The Omnipresent Backchannel

connected audience

Gone to a conference, industry talk, or meetup lately?

Ever notice the number of people seemingly disengaged from the speaker(s) on stage? Worse, perhaps the audience members have arbitrarily hijacked control of the presentation by diverting focus from the stage to the backchannel, in some cases unbeknownst to the speaker(s) or moderator(s).

Love it or loathe it, the sight of glowing screens has become the norm for most conference gatherings, big and small. People hunched over their smart phones; the mildly annoying sound of the odd person tapping away on their laptop.

Speakers beware! Your carefully prepared talk is under attack.

A couple weeks ago I attended the OCAD Design Matters: Designing for the Future event at the Toronto Design Exchange. It was a great evening full of thought provoking explorations into design thinking and collaborative creativity. During several talks the presence of digital devices among the audience was palpable. A good portion of the audience seemed partially engaged, almost preoccupied, tinkering with their mobiles rather than absorbing what was being presented up front. I wondered if the speakers on stage were aware, perhaps even bothered, that a segment of the audience wasn’t fully paying attention to the material they had exhaustively researched and prepared for presentation.

In a recent post appearing on A List Apart Christopher Fahey and Timothy Meaney shed light on this phenomenon, uncovering many of the issues plaguing traditionally structured conferences:

Conventional conference wisdom is that speakers are fighting a war for the audience’s attention. On one side, there’s the speaker, armed with beautiful slides, succinct bullet points, a commanding stage presence, and a great speech. On the other side is Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, YouTube, etc. The audience is in the middle, torn between datastreams.

Conferences and meetups are fantastic opportunities to connect with people outside the usual digital channels we all frequent. Yet many of us seem inextricably connected to these network-based environments through our mobile devices. The cloud is everywhere. It’s as though we’re incapable and increasingly unwilling to disconnect, even if it’s for a brief 45-minute presentation.

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher with Microsoft, shares a sobering perspective on the changing audience/speaker dynamic following a talk delivered at the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Danah’s presentation, ironically entitled Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media, became overrun by live Tweets created by (and visible only to) the audience:

Part of the problem for me is that, as a speaker, I work hard to try to create a conversation with the audience. When it’s not possible or when I do a poor job, it sucks. But it also really sucks to just be the talking head as everyone else is having a conversation literally behind your back [referring to the presence of a Twitter backchannel stream]. It makes you feel like a marionette. And frankly, if that’s what public speaking is going to be like, I’m out.

At the 2010 FITC conference in Toronto I recall attending several talks where a few people (ok, pretty much everyone) in the audience appeared to be distracted by their gadgets. In some cases the number of people connected vastly outnumbered the people not connected by a ratio of 2:1.
What’s happening here I wondered. Some of these talks were brilliantly crafted and full of engaging material. What happened to just plain listening?
That’s not to say you can’t write a blog post or Tweet while listening to a talk—I’ve certainly been guilty of doing so. But is it really worth it trying to multitask during a well intentioned talk intended to inform and inspire your mind?

Perhaps one of the problems with traditional conferences in which presenters speak to the people in the audience is that it’s largely a one-sided passive experience, for both parties. What would happen if the backchannel became the frontchannel and the speaker(s) became the conversation maestro and the audience joined in as active contributors. What then?

As with most tech-oriented conferences it is impossible to attend each and every talk on a typical schedule. In many cases planning which talks are worth attending (and which might be worth skipping) by researching the speakers and the material they intend to cover can help us create the incentive to put the time aside. That is, turning off all our distraction inducing devices and focus our attention on what the speaker has to say. We’ll probably end up getting more out of the talk this way. Going one step further, if we can engage directly with the speaker and other audience members in conversation on the topics being covered, even better.
If on the other hand we choose to engage in gadget-based multitasking and give the speaker only fragments of our attention our experience becomes somewhat diluted. In this case we might as well stay home hunched over our computer.

In the end, conference-going becomes much more worthwhile when we make face to face—not screen to screen—connections with others.

Photo credit: Connected Audience by The Next Web

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