Backchannel thoughts

Women and the backchannel on This is Rachel Andrew talks about the backchannel comments directed at female presenters at the recent 200th Boagworld podcast. A couple of good ideas were proposed to deal with the issues raised.

The chatroom on the Boagworld show was essentially a backchannel, and similar issues have happened in conference backchannels in recent months, I believe this is something that needs to be addressed in two ways. Firstly, the community need to be ready to stamp on this kind of behaviour as soon as it is seen. If you are in a channel that starts to go down this line make sure you are not contributing to it, and speak up against it. Can you help to turn the general mood to something more positive? Or offer constructive criticism? I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t be able to disagree with a female speaker! Quite the opposite, we should be dealing with everyone in exactly the same way, I’m not a fan of positive discrimination either.

Secondly I think there are technical solutions to some of this. If you have a live chat or backchannel, people should not be able to post anonymously, or behind nicknames that do not link back to a real person. As a thought perhaps we could have a system where everyone has to sign in with Facebook Connect? Facebook is about real names, real people. Would yesterday’s commenters have been happy for their comments to go out next to their photo, real name and the company they work for? In a conference situation the organisers usually have all those details, so a system can be created that ensured that comments only go out on a live channel that are identified to individuals. There are some people who will quite happily stand behind unpleasant comments but I would suggest they are far fewer than those who switch personalities when they can hide behind an anonymous nickname.

I think her second idea would create much more success than the first. Everyone already knows they need to behave. The chances of getting them to actually behave are greater when there’s full transparency about who is acting like a juvenile jerk.

The reference to “similar issues” in the quote above refers to a backchannel event that gave danah boyd problems. Since I’m very excited about the fact that she is one of the keynoters at the upcoming SXSW Interactive conference and am really looking forward to her talk, I’ve been wondering about how that will go. Audiences at SXSW have been known to disrupt a keynote in the past using the backchannel. In one case the backchannel ire was directed at a woman. However, men have been on the receiving end of bad mouthing from the backchannel, too.

Related Links:

Useful Links: Backchannel, adoption rates, Scrunchup

Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome has some thoughts about Twitter in the backchannel at LeWeb 09 in Paris. His ideas are a little different from some of those I’ve mentioned previously in posts about the backchannel. Give a listen. There’s talking on the phone while driving, there’s texting while driving, and now there’s video while driving, Pirillo style.

Matrix: Social Technology Adoption Curve Benefits—and Downsides from Jeremiah Owyang compares technology adoption rates with success in the social media world. Very interesting categories and opinions. He offers three suggestions that I think sum it up for those who want to make the most of social media for a company. Especially significant are “Be a Category Ahead of Your Company” in terms of adoption and “Track the Category Ahead of You.” Or, to quote myself, Keep up with what’s changing and learn how to use those changes to achieve your goals.

Issue #4 of Scrunchup is available. I’ve mentioned this new magazine already, but if you still aren’t turned on to it, this is your final clue. Become a reader of Scrunchup now.

Useful Links: Social media your presentations, Design with intent, future ed, accessibility in business

We’re all presenters–in the classroom, at conferences, among your colleagues. Here are 9 Tips for Enriching Your Presentations with Social Media. One of the tips in the article is about the backchannel, a topic I’m interested in and have talked about here and here and from SXSWi and again here as well as at BlogHer. Plus, I just reviewed an excellent book called The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever.

Design with Intent talks about how designers can influence behavior—and why they should. It’s one of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a long time.

Persuasion design embeds various forms of influence and “choice architectures” in products and services to maximize the likelihood of positive behavior change. It has been popularized by economists like Richard Thaler through books like Nudge and services like Mint and, which provide countless examples of subtle cues that lead to major shifts in behavior.

The reason this notion of persuasion design tugs at me is that I can see it applied in so many ways to create positive changes in behavior around all sorts of topics. The article is by Robert Fabricant of frog design.

21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020 at TeachPaperless takes a look at where tech in education is taking us and makes bold predictions. Standardized test makers may not like what TeachPaperless has to say, but I think this idealized version of the future makes a lot of sense.

Resources for Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization from the W3C is a good resource for anyone trying to convince a client about the need for accessibility and for anyone teaching a class in accessibility on the web.

Review: The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever

get this book at

A review by Web Teacher of
The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever

(rating: 4 stars)

The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever by Cliff Atkinson is from New Riders (2010). Cliff Atkinson is telling stories. He takes real people, real presentations, and weaves them into an instruction manual for how to deal with the way presentations are changing because of the backchannel.

He tells stories about presentations by Chris Brogan, Olivia Mitchell, Jared Spool, Sacha Chua, Sarah Lacy, Pam Slim, and many others. He uses these stories to illustrate what’s happening in the backchannel and how various people have handled the changes. You may have even been in attendance at some of the presentations he talks about. If not, you may have followed stories about them on Twitter or in blogs. If you go to presentations of any kind, you’ve probably seen the backchannel in action or been a particpant in the backchannel.

Atkinson defines the backchannel.

A backchannel is a line of communication created by people in an audience to connect with others inside or outside the room, with or without the knowledge of the speaker at the front of the room.

The backchannel can either enhance the exchange with the audience or become—at the least—a distraction, or—at its worst—an explosion of negativity. This book is all about how to make the backchannel a productive enhancement that will connect presenters with audiences in long-lasting forms of communication extending far beyond the limits of an hour’s presentation.

The book describes how audiences are changing.

  • Audiences don’t need to get information from presenters on a stage. They can find the information for themselves elsewhere.
  • Audiences have higher expectations. They want information they won’t get elsewhere.
  • Audiences want more participation.
  • Audiences either leave or publicly complain if a presentation if it isn’t what they wanted or expected.

The key chapter in the book is “Preparing for the Backchannel.” Atkinson gives concrete ideas for learning the new presenting skills needed, planning the presentation to be backchannel ready, and managing the backchannel before, during and after the presentation. Another important chapter is “Making Your Ideas Twitter-Friendly,” This chapter tells how to boil your message down to four essential, Twitter-sized points, how to present and expand those four points, while working with the backchannel. Other chapters talk about taking Twitter breaks during a presentation and dealing with an unruly backchannel.

In the conclusion, Atkinson says,

For a very long time, the world has centered on presenters. But now, the world is re-centering around audience members. Putting someone on a pedestal—or a lectern—has always come at a cost, because to make someone higher is to make someone lesser.

The backchannel dismantles the pedestal, and gives everyone equal access to the same information. As the power balance is leveled, the skill set of presenters fundamentally changes, and shifts more toward gifts of navigation, facilitation, and inspiration.

Summary: Presenters everywhere need to read this book.

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Useful Links: Tech blogs, the backchannel

Several Tech Blogs Worth Exploring. Oh Yeah, All by Women at JavaWorld is a good source of information for those looking for female tech bloggers, female conference speakers, and inspiration.

Web Teacher has posted about using the backchannel in the past. An event at HighEdWeb in Milwaukee earlier this month resulted in a backchannel revolt that made news in educational circles and serves as a morality tale for speakers and educators in the future. A few reports about the incident:

In my mind, no one should get in front of an audience these days without someone at their side monitoring the backchannel. If you start to bomb, you need to know it immediately and take steps to salvage the situation. If this presenter had realized what was going on, he could have turned off the projector and engaged the audience in a dialog about the topic. Or something. Anything. But instead, he’s now notorious for being a plodding dinosaur in a fast-paced world.

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.