not aware this was happening strikes me as rude, and disruptive.

There has to be boundaries to social software � the use of software does not make rude behavior suddenly less so.

At Sam’s I wrote:

No matter how it’s packaged, I cannot conceive of any circumstances where it would be anything but rude to start a backchannel primarily focusing on snarky comments about the presentation currently underway.

To be honest, to start a backchannel at all, unless it is, like you say, specifically built into the presentation.

A presenter has an obligation to do the best they can on the material and try to focus it on the audience as a whole. This won’t please everyone, which is why most presenters understand when a person gets up and leaves. Particularly good speakers will know to read their audience to determine if they should spead up or slow down, or crack a joke.

However, the audience also has a responsibility to at least make a pretense of paying attention – or leave.

If I were in a room with several people participating in a backchannel, indulging in laughter on occasion inappropriate to what the presenter is saying, I would be mortified. I would probably just end my presentation, and I would leave.

Are we all ADD children that can’t sit still for ten minutes and actually listen? How much is lost of what’s being said because people are only listening with half their attention?

I’m sorry and if you want to strike this out Sam, please do – but that’s the rudest fucking thing I’ve heard of since I started weblogging, no matter whose ’social norms’ this is supposedly a part of.

And to think it’s being applauded. We have lost the grace of being human with each other. All it is now is screens and bits, IM and IRC and weblogs and absolutely disregarding the people at the heart of all this.

I regret now that I used the term “fucking rude” when ‘rude’ would have done as well.

Social software was developed to enable people to establish better communication via the Internet. It was never designed, or the intention of the design was never to replace courtesy, yet I am seeing this ‘backchannel’ behavior used, more and more, as an excuse to malign, ridicule, and disrupt.

If a backchannel is created as part of a session, then by all means, use it, and use it constructively. But if a channel doesn’t exist, it is rude to create one. If a speaker is boring, it is better to just get up and quietly leave.

Paying attention to a speaker isn’t submitting to authority, or giving up your rights as a participant. It is acknowledging that they spent a considerable amount of time to put the presentation together, and you are supposedly there, because they have something to say.

The thought that a group of people can’t sit still and listen for 45 minutes to one person, without having to break out their computers and start their chitchat with each other is not an effective demonstration of the benefits of social software.

If you can’t sit for 45 minutes to pay attention to a speaker, why go to the conference? If you’re only interested in chatter with other people, why attend the sessions?

I have presented at several conferences in the past, before all of this social software innovation, and from the reactions of the audience and the feedback I’ve received, I have had no problems with keeping the attention of those who attended. Additionally, I had no problems generating participation between me and the audience and between the audience members.

Would I allow something like a backchannel? No. I could not see spending a considerable amount of time carefully crafting a presentation, and then spend my money to attend a conference just to be half-listened to by a group of people who are resistent to unplugging for a brief period of time. Unless, the backchannel was part of the discussion, I wouldn’t have one.

If I were part of a panel? Then yes, I would definitely encourage the use of an official backchannel, but not an unofficial one, though there would be little we could do to stop it. As long as the unofficial backchannel members don’t disrupt, if they want to be critical or snarky of the speaker while the person is still speaking, that’s their choice. And if they have questions or concerns, I would assume they would use the official backchannel. I still think the behavior is rude, but hopefully not disruptive in these circumstances.

As for criticism of a speaker while the talk is still going on, sorry, but I don’t understand how anyone with any empathy could support this. Can you imagine how it would feel to be up on stage and have comments like ‘Wow, this is sure boring’ appear in large letters, right in front of you?

Courtesy does not change just because we’re separated from each other by a wire.

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