The Twitter backchannel - useful, or just a nuisance?

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I've been lucky enough to be present at a few conferences now where there has been what has been termed the 'Twitter backchannel'. One formal, and a few informal. I gave a short talk at one of the informal ones, as well.

The term 'backchannel' refers to a conversation being held by the audience, in addition to and alongside the formal channel of the speaker talking to the audience. Increasingly, Twitter is being used to enable this conversation, as it is fast, easy, and very accessible using mobile devices. With Twitter readily available on iPhones, netbooks, and all manner of mobile devices, it's easy to make a quick comment about the subject of the talk, especially if you feel strongly one way or the other about the subject matter. But what happens as this trend grows? As a greater proportion of audiences take advantage of this easy method of commenting, what happens to the value of the medium?

It is becoming more and more common to enable a commentary about a topic. Through 'comments' sections on news stories, blogs such as this one, and other social media. Even traditional mass-communication devices like television, newspaper, and radio are increasingly using social networking to create a backchannel to their stories. It is now perfectly ordinary for radio presenters to discuss the text messages and 'tweets' they have received on their programs. While the model is not perfect, it does create a dialogue between traditional one-to-many media outlets and their audiences that has never existed before. And so it is in this environment, and with this public expectation of dialogue, that the backchannel has been created.

In general, a speech at a conference offers only a single communication channel. The interesting part is that the backchannel doesn't offer reciprocity. In fact, the speaker is (in most cases) completely ignorant of what is going on in the backchannel until they've finished speaking. The first conference went to with a formal backchannel actually prompted one speaker to comment that the only thing that wasn't great about it was the fact that he couldn't see it happening. He jokingly asked for a screen at the front so that he could see what people were saying. But how much of a joke is that? The backchannel can often provide critical information to a speaker - information that could be responded to, acted on, or qualified by the speaker while on the podium. It could also give them valuable feedback that they would otherwise have received face to face, but because of the existence and nature of the backchannel, they may never receive. It makes the backchannel an ineffective medium for dialogue between the speaker and the audience.

With that in mind, can a whole audience full of people tapping on their mobile devices really be paying attention to the speaker anyway? There's an argument that says at least the audience is commenting on the speech itself, so it can't be all bad. It really does feed into our newfound short attention spans though. It has been documented many times over that society's increasing focus on instant gratification and constant entertainment is ruining our ability (or our will?) to be able to focus on one thing at a time - and one thing only. Perhaps by offering two attention-getters - the speaker, and the backchannel - on the one topic, the speaker is more likely to get the audience to think about the topic, instead of drifting off and thinking about something else? More research needed, perhaps.

So what benefit does it bring? It might not give much apparent benefit to the speaker as an individual, but it does bring benefit to the conversation as a whole. If the speaker's purpose is to get everyone paying attention to them, and to increase their own visibility and importance, then the backchannel will probably only serve to detract from the purpose. If, however, the idea is to create a conversation around a topic; to raise awareness; to get people thinking; to encourage action; then the backchannel might just be the way to do it. Not only does it get the people in the room excited about the topic, but it also creates a way to reach outside the room, to the followers and the followers of followers of the members of the audience. If the idea is good, and the support strong, it could potentially cause a waterfall of cascading information, the beginnings of a grass roots movement.

The Twitter backchannel is a new concept, and at least in some ways, entirely inappropriate for many traditional conference talks. But it's also new, relatively untested, and contains enormous potential, if it can be tapped in to effectively. Until it's been fully developed, and put through its paces in all manner of situations, I can't hold judgement, and I don't believe anyone else can either. Hate it or love it, it's the way of the future. Let's see how it gets used before we make a call.


Susan said...

Well, its not so new - remember all the 'asides' in a Shakespearean plays - while someone is declaiming in matchless blank verse, another character may be muttering rude 'asides'. so that we know what they are really thinking..

Loquacity said...

True, but the audience didn't get a say in Shakespeare's day. They certainly didn't have the opportunity to carry on a conversation with other audience members about the play, either.

The asides were used as a tool to convey more meaning to the audience, and to provide humour in many cases. So while there was more than one conversation happening on stage, it was still one-to-many dialogue (or few-to-many, I guess!).

So, not a totally new idea perhaps, but new in its implementation.


Aurelius said...

If a talk is worth telling others about, it's worth shutting the fuck up and listening to what's said.
Twits sitting there and spouting to their twit friends, instead of listening to what's being said my the speaker are demonstrating the height of rudeness and disregard for the presenter.
If it's good enough to share, listen, then share.
Simultaneous "sharing" is nothing but putting one's self higher up the pecking order than the person giving the presentation, and is the height of arrogance.

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