I have been an unabashed champion of the power of conference backchannel, but danah boyd’s  (whose work I respect and admire tremendously) experience at the Web 2.0 Expo on November 17 shook me to my very core.  You can read more from boyd here as well as here, but in a nutshell, conference organizers staged a live stream of conference Tweets behind boyd, who could not see the stream content.  boyd, who also could not see the audience well at all and who was unaware of the content of the Twitter stream,  understandably closed down when the audience began laughing just a few minutes into her speech.

My initial reaction to this incident was one of shock and anger.  I guess I am naive for my thirty-eight years, but I was truly appalled by the unprofessional and mean-spirited behavior of those who were posting Tweets that were not constructive criticism but instead, destructive and cruel in nature.  As someone who just saw boyd present a few weeks ago at AASL, I am dismayed and incredulous  that boyd’s message was drowned out by the drivel and thoughtless online behavior of a few who essentially disrupted her speech in such a negative way.   This incident hits close to home for me because  I identify with boyd’s desire to create an exceptional presentation and learning experience that will be informative and inspiring to those in the physical and virtual audience.  No presenter wants to disappoint or come short of audience expectations; if you feel you have faltered, you reflect and work even harder to craft a presentation that will be engaging and meaningful.  I wonder if those posting the disrespectful Tweets had any recognition of the care and intellectual investment boyd had committed to crafting her presentation.  If they did, then could how they act as they did? Even if they did not, how could people behave with such callous disrespect?  Their behavior was something akin to bullies in a schoolyard, taunting and assaulting someone who was vulnerable and undone by laughter she interpreted as ridicule.

As someone who has witnessed the positive power of the backchannel from the perspective as a participant and observer, I still believe the backchannel can be a valuable aspect of the conference or presentation experience.  However, boyd’s blog posts, an engaging and thoughtful Twitter conversation I enjoyed with my personal learning network last night/this morning, and the subsequent Tweets this evening from George Siemens (please see his thoughtful blog post on this topic) have left me with these questions that I think need more discussion and thought:

  • We cannot naively take for granted that those in the backchannel will always be respectful.  How do you deal with this kind of situation proactively and with minimal disruption if it does occur?
  • Lazygal feels,  “There’s a new sense of decorum that we need to establish for listeners”; how can we as a learning community model and encourage constructive critique that does not detract from the speaker?
  • Bobbi Newman is wondering that even when the backchannel is positive, is there any value to be gained by having the livestream viewable by the audience whether the presenter can see it or not.  She also  wonders if the livestream pulls attention away from the presenter?
  • Kristin Fontichiaro and I are wondering if the gender of the speaker was an issue in this sad incident; Kristin also wondered if  age and/or perceived authority as insider/outsider had any bearing on the behavior of those in the Twitterstream/audience.
  • Lazygal wondered, ” if a Twitter feed doesn’t enhance professional learning, does it merit a vaunted place onstage?”
  • Kristin Fontichiaro wonders if those engaging in the negative behavior it “thought was culturally acceptable … there’s an anthropological piece to this…”—I agree that there is much to be learned from incidents like these because I am sure this is not the first time it has happened to someone (unfortunately).
  • boyd observes that if a live and unmoderated Twitter stream is going to be integrated into an event/presentation, the speaker needs to know this ahead of time because “it requires a fundamentally different kind of talk.”
  • George Siemens asks, “is the contract with one speaker, or with the conference experience? do expectations (behaviour) vary based on either?”  George also asks, “What is the audience’s responsibility?”
  • Darren Draper asks, “Are we almost at a point where every presenter will need to pull a @downes and bring the backchannel to the forefront?”

It is a beautiful and exciting thing when the backchannel works positively as the “forechannel” and enhances the conference/presentation experience.  However, that euphoria can quickly be tempered when a few people act like a vicious mob and detract from the presentation.  While I still believe in the positive power of the backchannel, I know these questions will weigh heavily on my mind the next few months as a presenter and as an attendee at winter, spring, and summer conferences.

What are your thoughts on this issue and the questions/challenges/observations I have shared from others?  I invite you to share your constructive feedback.