I have been an unabashed champion of the power of conference backchannel, but danah boyd’s  (whose work I respect and admire tremendously) experience at the Web 2.0 Expo on November 17 shook me to my very core.  You can read more from boyd here as well as here, but in a nutshell, conference organizers staged a live stream of conference Tweets behind boyd, who could not see the stream content.  boyd, who also could not see the audience well at all and who was unaware of the content of the Twitter stream,  understandably closed down when the audience began laughing just a few minutes into her speech.

My initial reaction to this incident was one of shock and anger.  I guess I am naive for my thirty-eight years, but I was truly appalled by the unprofessional and mean-spirited behavior of those who were posting Tweets that were not constructive criticism but instead, destructive and cruel in nature.  As someone who just saw boyd present a few weeks ago at AASL, I am dismayed and incredulous  that boyd’s message was drowned out by the drivel and thoughtless online behavior of a few who essentially disrupted her speech in such a negative way.   This incident hits close to home for me because  I identify with boyd’s desire to create an exceptional presentation and learning experience that will be informative and inspiring to those in the physical and virtual audience.  No presenter wants to disappoint or come short of audience expectations; if you feel you have faltered, you reflect and work even harder to craft a presentation that will be engaging and meaningful.  I wonder if those posting the disrespectful Tweets had any recognition of the care and intellectual investment boyd had committed to crafting her presentation.  If they did, then could how they act as they did? Even if they did not, how could people behave with such callous disrespect?  Their behavior was something akin to bullies in a schoolyard, taunting and assaulting someone who was vulnerable and undone by laughter she interpreted as ridicule.

As someone who has witnessed the positive power of the backchannel from the perspective as a participant and observer, I still believe the backchannel can be a valuable aspect of the conference or presentation experience.  However, boyd’s blog posts, an engaging and thoughtful Twitter conversation I enjoyed with my personal learning network last night/this morning, and the subsequent Tweets this evening from George Siemens (please see his thoughtful blog post on this topic) have left me with these questions that I think need more discussion and thought:

  • We cannot naively take for granted that those in the backchannel will always be respectful.  How do you deal with this kind of situation proactively and with minimal disruption if it does occur?
  • Lazygal feels,  “There’s a new sense of decorum that we need to establish for listeners”; how can we as a learning community model and encourage constructive critique that does not detract from the speaker?
  • Bobbi Newman is wondering that even when the backchannel is positive, is there any value to be gained by having the livestream viewable by the audience whether the presenter can see it or not.  She also  wonders if the livestream pulls attention away from the presenter?
  • Kristin Fontichiaro and I are wondering if the gender of the speaker was an issue in this sad incident; Kristin also wondered if  age and/or perceived authority as insider/outsider had any bearing on the behavior of those in the Twitterstream/audience.
  • Lazygal wondered, ” if a Twitter feed doesn’t enhance professional learning, does it merit a vaunted place onstage?”
  • Kristin Fontichiaro wonders if those engaging in the negative behavior it “thought was culturally acceptable … there’s an anthropological piece to this…”—I agree that there is much to be learned from incidents like these because I am sure this is not the first time it has happened to someone (unfortunately).
  • boyd observes that if a live and unmoderated Twitter stream is going to be integrated into an event/presentation, the speaker needs to know this ahead of time because “it requires a fundamentally different kind of talk.”
  • George Siemens asks, “is the contract with one speaker, or with the conference experience? do expectations (behaviour) vary based on either?”  George also asks, “What is the audience’s responsibility?”
  • Darren Draper asks, “Are we almost at a point where every presenter will need to pull a @downes and bring the backchannel to the forefront?”

It is a beautiful and exciting thing when the backchannel works positively as the “forechannel” and enhances the conference/presentation experience.  However, that euphoria can quickly be tempered when a few people act like a vicious mob and detract from the presentation.  While I still believe in the positive power of the backchannel, I know these questions will weigh heavily on my mind the next few months as a presenter and as an attendee at winter, spring, and summer conferences.

What are your thoughts on this issue and the questions/challenges/observations I have shared from others?  I invite you to share your constructive feedback.

12 thoughts on “A Sobering Look at the Dark Side of Conference Backchannel

  1. Buffy, I hate to seem backward, but I see the inherent problem with back channeling as not “being in the moment.” (I think there was a tweet recently about a dieing man’s advice to live life in the moment). If I want to truly absorb what is being said, I don’t want to be distracted with the chatter; but that is my choice. By putting the stream at the front of the room, I’m forced to participate. Plus, it’s a lot to ask of the presenter. I would hate to miss out on a powerful presentation, because the speaker felt inhibited by the stream’s presence. At the least it should be her/his choice. Disrespect is definitely part of the issue here also.


  2. I guess I missed something. What exactly is the point of having live streaming comments during a talk that the presenter can’t see? You would think the whole point of having this kind of set up would be for audience participation–but this isn’t participation. It’s just nuts. Even radio call-in shows have a producer answering the phone, a five second delay, and a kill button. I’m not saying everything has to be filtered, but it should at least be seen by the presenter and there should be a good reason to have this kind of set up–preferably it’s the presenter’s actual choice to do this–because what else did they think would happen? Most comments on most public forums are hardly thought-provoking. At least this will be an example that will give presenters pause and make them think out what they want to accomplish. I see great things in this context, using Google’s Wave rather than Twitter, but still. It should be a considered aspect of the talk and not just a gimmick that can destroy the whole thing. Thanks, Jim


  3. Sad to say its classic cyberbullying. But also, to me it makes NO sense to put the stream behind the speaker. It should have been off to the side. And conference organizer’s should have abruptly stopped it when it began to be unrelated, destructive, and off the topic at hand. Maybe had they used a “cover-it-live” where a handful can control what gets posted, though Im not sure they could control the twitter that comes in. Somebody dropped the ball on this one.


  4. This really blows my mind. How awful to be up there presenting and to have this going on. How immature, too! I agree with Cathy Jo that it is cyberbullying and that it does not make sense to put the livestream behind the speaker – the speaker is not even given a chance to respond, to adjust, or to turn it off!! C’mon people, have some respect!


  5. I use the backchannel in a different way, taking notes on key points, trying to share with others in my network the essence of the presentation. “Chatting” with others during a keynote would break my concentration and greatly diminish any value I might have gotten from attendance.

    Questions and critiques should be saved until the speaker has had a chance to deliver his/her entire message. Constructive criticism and rebuttals have their place, but bad manners are never acceptable.


  6. I’ll confess I haven’t looked into this much but I have yet to read/hear what the benefit to having the back channel on stage is. If the presenter can’t see it (whether it’s good or bad) what is the added value? It distracts from the presentation, one you probably paid for, and are definitely spending your time on.


  7. I agree that the streaming the backchannel on the stage, whether or not the speaker can see it has the possibility of being *highly* distracting–and has no appeal to me whatsoever. At the same time, I don’t think it’s going to go away–it seems like a natural extension of the medium & the way things are going. I don’t see this issue going away & there needs to be a concerted effort to establish practices that promote civility. I don’t like the idea of censoring, but perhaps it is necessary in some egregious instances, and there definitely need to be guidelines and expectations for conference-goers. This type of behavior is simply unacceptable.

    Also, regarding the gender issue–yeah, it might be a factor and I know Ms. Boyd referred to this as being a significant issue in her post–but I haven’t seen any specific evidence of sexual harassment or misogyny (not that I’ve seen all that much of what was tweeted). I think we all need to be careful about accusing people of being sexist unless we are *very* sure that gender is a factor. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a factor, esp. as Ms. Boyd is both young & very attractive, but thinking that and alleging it outright are two different things. If you’re going to to the latter, you really should provide concrete evidence.


    1. Hi Kris!

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!

      Kristin and I were wondering about the gender thing because boyd specifically mentioned some of the inappropriate comments of a sexual nature from the Twitter stream. I agree we should not jump to conclusions (like you, I have not seen the specific Tweets she mentioned), but I think it is a fair question to ask given the reality that sexism continues to be an issue in our society.

      Like you, I’m interested to see how this incident may (or may not?) impact the future use of backchannel at conferences.

      Thank you for reading the blog and for taking time to share your ideas!



      1. Oh, I know she mentioned it–in pretty graphic terms, actually, which is why it initially freaked me out, too. But this blogger, Jenna McWilliams, says that she has read the tweet feed & couldn’t find any posts that were specifically sexually inappropriate: http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com/2009/11/can-we-defend-danah-boyd-while-also.html

        I wasn’t there & I haven’t seen the tweets, so maybe Ms. Boyd saw something different in them than Ms. McWilliams did. And honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me *at all* if people (men) were being sexually inappropriate and/or sexist. But I haven’t seen the evidence, so I feel weird saying that it happened for sure–I saw several snarky & obnoxious posts, so I can say for sure that it was heckling, and that it was totally unacceptable. I feel terrible for her.


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