Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.
- David Sedaris

The Twitter backchannel - useful, or just a nuisance?

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.

Linux Zealotry

I like the word zealot. Much more than I like the trait, I must admit. What's interesting is how much the term gets used to describe people who use Linux. And as much as I wish it weren't so, I can see why it happens too. All too often, Linux users are seen to be ranting on about why the whole world ought to be using it. Yes, I like Linux too, but what kind of dream world do some of these people inhabit? It really comes down to what you do with your computer, and what tools are best for the job. If you need to whack a nail into the wall, you're going to need a hammer to do the job properly - half a housebrick might work, but it's going to be time consuming, you might waste a few nails doing it, and you're probably going to have added a few new and interesting words to your vocabulary by the time it's done.

To get away from the metaphor, and into reality, I was lucky enough to give a talk at a computing group recently. The audience was primarily Windows users, with a scattered few hobbyist Linux users, and the talk was all about debunking Linux myths, and trying to give a realistic impression of what Linux could offer. At the end of the talk, I took questions, and there were a lot of them (as an aside, there's nothing better than an interested audience, let me tell you!). The one that really stood out for me, though, was an older gentleman who said "I have a Windows machine running at home, and it does everything I need it to. Why should I switch to Linux?". My answer might have shocked some of my audience, because after banging on for the better part of an hour about how great Linux was, I told him, "you shouldn't." Why did I tell him that? Because Windows, in his words, did everything he needed it to do. Why should he be subjected to a learning curve that he didn't need? Why should he be forced to learn new ways of doing the same old things, when he knows how to do them now? Why should he be pushed into the proverbial deep end, and told to swim, when all he wants to do is splash in the shallows? More to the point, who am I to tell him he ought to?

I know a lot of people have an answer to that, and it generally goes along the line of "but Linux is free software - it's better for the community, it strengthens the greater good, and anyway, Linux just runs better." I can agree with that too, for what it's worth. But why does Linux need to worry about rate of adoption, the number of global users, and whether or not it's a 'true competitor' for Microsoft or Apple? And the answer to that lies in the answer given before - it doesn't, because it's free software, it's better for the community, and strengthens the greater good. It's a very circular argument, really. Free and open source is a very worthy cause. But because it's free and open source, it doesn't matter how many people adopt it.

By running around like idiots, claiming that everyone should be using Linux and contemplating a Windows-free world, the Linux community (and I count myself among them) are shooting themselves in the foot. Why not step quietly through the world, present your option, and then let people decide for themselves. They'll either come to Linux, or they won't. Either way, it doesn't hurt the cause. The cause, after all, is software freedom, not Linux on every desktop. Quite frankly, software freedom is something I'm more than willing to fight for, but a monopoly? Isn't that what we're fighting against?

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.

Chicken Leek and Bacon Pies


Looking for a recipe hit? I've just added a new one, over at Slow Food Adventures, my new foodie blog.

By the way, happy winter solstice everybody. I intend to spend my extra night-time sleeping, how about you?

Where have all the recipes gone?


In preparation for launching my brand new foodie-blog, I've moved the recipes to a temporary home over at Wordpress - http://slowfoodadventures.wordpress.com/. And, to add to the excitement, I'll be posting a new one up this weekend. What is it? Not telling!


Wordle: On writing, tech, and other loquacities

(click to embiggen)

Lifelike Organism Qualified for Ultimate Assassination, Ceaseless Infiltration and Thorough Yelling

Get Your Cyborg Name

Renovations. Step 1: Planning

We got the building report for the new house the other day. The main points were the floors:

the kitchen:

and the front fence:

All of which were already on the plan (for reasons that should become obvious with those pictures!).

To that end, I've been hanging out on the Renovation Forum, where I happened to meet a guy who polishes floorboards for a living (he's also a Linux user, which makes him good people in my book). Anyway, he's been awesome with information, and I've decided that we'll rip the old carpet up and get him to polish the floorboards for us before we move in. Will be easier than doing it later, I suspect.

The kitchen, however, is another matter entirely. It's going to take a lot more money, for starters, so there's a very good possibility that it's going to take a year or so before I'm financial enough. So, what to do in the meantime? I'm considering doing a cheap-arse coverup of the orange laminate. Not sure I can cope with that for much more than a few days. Does anyone know about these things?

And the fence? Well, it just so happens that my Dad knows someone with a backhoe ... this is gonna be fun!

Linux beginners are go!

For those of you who have been wondering what's happening to my absolute-beginner Linux idea, wonder no longer! Jumpstart Linux is now up and running over at http://jumpstartlinux.blogspot.com. Once you're there, please sign up to the mailing list. We also have a Facebook group so if that's your poison, you can sign up over there too.

Just a quick thanks to you all for the massive response I had to the idea here on this blog. Now let's use that momentum to build something really wonderful!

Why tech writing?


Because customers don't always think the same way you do.

Fedora 11 arrives in a flurry of not-that-amazing praise

Well, Fedora 11 is finally here. And the first reports are out. And they are ... well ... less than glowing. Here's arstechnica:

The developers behind the popular Fedora Linux distribution announced this week the official release of version 11, codenamed Leonidas. This release introduces some significant new features but it also comes with some unfortunate bugs, particularly in the installer.

It seems that the new ext4 filesystem is causing some serious issues, which is disappointing, given the hype around it. There's also partitioning problems. A lot of partitioning problems. *sigh*

I was intending to install F11 on my work machine, in order to get my screen setup the way I want (unfortunately RHEL won't cut it until RHEL6, and I wasn't prepared to wait that long). I might sit it out for a little longer yet, and see what happens with Fedora. A patch or two in the future and with any luck it'll all come good.

Hang in there with me!

Geeky gifts

My beloved bought me a present today, and I just had to share it:

Very geeky, no? It's around my neck. It's staying there. In case of emergencies, you know ;)


It is the struggle that won't let me fall asleep. Because I have to write. Something. I don't know what it is yet. But it's there inside of me, barking, screaming, crying, aching, swearing.