Conferences and Twitter backchannels

December 1, 2009

I first heard the word ‘backchannel’ at the 2009 WritersUA Conference. I didn’t really understand what it meant then (I first signed up for Twitter while I was at that conference), and I’m still not 100% sure what it means now. But recent events have brought up all the ‘Why?’ and ‘What for?’ and ‘What the…?’ questions I had then.

The explanation I was given some 9 months ago was that attendees at a conference session might be Tweeting snippets of a presentation so the rest of those who can’t attend the session get the benefit of the speaker’s wisdom. (As I understand it, this is the ‘backchannel’.) And in some conferences, this ‘backchannel’ is projected onto a screen for all to see — including the presenter.

While I can see that this might be a useful and positive thing, at the time I was skeptical that those Tweeting during a session would really be focused on the message (after all, they were focusing on sending a text message via their laptop, iPhone etc. not on the presenter, the presentation message and the presentation visuals — that’s a lot to concentrate on, and a lot of multi-tasking!). I didn’t even consider that the messages they’d be Tweeting might be negative — perhaps I’m too naive and believe too much in the inherent goodness of people.

Skip forward some 9 months, and all the negative things that could happen with this sort of activity have come to fruition. And in spades. Danah Boyd spoke at the Web 2.0 Conference last week. From what I’ve read, she was publicly panned and derided on Twitter. And all the Tweets were displayed on the huge screen behind her while she was speaking — without her knowledge. You can read her version of what happened here: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html. Please take some time out to read this if you attend conferences, and especially if you speak at them.

Had the Tweets just been about her presentation and what she was saying, then maybe they might have had some value. But it sounds as though the thin veneer of ‘civilization’ that separates us from our primal selves went missing as some of the comments became very personal. All I could think of when I read about this public humiliation was “Lord of the Flies”.

I admire the guts and bravery of Danah Boyd for speaking out. If more and more conferences adopt this new world of social media, it won’t be surprising if some long-time, quality speakers drop out. Who’d want to volunteer to be subjected to this sort of rude and brutal — and totally uncontrolled — behavior? Feedback’s one thing; lynch mob mentality under the guise of Tweets is another thing altogether.

On a related note, Olivia Mitchell has written a terrific eBook for conference presenters on ‘How to present with Twitter and other Backchannels’, available for free from here: http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/twitter/present-twitter-backchannel-ebook/. Her advice is timely in light of Danah Boyd’s experiences. Perhaps if the Web 2.0 conference organizers had read some of the advice in this eBook, the situation she faced may not have occurred.

Related commentary on this topic:

[Links last checked November 2009]


  1. […] http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html: What happened to Danah Boyd when she spoke at a Web conference. This Twitter ‘backchannel’ issue is not just relevant to female presenters; however, female speakers may be subject to more sexual innuendo and outright sexual harassment in the remarks than men might be. After reading about Danah’s experiences, I wrote about this disturbing ‘backchannel’ phenomena here: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/conferences-and-twitter-backchannels/ […]

  2. […] If you’re intending to Tweet about sessions you’re attending, be aware of the dangers of the Twitter backchannel: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/conferences-and-twitter-backchannels/ […]

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