The biggest threat to live conference stream participation: back-channel mobs

In light of limited budgets, a lot of us have been attending conferences via live web streams. This is great. We even get a nice sense of inclusion thanks to chat streams and the twitter back-channel. For the most part, this is incredibly helpful, but there’s a nasty underbelly that is a real threat to this web conference-topia — the back-channel mob. Per Danah Boyd, “…if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over.” We’ve all seen this happen and it’s just as inexcusable as Kayne’s faux pas.

We wouldn’t tolerate an in-room bully to move on stage and take over a conference session — either the conference staff or audience would stop it. So why do we allow, and in some cases encourage, the same behavior via the back-channel? I suspect one reason is because since the back-channel is relatively new, protocols and guidelines are not yet defined nor understood. Speakers don’t always know what to expect or how to effectively integrate the back-channel with the front-channel. Back-channel participants easily veer off course. Front-channel participants infuse an interesting dynamic by being the eyes/ears for the back-channel, but in some cases use the back-channel to spark an angry mob. Conference organizers don’t feel responsible for back-channel crowd control even though they provide the technology to syndicate the conversation on a larger than life big screen.

This needs to change if we don’t want to continue to see great speakers either walk-away or refuse to allow back-channel goodness to occur during their talks. Danah touches on a few good back-channel guidelines in the following sentence:

“I will do my darndest to give new, thought-provoking talks that will leave your brain buzzing. I will try really really hard to speak slowly. But in return, please come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I’m ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well. And if you don’t want to listen, fine, don’t. But please don’t distract your neighbors with crude remarks. Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form.”

A few other proposed guidelines:

Back-channel Participants
Be respectful (no profanity, rudeness, trolling, etc.). Ensure your contributions are on-topic and add value. Save speaker evaluations for the session evaluation process. Be mindful that public speaking takes courage, even for the most seasoned speaker.

Speakers
ID a back-channel moderator, preferably someone who is seated in the audience, who can call out critical questions as time allows. This integrates the back-channel audience with the in-room audience and builds a sense of inclusion. It also helps to reinforce the back-channel guidelines and enables you to focus on your talk. Plan for including the back-channel conversation in your talk and let the back/front channel audiences know up front how they can best participate.

Conference Organizers
Ensure back-channel protocols and guidelines are well defined and easily accessible. Know that you are responsible for back-channel crowd control. Don’t assume that every speaker wants or can effectively manage the back-channel syndicated on the screen behind them.

What else?

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