Should there even be a backchannel?

June 07, 2011

Posted in Personal and Social Media.

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At major conferences, there are always attendees to blog, tweet, and chat about the conference while it’s happening. This is known as a backchannel.

Many conferences and events share official Twitter hashtags (e.g., #eduweb) to help attendees find each other. At Railsconf a few years ago, someone built a tool that pulled it all together and displayed it in a real time visualization.

But that’s in tech-centric conferences. In other events I’ve attended, I don’t see any many laptops and phones out. A handful of people are tweeting, but there’s very little backchannel.

I’ve been watching the audience more while I speak. There are usually a few people with their phones or laptops out. Are they tweeting or doing email? Are they taking notes or screwing around on Facebook?

I find that I focus my attention on people who are engaged – paying attention to me and interacting. There’s eye contact, nodding, and they laugh at jokes. The people on their phones seem distant, disconnected from the event they’re at. It seems rude.

I’ve also noticed that I’m less engaged when I’m live tweeting. I hear the audience laugh and I look up quickly, wondering what I just missed. I was too focused on capturing a great quote and posting it somewhere. Am I getting the most out of the presentation?

Do you tweet at conferences? Have you been annoyed by attendees who are on their laptops or phones the whole time?


  1. Bradjward — June 08, 2011

    I stopped putting @bradjward on my intro slide over a year ago, and stopped mentioning I was on Twitter at all. Why? So I could see honest feedback about how I did. And it’s been great! Some of the WORST presentations I’ve ever been in have been nothing but a congratulatory echo chamber on the backchannel… All because everyone knows that person is on Twitter and will see the comments later. No value in that.

  2. Joe Lackner — June 08, 2011

    The backchannel, by definition, is the conversation happening behind someones back. The real time nature of it, unless harnessed by the speaker intentionally, rarely plays in favor of the presenter.

    While constructive criticism can help, how often do we see that?

  3. Nancy Kroes — June 08, 2011

    I found it very annoying at the last two highedweb conferences. Almost everyone at my table had their laptops out and were continually tweeting and conversing with each other. It was very rude and those of us who were actually trying to listen to the speaker found it very difficult. If it is going to be allowed then accommodations should be made for those who want to listen and interact with the speaker and those who want to tweet and laugh/snark with each other. Make the tweeters sit off on the side so they aren’t bothering others who came to the conference to learn something, not to be cute and show off.

    It seemed like in Cincinnati, the tweeters took over the actual presentation rooms as well. All you could hear was the sound of keys being typed and then outbursts of loud laughter as they laughed at each others tweets. VERY rude and VERY annoying and frankly, I would like to see it banned. My school paid for me to attend and I would really like to get their money’s worth!

  4. Jeff Stevens — June 08, 2011

    I don’t think this is a phenomena that could be banned at higher tech conferences. From my part, I know that my tweeting in an event is split – some of it is a conversation with other people in the room, but a large majority of the tweeting is communicating with my coworkers and friends who could not attend the event and who would get value from the presentation I am listening to.

    Like everything, it should be done in moderation. And if you’ve seen someone already quote someone in a presentation, don’t repeat it – just retweet and reduce the sound clutter in the room.

  5. Chas Grundy — June 08, 2011

    @joe – The benefits I’ve gotten are when I get exposure to people who weren’t in attendance, and people end up following me, visiting my presentation on Slideshare, etc. I don’t really get a lot of criticism, but I think that’s partly because of what Brad said – if people know you’ll read their tweets, they are less likely to be critical.

    @nancy – At one of the higher ed conferences a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that the majority of the room were heads-down, focused on their laptops. Cue Michelle from Full House: “How rude!”

  6. Gemma — June 07, 2011

    Interesting points. I find live tweeting very beneficial for those who (like me) can’t usually attend conferences, but I can see how it would be disconcerting from the point of view of the speaker. I wouldn’t live tweet on my own accord; I’d probably just take notes on paper so I could watch the speaker. However, I’ve been assigned to live tweet at a conference this summer for work, so we’ll see how that goes!

  7. Chas Grundy — June 07, 2011

    I often go back and look through the backchannel and see what people quoted, what they said, etc. I’ve never been a fan of snarky criticism in that way, and fortunately haven’t been the recipient of it.

    I’ve started instituting “no laptops, no phones” rules in many meetings where it’s more important to be engaged than taking notes. The draw of multitasking is just too strong to have a laptop up while we’re focusing on something else.

  8. Michael Stoner — June 07, 2011

    While I often tweet at conferences, I have some personal reservations about doing it. In some ways, I believe that it’s disrespectful to the presenter. And while I understand that sharing a few snarky comments via the backchannel is a way to blow off some steam, doing that to any extent without questioning the presenter or engaging him/her in a conversation about something that has raised an issue seems cowardly to me. Conferences are created to promote FTF interaction: let’s do everything we can to encourage it.

    As a presenter, I know that there’s often stuff going on on the back channel but I don’t have enough personal bandwidth to pay attention to it and still deliver a coherent presentation.