My Photo

Become a Fan

AddThis Feed Button

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 02/2004
Related Posts with Thumbnails

« Consequential Strangers and Acquaintanceships, Online and Offline | Main | Transmitting vs. Transforming Customer Dissatisfaction »


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Scott Berkun

Fantastic and deep summary - really appreciated this. 95% of the mentions of seen of this whole issue are so thin. Relief to see someone spend more time putting it in context, point out the various levels of irony, and helping connect some important dots.

Scott Berkun

Interested in your opinion if the Trott/LesBlogs incident described here:

Also see (4:00 onward is the specific incident where the backchannel is brought into the front by the speaker)

Jared M. Spool

I was at the HighEdWeb keynote that exploded. In fact, I had given the keynote the day before, for which there was also a backchannel, though it was much kinder to me. (In fact, of the 40+ presentations at the conference, that one keynote was the only one where the very heavily-used twitter hashtag got negative and nasty.)

I've had a lot of time to reflect on what happened and how things turned out the way they did. Having had the experience of being a keynote speaker there, I could see that it was a perfect storm of events that led to the outpouring which, added up, became what everyone now talks about.

Something interesting happened during that presentation and since I experienced it real-time, my view is it's different than what's been reported widely.

I don't think there was a mob behavior at all. In fact, it was really, overall, very polite. If there was a mob behavior, the pent-up angst would've escaped beyond the tweets into other aspects of the crowd. That didn't happen.

Many of the original tweets were between a handful of people who knew each other well. In fact, they weren't much different than what would've happened in passed notes or whispers, which frequently happens when I'm presenting.

But there were three big differences between passed notes and what happened at HighEdWeb. First, the notes were visible in a very public space -- the twitter feed. Second, the behavior was cumulative. And third, there was a permanent record of the interaction well beyond the presentation.

The big trigger for the HighEdWeb débâcle was that the speaker had lost control of the audience from the moment he stepped on the stage and didn't manage to get them back. In my opinion, he misjudged what his audience knew and cared about. He was pitching his product. And, in my opinion as a professional conference organizer, he wasn't very professional in his preparations or delivery. (For example, he relatively complicated A/V needs, but didn't set up in advance, so we watched him futz with his electronics at various points. He played audio at levels too loud because he didn't test them up front. And, his slides, as noted many times in the twitter stream, had all the mistakes of first-time powerpoint users with cheesy fonts, poorly used templates, too much text.) He might have fared well in one of the breakout session, but he wasn't a keynote-quality presenter.

HighEdWeb is a high-energy conference. This audience really wants to be here and learn. And this session didn't provide that.

So, there was a lot of built up angst in the room. But it didn't show in the physical space. Not one bit.

I'm really curious what would've happened had Twitter not been available. Having been at conferences with poor quality keynotes in the past (CHI is famous for this), most of the time people sit quietly and just bear with it, much like a boring church sermon.

Interestingly, as I looked around the room at the halfway point in his presentation, that was EXACTLY the behavior I witnessed in the audience. They were staring down (mostly at their screens, but it could've been anywhere), not giving the presenter any eye contact. They were completely still in their chairs and the room was deathly quiet. And, for the most part, they were well behaved.

Had you not known about the backchannel, you would've seen all the signs of a bored audience, anxious for the session to end so they could go on to something more interesting. In the physical space, they were completely inhibited and polite.

So, maybe, the backchannel is just a relief valve. Sure, when you at the stream out of context, it's pretty rude and obnoxious. And that's what the outsiders who wrote about it picked up on. But, within the context of the session, it was really pretty tame. (And, frankly, it was far more interesting than anything else going on.)

Had everyone had internet connections, but no backchannel, I'm betting you would've seen the other behavior that I see frequently these days: people reading their email and chatting with friends on IM. And had there been no internet connectivity, they would've been glancing through their programs, doodling, or passing notes. (I remember, as a child, playing paper games with my dad at the synagogue, counting the minutes for services to end. I don't see how this is that different.)

Yet, I think many attendees at the conference have been surprised by the attention this received from those who weren't part of it. It wasn't nearly as big a deal as everyone has made it out to be. (Certainly not as big as the stolen laptop you mentioned.) Yah, it was an hour of that this-is-painful-get-me-outta-here type of experience we've all had in uncomfortable situations we can't leave, but they moved on from it pretty quickly.

Interestingly, all of the "public outbursts" that have been widely reported from the twitter backchannel issues (including danah boyd's disastrous Web 2.0 talk and the infamous SxSW Zuckerberg/Lacey interview) came about because the presenters lost control of the audience (danah admits this in her wonderfully written confession).

I wonder if dealing with the backchannel is really just focusing on the symptoms and not the root problem.

Those are my thoughts.

Jared M. Spool
The Other Keynote Speaker at HighEdWeb 09.

Joe McCarthy

Scott: thanks for the additional dots! The theme for Le Web 2009 (next week) is "the real time web", so it's particularly interesting to see an example of the real time web in action at the 2005 conference.

Several things struck me while I read the post and its comments, and watched the video.

* Gender: It looked like the audience was predominantly (90%?) male, and the speaker was female. I don't know what the gender distribution was at Web 2.0 Expo, but I wonder what the distribution was on the backchannel. danah notes the sexual objectification that was part of the tweetstream, and I believe gender - actually, mysogyny - was [also] a significant issue in the blogosphere attack back in 2007 (which was perpetrated exclusively by male bloggers on a prominent female blogger).

* Culture: Ben Metcalfe (who posted the "bullshit" comment as dotBen on IRC at the conference) is British, and I know from the scenes I've seen of British Parliament sessions that the style of communication is far more snarky there than in, say, the U.S. Senate (although vitriol does seem to be an increasingly prevalent component of political "discourse" in this country). That said, one of our panelists at CSCW 2004, Elizabeth Churchill, is also British, and a promoter of a more polite and civil form of dialogue, and I cannot imagine that she would condone Ben's choice of words.

* Civility: I like Mena's invitation to proofread our posts "for more than just proper grammar or HTML ... [but] also read them for accuracy, appropriateness, good nature and civility". I was reflecting on the cultural differences and tensions between civic engagement and civil engagement in coffeehouses in my recent post on conversation, community and culture at Starbucks. Like many commenters on the post you referenced - and on your own post - I still like to believe that higher levels of engagement do not require or entail lower levels of civility.

* Shortness: I think it's interesting that, at the end of the video clip, Ben and Mena agree to take the conversation offline. Mena later blogged about how the offline conversation was considerably more civil, deeper and more productive than the sparring that occurred in the backchannel - and frontchannel - during the conference. It strikes me that the shortness of length in Twitter (and IRC) tends to promote another dimension of shortness: curtness or brusqueness in style ... which is why I tend to avoid using Twitter conversationally. I generally prefer to use other platforms more conducive to conversations, like blog posts and comments.

Anyhow, thanks for the comments, and for offering me the opportunity to learn and think a little more about some of these issues!

Joe McCarthy

Jared: thanks for offering your unique and insightful first-hand perspective! Your comments corroborate others I'd read about the lack of preparation exhibited by the other keynote speaker, and the implied lack of respect for the audience (and, hence, the reciprocal disrespect that flowed through the backchannel). I'm glad that the backchannel was kinder to you, and others, throughout the conference.

I agree with your analysis of three important factors - publicity, accumulation and permanence - that are involved in this (and other) episodes of backchannel "relief valves". Your observation about the relative invisibility of the backchannel among most of the HighEdWeb 2009 attendees is particularly interesting. The backchannel was mostly invisible at the SCS 2004 event as well, until the short burst of laughter erupted (and it wasn't even that loud, it was just a relatively small group - about 100 - in a relatively small room). Some of the people who commented on danah's blog post about her experience at Web 2.0 Expo said that the backchannel comments on the big screen couldn't even be seen by many people in the audience, and the "rumblings" that danah heard so clearly up front were reportedly not audible to those further back.

I, too, have attended a number of keynotes and other presentations at academic conferences (including CHI) that were not very engaging, and where the audience diverts its attention in other ways. I do wonder, though, what it is about some conferences that seems to lead to the mob-like diversion - or attraction - of ganging up to tear speakers down.

I've been closely monitoring and actively participating in the backchannels at two of the recent academic conferences I've attended (and blogged about) - Communities & Technologies 2009 and UbiComp 2009 - and I didn't see any examples of the snarkiness that I've seen, and has been reported, at other events (and there were, as always, a few examples of boring talks at each of these events). I conducted a survey after C&T 2009 of all the people who posted to Twitter with the #cct2009 hashtag, and one of the respondents explicitly noted the relatively "deferential nature" of relationships observed in the tweetstream, and suggested this may be due to the high proportion of graduate students in attendance.

The only point on which I significantly differ with you is your assertion that "I don't think there was a mob behavior at all. In fact, it was really, overall, very polite." The snark factor analysis of HighEdWeb 2009 I had referenced earlier suggests a fairly high degree of snarkiness (which I consider to be the opposite of politeness). While I haven't read the entire tweetstream, the blog post offers a number of examples:

12:17 - Best keynote EVER #sarcasm #heweb09
12:17 - Are you serious right now? I feel like an alternate universe. #heweb09
12:19 - [speaker], ur doin gr8, and ima let you finish, but @jmspool had one of the best keynotes ever! #heweb09
12:25 - Would he like the immediate feedback of us all walking out? #heweb09
12:25 - *insert ROLFcopter here* #heweb09
12:28 - Can someone live-Kanye this guy? @fienen? #heweb09

I do agree that these are milder than the types of comments made in several of the other examples I wrote about in the main post - and the one that Scott Berkun shared in an earlier comment - but I don't consider these polite, and the "public" and "cumulative" aspects that you note in your analysis of the tweetstream commentary seem to be necessary, though not sufficient, aspects of mob-like behavior. I know there are different definitions of mob, ranging from simply a "group of people" to "a large or disorderly crowd; especially: one bent on riotous or destructive action" but I would say that the samples of the tweetstream I've seen from #heweb2009 reflect more of the latter than the former.

Finally, I also agree that the backchannel is symptomatic of larger problems. I'd noted issues of gender, culture, civility and shortness in my reply to Scott. I hadn't considered the issue of control that you highlight, and this does seem to be a factor in all of the episodes I know about. The "revolution" and "renegotiation" that Rob Cottingham wrote about in his Tweulogy cartoon commentary is also about control issues, and I think he has a valid recommendation: "But that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it."

Anyhow, thanks for making such a significant contribution to the conversation - really great food for further thoughts (and action)!

Regina Mullen

Thank you so much for tweeting this article, Jared. It's fantastic timing and I'm grateful because it is, as Scott said, a thoughtful and relevant exploration of how social media has permanently altered the relationship between speaker and audience in the conference setting.

A few comments:

1) backchannel behavior using social media took firm root in high schools about 5 years ago, but the analog version of tossing notes across the room when teacher wasn't looking is as old as the hills.
2) sports and entertainment shows rely on real-time commentary and other metadata about what's happening on the field
3) authoritarian constructs cannot prevent humans from being social animals
4) Twitter is probably most dangerous to pollsters and the phone companies that charge for SMS messaging to gather viewer metrics

By "authoritarian" I mean precisely what was identified above: the environment wherein someone bigger/better/faster/smarter than you holds forth and your role is to sit there NICELY and listen. Without Ritalin.

In another "sit nicely and listen" arena,--the courts, judges have extended their authority and control over process by preventing observers from tweeting or texting. Query, though, whether a judge has the authority to prevent an attorney from doing so as an expedient way of communicating with her litigation team in real time, if in doing so she does not actually disrupt the court-room. For example, a defense attorney giving her paralegal directives while listening to a withering cross-examination of her client may have an absolute right to do. I think we will see that case soon.


Personally, when I'm in a crowd and can't interact with people for "rudeness," my first thought is to identify the exits. Throughout the speech, I'm calculating the burndown, so that I can make my get-away about 15 seconds before the speech ends. Every woman probably does this to avoid lines in the bathroom, but it means that conference speakers begin with a mindshare disadvantage, no matter how brilliant. As someone just on the introverted side of the continuum, I can only imagine the internal dialogue of conference attendees who thrive on constant live, human interaction.

In the mediation community, we have learned that people need to interact in order to grow and change, so we position the room to optimize for knowledge acquisition on a small scale. Yet, even knowing what we know, we continue going to mediation conferences that require submission to the same stage layout, isolating use of light and absence of comfortable chairs. We know that learning is highly individualistic, yet audience members are still placed at a disadvantage for learning by being positioned as “The Other,” not only amongst themselves, but with respect to the speaker as well. Indeed, the thought seems to be that we, who have paid to be there, ought to be grateful IF (as Jared did brilliantly at Agile2009), the speaker decides to present in a way that truly engages for learning. While Jared talks about fixing “bad presentations,” I wonder how the average presenter can hope to deliver a “good presentation” under those circumstances.

In the past few weeks, I've watched about 50 webinars and 30 years out of high school, I still can't listen without a "pen" in my hand. So, when it occurred to me that I could use Twitter to take notes and save on my Moleskine budget, it was a small step to the idea that there might be value in creating a stream and sharing thoughts with the legal and Agile communities in real time. @nicktadd calls it a "show," but I like the term "tweetinar,” since it most closely describes the process. It's not that I want to de-value the authority or intelligence of the presenter,--it's that I refuse to de-value my own needs as a student. The discipline is to preserve the purpose of this kind of backchannel, which is to focus intently on what the speaker is saying,--not detract there from. I’m just getting to know Google Wave, but think it may turn become an even more valuable “sidebar” tool than Twitter for this purpose.

Now, Sir Kenneth Robinson has gained a lot of traction talking about diversity in knowledge acquisition. This is great, but didn't we fight kicking and screaming in the 70's with the idea of "co-operative games" for learning social skills and "ebonics" as a way of meeting kids where they were? Well, now there are even folks making money on using rap to teach,--as if this were a new idea (rap was ALWAYS about teaching). The Agile community is glowing over the wonderful learning game "Where Are Your Keys (#WAYK)," which uses total body engagement to create and maintain rapid language fluency. It is another evolution in methods of using physical movement to teach deep concepts. Prof. Tufte insists that we can create higher bandwidth visual communication and Rene-Marc Mangin (Cf. Mind over Matter) provides us with ways of interpreting and looping feedback, so we can know “the frequency.”

I think it was in the novel "I am a cat," that Japanese novelist Soseki described a disinterested and uninteresting college lecturer as "blowing philosophical smoke"… I don't think there's any harm in letting the audience decide where that smoke goes using the twitterverse. Though it seems strangely at odds with the digitalization of everyday life, our collective peripheral vision is full of movement away from unidirectional, single-channel learning towards full body engagement. In that sense, even the small actions of thumbs on keyboards is a good thing.

Jared M. Spool

This is a great discussion and I agree with nearly everything you've said, except this one thing:

I know there are different definitions of mob, ranging from simply a "group of people" to "a large or disorderly crowd; especially: one bent on riotous or destructive action" but I would say that the samples of the tweetstream I've seen from #heweb2009 reflect more of the latter than the former.

I think "mob" is a overly sensationalized term.

This was not a disorderly crowd. As I looked around the room, there was no signs of disorder anywhere. The only evidence was in the twitter stream, by a minority of the audience.

Mob is a real-world metaphor. If I were to choose a metaphor that described what I saw happening there, it would be rebel teenagers in the back of the classroom snickering about the inexperienced and ill-prepared student teacher.

Sure, the twitter stream was snarky and rude. But, what was really happening, from my vantage point, was the audience was so bored, a few of them turned and played "how snarky can we get".

I've seen mobs. The town hall meetings from this summer had mobs. Mobs have a certain energy to them. They have passion.

At the end of the keynote speaker's presentation, he opened up the floor to questions. If a mob had been brewing, this would've gotten really energetic and tense. None of that happened.

Instead, one person stood up and asked a question. The question was one that had been batted around the twitter stream as the presentation was going on, in various forms. It was a tough question.

The presenter avoided the question and gave an answer that wasn't really meaningful in any way. Would a mob accept this? Would a mob start grumbling and shouting and making noise? If the town hall meetings were any indication, I'd say yes.

But that isn't what happened. The presenters' avoidance of the question shut down the room. There was silence while looking for a second question. Then the conference chair thanked the speaker and there was polite applause from everyone. (A couple of the snarky folks stood up to give the presenter standing ovation -- again, another suggestion that had been floated in the twitter stream. It didn't catch on.) And then everyone left.

I'm sorry, but I don't see anything mob related here. You mentioned this was a hybrid inhibition effect. If you want to apply a term, I'd say it was a bi-polar effect. What was happening in the stream was almost the exact opposite of what was happening in the room.

So, that's my thinking on this.

One other thing: In the last year, I've given about 50 presentations, keynotes, and workshops. Almost all of them have people who tweet (though the percentage at HighEdWeb was one the highest I'd seen -- I always take a show of hands at the beginning of my talks).

I've never had a mob-like problem with the backchannel. And with two exceptions, I've never seen any other presenters have that experience. (The two exceptions were the HighEdWeb keynote and the Zuckerberg/Lacey interview at SxSW, which, coincidentally followed my presentation on the same stage an hour before. I'm some sorta curse, I tell you.)

In general, twitter backstreams are really helpful to the audience and the presenter. I have no trouble with them. And it's curious that people are generalizing from the bad behaviors in a couple of sessions, out of the hundreds that are happening all the time.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if we put this much energy into solving the problem of bad presentations.

Thanks for putting out some really engaging thoughts here.

Jared M. Spool

One more thought...

I should qualify my comments in that I really liked the HighEdWeb crowd. I went drinking with them after the keynotes. The ones who were the snarkiest on the twitter stream were the most fun at the bar.

So, I'm biased and think that crowd was full of good natured, fun-loving folks. That's why I don't see a mob.

Joe McCarthy

Regina: thanks for contributing to the conversation, and for extending it into the realms of courtrooms and [other] mediation settings. I remember the last time I sat on a jury, I was gently reprimanded by the judge when I asked a question of an attorney during the proceedings. We had just finished the more interactive voir dire process, and I hadn't adjusted to the more formally prescribed protocol of trying the case. And I remember the sense of frustration I felt after that, because I was required to "sit nicely [or at least quietly] and listen".

Your scenario of lawyers and paralegals using backchannels is an interesting one, and I imagine that many of the recommendations made by Scott Berkun, Jeremiah Owyang and Olivia Mitchell for integrating Twitter into presentations in beneficial and non-disruptive ways may be relevant in that context, as well.

Your comment about burndown, exit strategies and layouts reminds me of an offline conversation I had about some of the themes in this post with a friend who is [also?] active in the mediation world. In it, I had referenced William Whyte's theme of self-congestion in his classic book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, in which he noted how people often stop to talk in areas of the highest traffic flow, e.g., a busy street corner, where they are often inconveniencing the others who are trying get by. Although he did not offer a definitive explanation, he suggested the behavior was because "in the center of the crowd you have the maximum choice - to break off, or continue".

This, in turn, reminds me of the law of two feet that danah boyd had spoken of in her Web 2.0 Expo talk, a concept drawn from the open source and open space communities. I didn't elaborate on this in my original post, but I think it's relevant in this context, and so I want to briefly revisit it here to highlight the irony of this dimension of danah's talk [and how it was received and responded to [by some]]. Here's the most succinct definition I've read, from a photo of a sign at a Mashup Camp in a blog post on the law of two feet by Deborah Schultz:

If you find yourself neither learning nor contributing, it is your responsibility to respectfully use your own two feet to find some place you are learning or contributing.

Finally, thank you for introducing me to Where Are Your Keys? I look forward to looking into this "viral, open-source high-speed language learning game".

Howard Rheingold

Excellent excellent post, Joe. I don't know whether it was at the MSR conference you are describing or an earlier or a later edition, and I don't recall if you were there, but I did my 5 minute standup and noted at the beginning that I wasn't sure we know what we were doing with the backchannel -- was it really useful? Not a lot of comment -- this was several years ago, before Twitter, so it was on IRC. But one of my students in the first class I taught -- I guess that dates it to about 5 years ago -- was on the IRC channel from Berkeley. She emailed me that I would be interested in her Masters projet. She had created an IRC front-end for the entire department -- for the students. The students had been chatting online during class all semester, and I didn't realize that they had created an entire channel for it. In a sense, that was my own naivete as a first-time teacher. I knew they were communicating -- when two people at opposite ends of the table, looking at their laptops, smile at the same time, it's obvious. But I didn't realize that it was part of her project. I objected that I had been recruited into a human subjects experiment without my knowledge and consent. THis led to an email exchange of many messages in which it became clear to me that the students in this particularly web-savvy department had a strong sense of entitlement regarding where they put their attention. So I've been working ever since to evolve constructive backchannels in my class. As my students will attest, it is more difficult to participate in a parallel online discussion about the subject the class is talking about than to engage in parallel random witticisms and snark. In the last few times I've used Twitter and chat as backchannels, about half the students end up liking it and wanting to do it more and about half say it's distracting and difficult for them, and want to opt out. But a classroom is a very different kind of group.

BTW, knowing danah and her work as I do and as you do, it seems to me to be an indictment of the intellectual shallowness of this particular group. Did they have any idea that in a world of social media bullshit they were actually listening to somehow who knows what she is talking about? Or did a few assholes manage to convey the false impression that it was a gathering of intellectual lightweights?

Joe McCarthy

Howard: thanks for sharing your experiences with digital backchannels in the classroom! Having enjoyed numerous engaging talks you have given over the years to audiences of various sizes (including SCS, and, of course, your fabulous opening keynote at CSCW 2002), I can imagine that maintaining continuous partial attention between the backchannel and the frontchannel in one of your classes would be very challenging for your students. In a discussion-style class that is sufficiently small, I would think that the backchannel would be more of a problem than a solution. Your description of the sense of entitlement is also interesting, reminding me of bumper stickers I first saw in the 70s saying "Question Authority! But if Authority Answers, Will You Listen?"

I do think that a properly designed and constrained backchannel can offer solutions to significant problems in some classroom settings, e.g., large lecture halls where students feel too intimidated to participate in the frontchanel, Although I didn't go into much detail about our CSCW 2004 panel, one of our panelists, Bill Griswold, talked about the ActiveClass application he and his students had created for facilitating backchannel participation in the context of large lecture classes. Students could post questions and vote on each others' questions on a backchannel via handheld devices (HP Jornadas, I believe), and a teaching assistant would monitor the backchannel and notify the lecturer when he/she saw opportunities for real-time clarifications and elaborations on the topics being presented. This kind of practice has also been recommended in some of the "Twitter @ conferences" guidelines I noted in my post.

As for the experience at Web 2.0 Expo, I really do hope that some of the people who were attending more to the backchannel than the frontchannel during danah's talk will take the time to go back and read the talk and/or watch the video so that they can better appreciate what they missed ... and, perhaps, reflect on how they might want to modify or modulate their use of backchannels during future conferences.

Cliff Atkinson

Hi Joe - great post!

An important factor in all of these "backchannel blowups" to date is where they happened - at technology-related meetings and conferences. This particular sub-set of society has its own particular ethos and social norms that influence behavior, which may or may not carry over into the broader culture as backchannels become more mainstream.

In any case, no one has been physically harmed to date by a backchannel mob - the only injuries are bruises to egos and reputations. As we nurse our wounds the experiences do offer opportunities to learn about how to handle the major changes afoot in the field of live presentations.

For example, as Jared points out, it's important for presenters to not consider themselves passive victims of potential Twitter mobs. Instead, a speaker can do some simple things to prevent or at least mitigate potential disasters, e.g.:

- Display your Twitter username and presentation hashtag on your title slide.
- Verbally acknowledge the backchannel at the start of the presentation.
- Take Twitter breaks to review, acknowledge and bring to the group's attention any questions, misunderstandings or clarifications.

These three things don't take much effort, but they fundamentally change backchannel dynamics by implicitly saying:

- I acknowledge you're here and I know who you are.
- I encourage your comments and involvement.
- I have a record of what you say, I'll review your comments and may bring them to the attention of the entire group.

This undermines the bulk of the foundation of the online inhibition effect by bringing the online into the physical realm of face-to-face communication where a different set of norms guides our behavior.

I found the last component of the online inhibition effect to be the most interesting:

- We're Equals (Minimizing Authority)

When social media expert Chris Brogan confronted and turned around an unruly backchannel as the keynote speaker at the New Media Atlanta conference in September (, he intentionally (and successfully) broke down the social construct of himself as the "expert" and his audience as passive recipients of his wisdom. As he does with all of his talks, he considers it essential to level the playing field between himself and others and portray everyone in the room as equals.

This may be one of the biggest impacts the backchannel will have on live presentations - tearing down the idea of the elevated podium of the expert and instead creating a more conversational form of presentation.

The next step may be the elimination of many presentations altogether, to be replaced by Open Space-inspired gatherings that are completely self-directed and peer-led. It may put a lot of presenters (and backchannel snipers) out of business, but we'll all probably get a whole lot more done in a more productive, satisfying and social way.

P.S. For anyone interested in more resources related to the backchannel, I've started a blog at, a list of 300+ bookmarks to backchannel-related articles at, and a wiki for backchannel-related tools and research at:

Joe McCarthy

Cliff: thanks for adding your insights and experiences to the discussion here! I really like your three-step process of acknowledgement, encouragement and accountability, and am glad to have links to additional resources on backchannels. And your observation about the silver linings that can arise from bad experiences resonates strongly with me (and aligns with an earlier post I wrote about blessing, wounding and transformation).

I enjoyed reading Bert Decker's description of his daughter's experience with Chris Brogan's "victory" over / through the backchannel (Chris was also a speaker at Web 2.0 Expo NYC). I especially like relevant and pithy quote Bert includes by Paul Freet: "Backnoise is like the hammer in the 1984 Apple commercial".

I agree that the Web 2.0 paradigm of "architectures of participation" can create beneficial leveling effects for many people in many contexts, including many conference contexts. However, it's not clear to me that they always add value: I think there are [still] some people with amazing insights and amazing speaking skills who merit our full attention. In my blog post on the experiences of the backchannel at CSCW 2004, I noted:

It is noteworthy that Larry Lessig, who gave the closing plenary speech on "Hacking the Law to Rebuild a Free Culture" later that day, also used visual augmentations that were so compelling that the activity on the backchannel was greatly diminished.

In fact, there was only one post on the IRC channel throughout his entire hour-long talk, and that was someone saying something like "hello, is anyone here?" (to which no one replied). That said, in corroboration of one of your first points, the backchannel didn't hurt anything or anyone here, it was just ignored.


I enjoyed the way you put this phenomenon into perspective.

This comes a little late, I guess, but I wanted to comment on the idea of web-mobs. The article by Elizabeth Bernstein, "The Dark Side of 'Webtribution'" claims that "The Internet turns us into a mob". And you question that description, pointing out that Bernstein doesn't actually use examples of "a mob," but that "they are all more personal, or individual, attacks".

I think a "mob" description is fairly appropriate, because even in a physical mob, the damage is always done by individual attacks.

Whenever a ringleader does something that prompts others to respond with harsh interactions, whether it is with tar-and-feathers or with Facebook comments, then "mob" is a fitting term, I'd say.

Joe McCarthy

Scot: thanks for offering your perspective on the appropriateness of the attribution of "mob" in these cases. In Jared's earlier comment, he argues that the tweckling of the other keynote speaker at HighEdWeb 2009 did not meet his criteria for mob-like behavior. I suspect that "mob" means different things to different people, and in cases of hybrid spaces, it may be even more difficult to arrive at a widely shared definition. Thanks for highlighting the importance of the individual in larger collective actions, as I am hoping that, at least, is beyond dispute.


Joe, thanks for this compelling post. Having clicked through to read danah's own post about her Web2.0 presentation, I especially resonated with the notion she articulated at the end about being seen as an object, and how the twitter wall exacerbated the effect. She was rightly furious. It seems to me the core of any mob's mindset, whether played out in a town hall or on a twitter wall is exactly this process of reducing what is real and human to a thing. It becomes malicious fun in a crowd of strangers, a contagious collective joy, to create pain for others rather than face our own inner shadows, damage and darkness. Bravo for the light.


Some time in the 90s, there was a keynote at an Apple Developer Conference that was, at times, quite boring. There was no Net connection, but we had laptops with wireless, so could see each other.

The backchannel was in the names of the peer networks, which appeared when you looked for a wireless connection. So whenever there were dull sections, more and more people would want to read their email or web sites, notice the names, and create names of their own to comment on the presentations.

Yes it was snarky, but because we were all committed to the platform (pre iPod!), it was more rueful than angry.

Joe McCarthy

Dan: thanks for highlighting the issue of sexual objectification. danah has written often and eloquently about the pervasiveness of this mindset, and I wouldn't be surprised if tall poppy syndrome - "a societal phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are criticised or resented because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers" - is disproportionately inflicted on women (for this reason).

Two recent tragedies come to mind as extreme examples of the damage that can be wrought through contagious, collective, sexual objectification: the gang rape of a 15 year old girl in Richmond, CA, and a 13-year-old girl in Sundance, FL, who committed suicide after her classmates spread nude photos.

While I share danah's outrage at the "guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object" [and wrote about her in such terms on Twitter], I don't mean to suggest that these are the kind of people who would commit rape or shame someone to the point of suicide. However, I do think that this is the kind of mindset that can lead to such violence, when the individual, often unconscious, backchannels of mysogyny, hyper-sexualization and double standards are offered an unmoderated portal through which to burst forth into the frontchannels of shared spaces.

Kathy Sierra, one of my favorite bloggers, stopped blogging after one such outburst; danah, one of my favorite speakers (and bloggers), is now [understandably] saying "if that's what public speaking is going to be like, I'm out". I hope that the audiences she has more recently been speaking to (SuperNova and Le Web) are willing to accept her very reasonable requests:

[P]lease come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I'm ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well.
Joe McCarthy

Searchtools_avi: this sounds like an interesting - and subtle - "relief valve"!

I'm reminded of the University of Bath's Bluefish project I read about a while back:

a new technology which will project Bluetooth identities, in the form of face icons, on large screens in cafes and bars. If people choose to opt in, their screen will show their Bluetooth name, previous encounters, and a history of where that person’s been and who they have spent the most time with.

I don't know whether the system was every deployed, but I remember musing about the innovative ways that people might name their Bluetooth devices - within the confines of 16 characters - once they learned that they were being projected on a big screen in a shared space ... and especially if that shared space is a bar.

As for your experience at the Apple Developers Conference in the 90s, I wonder if the ruefulness - vs. anger - you observed there is related to the channel constraints, the conference, the speaker or the era.

I don't know what the maximum length of network names was, but suspect it was shorter than 140 characters (and probably only allowed a subset of characters, potentially limiting emoticonographical commentary). I was speculating on the impact of channel width in an earlier comment - and other factors - on snarkiness, and I wonder what the snark factor was in the improvised network name "channel". I also wonder how the relative persistence of tweets vs. network names (assuming they were changed after the session, or at least the conference) affects things.

I won't speculate on the conference or the speaker, but I do suspect there is a societal trend toward increased snarkiness (or, at least, in the high technology community).


Objectification happens in all kinds of ways, including all forms of discrimination and to enemies in times of war. What I find fascinating about danah's case is how the twitter wall contained everything from mocking comments about her as a speaker to myogynistic ones. The whole friggin' Shadow at once, it seems, and it went on for awhile. I don't think this is just a social control issue. This isn't just about a few people making snarky comments. It's also about the acceptance of this stuff by the audience. I wasn't there so I don't know the whole story. But from a leadership standpoint, anyone in the audience could have stood up, could have interrupted danah and everyone else to point out what was happening, to ask for change. Instead, it seems, the audience let it happen with someone else responsible for "monitoring the feed." How many people were there? I'm sure that would have been "disrupting" to intervene as I am suggesting. Crowds by their nature are intimidating. But it also might have been a whole lot more sensitive and human, instead furthering the collusion. That's Shadow, too. There are those who make the comments, one kind of mob, but there is also a silent, accepting mob and that's as much of a problem as those who left their negative advertising on the wall.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.


    This is a Flickr badge showing public photos from gumption. Make your own badge here.

Disqus - Latest Comments by gumption

World Wine Weblog