Representations of Identity: Digital and Physical
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Frontchannels, Backchannels and Sidechannels at CSCW 2004

Cscw2004_logoCSCW 2004 was an engaging experience along numerous dimensions. In addition to an interesting collection of papers, panels and keynotes presented in the frontchannel(s), we had WiFi coverage and designated IRC channels throughout all the sessions. In one session, we projected the IRC window onto the main presentation screen, moving the backchannel toward the frontchannel, creating what might be described as a sidechannel that everyone could see.

On Monday morning, the first day of the conference, I co-presented a paper (with David McDonald) on our evaluation of the proactive displays deployment at UbiComp 2003. As this was early in the conference, many of the attendees did not yet know about the WiFi or IRC channels, and so most of the audience seemed to be paying attention [primarily] to those of us presenting at the podium. As a presenter, I was reminded how important it is to make eye contact with people in the audience, and to sense and respond to their smiles, frowns, yawns and other expressions of interest and engagement (or lack thereof).

The IRC logs show that there were about 10 people on the channel (#cscwB) during the paper presentation, 4 of whom participated in the online discussion (some people joined all three channels -- we had one for each session room -- so it's not clear how many of the people who joined the channel were physically present in the presentation room). There was a total of about 20 messages posted.   was gratified to see [later] that all the backchannel discussion was focused on what was being presented in the frontchannel ... or at least, what was missing from the frontchannel presentation (one message was simply "huh?", and another asked what photo was being referenced on a section of the screen that was blocked by the podium). I observed other messages -- and entire discussions -- in other channels and sessions during the conference that did not appear to be quite so focused on the presentation (e.g., comments about the quality of the coffee).

Later in the conference, as WiFi and IRC became more widely known -- and used -- I was wondering how the technology affected the presentations: for the presenters, the audience members using wireless computing devices, and those who did not have or use such devices during the sessions. On the one hand, I expect that increasing attention was being paid to the backchannels as the conference progressed, which may have had some negative impact on the presenters and the audience. However, in a brief perusal of some of the messages posted on the backchannels throughout the conference, most were related to the frontchannel presentation, and many augmented the presentation in what I consider to be useful ways (e.g., pointers to various resources relating to the presentation). There were also a few missed opportunities: instances where questions were asked of a presenter during a question and answer period that could only be answered by a co-author who was not physically present at the conference ... but who might have been virtually present via the IRC channel.

On Tuesday, awareness and use of the WiFi and IRC continued to increase, with the panel sessions having the most active backchannels. During a panel on "Communities and Technologies", there were a number of interesting events. Near the end of one panelist's opening statement, another panelist, who was on the IRC channel for that session, and who was scheduled for the next opening statement, posted the message "Tough act to follow" which brought a smile to my lips, and probably to many other lips in the room. Later, one of the people in the audience posted a message asking that same panelist whether he could see a mutual friend in the room, since the panelist had a better view of the room and the people in it; that mutual friend walked into the room seconds later (I do not know whether it was in response to seeing that message on the channel).

On Wednesday, the last day of the conference, I co-moderated a panel (with danah boyd) in which our panelists -- Bill Griswold, Liz Lawley, Elizabeth Churchill and Richard Hodkinson -- explicitly discussed the use of digital backchannels in shared physical spaces

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In many respects, this panel offered a hands-on, or at least eyes-on, experience.  For example, during Elizabeth's opening statement, she projected a series of photos of herself, with bubble thoughts (comics-style), creating yet another "channel"; one backchannel participant posted the message "She's talking on one channel, putting up those slides ... evil! evil!" [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.] There were over 50 people who had joined the IRC channel for our session (#cscwC), and there were hundreds of messages posted. After the short position statements by each of the panelists, we decided to project the IRC window onto the main screen, so that everyone in the audience -- not just those with wireless personal computing devices that enabled them to directly participate in the channel -- could see what was going on.  At one point, there was a lively and creative series of posts posing new names for backchannels such as the one(s) created during the panel, including "crackchannels", "smackchannels", "trackchannels", "hackchannels", "cochannels", "snackchannels", "lackoftactchannels" and "FAQchannels".

During the open discussion, most of the panelists were continuously partially attending to the backchannel and the frontchannel simultaneously -- answering questions, posing questions and providing pointers and other augmentations to the content in the frontchannel -- creating a very unusual experience (for me). I would be interested to learn more about any other experiences by people who were physically or virtually there -- if any such people are reading this, please post a comment or send email.

[Update: Richard Hodkinson has written about the panel in his blog.]

[New update: Liz, danah, Jack Vinson, Eric Jurotich, and even USA Today have written about the panel.]

[Newer update: danah and I wrote a short paper, Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces: Experiences at an Academic Conference, that was accepted to CHI 2005.]

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