Do You Backchannel?

In apophenia: I want my cyborg life blogger zephoria (aka Danah Boyd) talks about a culture gap she experienced using the backchannel at a recent conference. One of the conference speakers pointed her out as “not paying attention” because she was using the backchannel.

My frustration at the anti-computer attitude goes beyond the generational gap of an academic conference. I’ve found that this same attitude tends to be present in many workplace environments. Blackberries and laptops are often frowned upon as distraction devices. As a result, few of my colleagues are in the habit of creating backchannels in business meetings. This drives me absolutely bonkers, especially when we’re talking about conference calls. I desperately, desperately want my colleagues to be on IM or IRC or some channel of real-time conversation during meetings. While I will fully admit that there are times when the only thing I have to contribute to such dialogue is snark, there are many more times when I really want clarifications, a quick question answered, or the ability to ask someone in the room to put the mic closer to the speaker without interrupting the speaker in the process.

A bit later in the article, zephoria asks,

What will it take for us to see technology as a tool for information enhancement? At the very least, how can we embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts? How I long for being connected to be an acceptable part of engagement.

Do you see the backchannel a distraction, or as an integral part of the experience?

I, for one, will be using the backchannel extensively at the upcoming BlogHer conference. Are the speakers who see me busily thumbing my iPhone going to be offended? I hope not, because what I’ll actually be doing is sending out quotes of their brilliant remarks, looking up their blogs, Googling their names, watching what other people at the conference are saying on Twitter by searching on hashtags like #BlogHer09, and paying attention. Adding the backchannel to an event actually makes me hyper-attentive. It demands all my concentration to listen to the speaker while filling in the spaces with my own inquiries about the topic and pondering the thoughts of others via social media interactions.

At Technically Women, in Why Social Software Matters, Rachel Happe wrote,

Social software encourages the formation of networks, not hierarchies. With networks, the more effort an individual puts in, the more the individual is rewarded if s/he is adding value. This subverts hierarchical filtering of information and gives more influence to the contributors adding the most value. In healthy, well-functioning organizations, this will be seen as a great thing because it speeds the flow of information, discovery, and expert identification – and increases the productivity of the organization as a whole.

Rachel was talking about social software in general, but I think those statements apply to the backchannel equally well.

Backchannels are being used in classrooms more and more commonly. Last March, at SXSW, I attended a panel called Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow. One of the panelists, Diana Kimball, talked about the backchannel in education.

The Internet accelerates serendipity. The more people thinking about the same thing at the same time, serendipity happens. She runs a question tool for the class where she’s TA. It’s the backchannel for the class. She said it gets very lively and that she learns a lot from being in the backchannel. The backchannel chatter shows that people are intentionally engaged.

Intentionally engaged. In other words, paying attention.

At the University of Texas in Dallas, Monica Rankin offers Some general comments on the “Twitter Experiment”.

Overall, I think the twitter experiment was successful primarily because it encouraged students to engage who otherwise would not. Even in smaller classes, only a small number of students actively participate in class discussions. Students knew that their class participation grade would be partially determined by their involvement in these discussions and most of them seemed comfortable with using the technology to engage with the reading materials.

The backchannel in education points out

For the entire conference, the back channel chat, ‘chatzy’ had been used where both staff and students who physically and virtually attended the conference. I discovered that even parents of my students, back in Australia, were in the backchannel.

Olivia Mitchell pointed out 8 benefits of the backchannel to the audience in How to Present While People are Twittering and suggests

The typing means you’re provoking interest

Don’t ignore the backchannel if you are up in front of the audience. If you are on a panel, one member of the panel should watch Twitter (or whatever backchannel is used by most) throughout the talk for questions and comments that the panelists should address immediately. If you are speaking solo, especially to a big crowd, you need a friend who is appointed to watch the backchannel and alert you to what’s happening or to mention any questions that you should address.

Cross posted at BlogHer.

2 thoughts on “Do You Backchannel?”

  1. Virginia,
    What an interesting take on Backchanneling. I think as more and more of us discover how valuable these types of services are during conferences and presentations, speakers and presenters will understand that more discussion can take place this way. I think you get to the heart when you quote the Twitter Experiment. Backchanneling encourages participation from those that might not normally participate. It gives them voice. As more and more teachers use these services in their classroom and at “Tech Friendly” conferences I believe word will spread and it will become a normal part of the presenation.

    Great read! Thanks!

    Steven W. Andersons last blog post.. Summer Series-Who Is Hardest To Train?

  2. As I mentioned in the post, this article was cross posted at BlogHer where the discussion about the pros and cons (mostly cons) of backchanneling is extensive. If you enjoyed the article, you may want to read the comments at BlogHer.

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