During the CHI 2007 conference last week, I asked a number of questions after a number of presentations during a number of sessions (two examples of which are shown in the photos on the left from Marc Davis' Flickr stream). I usually find it very challenging to muster the gumption to walk up to the microphone stand and ask questions. There are many sources of the resistance I feel: I'm afraid of revealing my ignorance, of potentially exposing a blind spot on the part of the presenters, of judging others, of being judged by others (as judging others) -- the fear of judgment is central to my hesitation. I get nervous each time I approach the microphone stand, and sometimes I think my voice betrays my unease.
Nonetheless, over the past few months, I've been moving out of my comfort zone at each of the conferences I've attended and asking more questions (earlier examples being UbiComp 2006 and CSCW 2006, and to a lesser extent -- due to my unfamiliarity with the conference -- ETech 2007). Part of my motivation is simply to practice more gumption (feel the fear and ask anyway) -- I nearly always have questions at the end of any talk, as I imagine most people do, yet I usually feel "too small" (or feel that my question is "too small" (or both)) to articulate the question publicly. In my last post, I noted that one of the gifts I received at CHI was people telling me they read my blog (and perhaps this helped embolden me to ask questions). Another gift was people telling me after some of the sessions that they, too, had been wondering about the same issues I raised questions about (and an additional gift was someone noting that I seemed to be unnecessarily apologetic in my phrasing of questions, as though I was unduly concerned with offending the questionee).
Now, in addition to this informative aspect of learning more about the work presented during the conference, I will admit that part of my motivation was performative. Each time I introduced myself before asking the question -- "Joe McCarthy, Nokia Research Center Palo Alto" -- it may have helped increase awareness among attendees that we (Nokia) have a new research lab in Silicon Valley. This was not a primary motivation (or at least not a conscious primary motivation), but it may have provided a tipping point for me. Toward the end, I was feeling somewhat self-conscious about the number of questions I was asking (fearing that some may have perceived me as grandstanding ... and remembering the judgments I had about Simon, an attendee at CHI 2000 who asked the first question after every single talk he attended), but I was genuinely more interested in the informative aspects than the performative aspects, and so decided to press on.
There was certainly a performative aspect to the behavior we witnessed when we deployed the AutoSpeakerID proactive display application at UbiComp 2003. This application showed the name, affiliation and thumbnail image of a person asking a question on a large screen at the front of the room, based on detecting a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag in the person's name badge that was linked to a simple online profile for that person. Our intention was simply to visually augment the common oral practice of introducing oneself before asking a question, and this was the primary effect of this sociotechnical intervention. However, a few people took some liberties with their profiles, including one questioner -- not shown above -- who adopted the digital persona of Ted Kaczynski when asking one question, and the digital persona of Bill Gates when asking another question (actually two different Bill Gates personae during two different questions, but who's counting?). Despite the obvious performative nature of these acts of questioning speakers, the questions -- and answers -- were quite informative ... so perhaps this questioner also believed he was primarily engaged in an informative vs. performative act.
On a separate but related topic, one of the things I've been ruminating on lately is whether bloggers are more likely to post comments on others' blogs than non-bloggers ... or whether people who have posted photos on photo-sharing sites are more likely to comment on photos (than non-photo-posters) ... or whether people who have generated online content in any format are more likely to add content to others' content. My hypothesis is that once someone has revealed or exposed something about his or herself on some kind of social media site, it becomes easier to to risk commenting, favoriting (?), reviewing or otherwise augmenting others' revelations and exposures. I have no quantitative data on this [yet], but I was wondering if this applies to the offline world as well, i.e., people who have presented papers at CHI are more likely to risk publicly asking questions of others who are presenting papers at CHI (for the record, I have never presented a paper at CHI, but have presented papers at UbiComp and CSCW ... but given that CHI 2008 is in Florence, Italy, I'm hoping to join the initiated!).