Backchannel Fail: When Twitter Distracts from Great Content

danah boyd is a researcher and writer I greatly admire. Her areas of interest closely dovetail with my own (though she has more of a focus on youth than I do) and I often find myself reading her research and nodding along because it resonates with my experience, or because she has some surprising insights that I hadn’t thought about that seem reasonable.

She recently gave a talk at the Web 2.0 Expo and there’s so much good stuff packed in this 20 minute presentation, I can barely parse it all. I’ve listened to it twice and plan to do so a few more times. It reminded me of a TED Talk – fast paced, jam packed, and fascinating. Here’s the talk:

Now it turns out, this came to my attention because there were tons of comments about how nasty the backchannel got during her presentation. I was unable to find many exact quotes from the Twitter stream (hashtag #w2e – Twitter’s search interface will bring up the hashtag, but jeez, trying to go back along the timeline to see what was _actually_ said during her presentation is excruciating. I gave up. There must be a better way to see that stream..) but it sounds like some in the audience were openly mocking her, and some were posting sexualized comments about her. Those people should be _ashamed_ if not blacklisted. I had an impulse to find them and block them on Twitter, I don’t want people who behave like that in my network. But alas, I couldn’t find them anyway, at least one fellow who contributed seemed remorseful, and it might be an interesting case study in mob psychology online.

In any case, the actual _content_ of danah’s talk was.. complex, hard to wrap my mind around all of the implications let alone do a proper analysis or critique, but it’s good stuff. Oh the irony of what was happening in the audience as she talked about competing gossip mongers and what an important role the _very people in the audience_ have in shaping how people experience the information stream online, because they are the ones building the tools that we all use, the tools that shape our experience. Code as law. And these are the jerks shaping our experiences? Yikes.

You should really read her whole post, danah wrote about what it felt like to be on the other side of that twitter stream she couldn’t see, to be mocked and humiliated and sexualized so publicly. It must have been excruciating. I probably would have cried right there on the stage; public speaking is exceptionally difficult for me and when I don’t get into the flow properly, it’s beyond excruciating. I want the earth to open up and swallow me whole. To suffer that feeling in front of a brutal audience broadcasting and mocking my discomfort? Youch.

But what about the backchannel? Should it be removed from the conference circuit entirely? danah writes:

I think that Dan nailed it. I think that the backchannel is perfectly reasonable as a frontchannel when the speaker is trying to entertain, but when the goal is to convey something with depth, it encourages people to be impatient and frustrated, to feed on the speaker. There’s a least common denominator element to it. I was not at Web2.0 Expo to entertain, but to inform. Yes, I can be an entertaining informant, but there’s a huge gap between the kind of information that Baratunde tries to convey in his comedic format and what I’m trying to convey in a more standard one. And there’s no doubt I packed too much information into a 20 minute talk, but my role is fundamentally to challenge audiences to think. That’s the whole point of bringing a scholar to the stage. But if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over.

The problem with a public-facing Twitter stream in events like this is that it FORCES the audience to pay attention the backchannel. So even audience members who want to focus on the content get distracted. Most folks can’t multitask that well. And even if I had been slower and less dense, my talks are notoriously too content-filled to make multi-tasking possible for the multi-tasking challenged. This is precisely why I use very simplistic slides that evokes images for the visual types in the room without adding another layer of content. But the Twitter stream fundamentally adds another layer of content that the audience can’t ignore, that I can’t control. And that I cannot even see.

Definitely read the full article, especially if you ever speak at conferences. The author of this article is one brave lady for writing about this so openly…

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2 comments

  1. I think this may sum up the solution to the backchannel problem: http://bit.ly/8x7hgz (via Tim O’Reilly on Twitter). Truth is, a live backchannel might be just the thing for a free-for-all discussion on Twitter humor but it’s annoying and deadly for a serious academic discussion on information flow…

    One of the reasons there is a difference between a political debate and a radio call-in show is that serious thinking deserves and demands careful, deliberate listening and articulation. We *might* be able to pull some insightful articulation off in 140 characters, but certainly not without thinking before we type and post.

  2. “but jeez, trying to go back along the timeline to see what was _actually_ said during her presentation is excruciating. I gave up. There must be a better way to see that stream.”

    For a library technologist conference from a community that uses IRC a lot, someone, after the fact, took the IRC log, and used the Simile timeline visualization tool to present it. Pretty cool:

    http://reallywow.com/c4l09/timeline