The perils of backchannels: Why Twitter should never take center stage

The #uxmtl tweet stream behind the panelists

Backchannels are all the rage at tech events these days, connecting presenter and audience like never before. They allow audiences to get more value from a presentation by communicating with each other about it. And the audience can feed back to the presenter, which helps him stay on track and know that he is being understood.

But there’s a point where a backchannel goes beyond adding interactivity to an event and begins to undermine the event itself. In November, I witnessed this at the launch of UXMTL, a community for user experience design in Montreal.

Twitter has made setting up backchannels trivially easy — with or without the consent of conference organizers — since anyone can start a Twitter backchannel simply by using a hashtag. Unlike Google Moderator or Backnoise, no specialized software is needed. At UXMTL, the event organisers simply announced that audience members should use the hashtag #uxmtl on Twitter, and all tweets for that tag were displayed on a large screen behind the panelists, using Twitterfall. For me, this completely changed my experience of the event, both as an audience member and a backchannel contributor.

Why are backchannels popular?

Olivia Mitchell has explored the popularity of backchannels in depth, and many insights can be gained from discussions about them. For the audience it’s mostly about being able to communicate with each other in context – seeking clarity, sharing insights and innovating or building upon what is being said.

Where backchannels really come into their own is when presenters can receive feedback and and adapt to it while the event is still ongoing. We experienced this for ourselves running the Enterprise Cloud Summit back in May. Thanks to the #ECS hashtag we were able to discover sentiments like this and address them quickly on stage, averting any possible audience backlash.

Problem #1: Self-censorship

Usually when I’m listening to an interesting session, I’ll tweet frequently, quoting key points or sharing my own insights and musings. But knowing that my tweets would be on center stage was paralyzing. My first reaction was one of fear: “I don’t want my tweet on stage, I’ll feel self-conscious”. After a while, I made a conscious effort to rebel against this and resolved to tweet as normal. But it wasn’t the same. Every tweet had to be much more carefully crafted, and knowing that a tweet could steal the focus of the audience, carefully timed. This was a bizarre new experience for me.

Problem #2: Breaking the flow of the event

It wasn’t just my behavior that was affected, but that of the panelists too. Often, I saw them zoning out of others’ answers, leaning over their shoulders to read the screen, overcome with curiosity at what the audience was saying and looking at.

The tweet stream was a distraction to everyone. Sometimes someone would crack a joke on the backchannel, and the audience would burst out laughing, interrupting the speaker’s flow and causing the conversation to go off topic. I found myself hitting send during moments of laughter or applause so as not to interrupt a key point or distract the speaker.

Problem #3: Breaking the flow of the event

In the backchannel, new social games began to emerge, like rating the panelists while they speak or pointing arrows to panelists’ heads. These tweets took attention of other audience members away from the speakers. People were starting to engage more with the conversation than the content. There was a funny side to these games, but it wasn’t the right time.

As a commenter notes here, backchannels can become a problem when both the presentation and the backchannel are cognitively demanding. We only have so much attention to give, and despite the trend towards multitasking, humans are not wired for dividing our attention, and some studies suggest it can even be harmful.

The start of a worrying trend?

I was dismayed to learn that SAP have launched a tool to let you include a Twitter stream in your presentation. I cannot see any benefit to including this kind of distraction. There are a number of recent examples of presenters being humiliated by their audiences via backchannels. Danah Boyd was recently chastised by the Web2.0 Expo audience, who used the projected backchannel (or “frontchannel”) to effectively talk behind her back. This can bring out the very worst in human behaviour, and with no feedback to the presenter, the balance of power is shifted too far towards the audience.

As a presenter, you’re responsible for the results. You hold the mic, you have the authority. But having a backchannel take center stage gives that away. The audience have the authority but none of the responsibility.

Scott Berkun writes about speaker/audience power dynamics in “Confessions of a Public Speaker”:

“When you allow someone in the audience to speak, you are giving him the floor and with it, some of your power… You are judge, jury and executioner… Never be afraid to enforce the rules the room wants you to follow… When you enforce a popular rule, you reengage everyoneYou restore your power and earn the audience’s respect… So don’t hesitate to cut off a blowhard or silence the guy on his cellphone.”

The Conversation is not the Event

Allowing the audience to take control from the presenters is a step too far. We need to draw the line here. Twitter is great for getting news out instantly, but it seems now it’s going even further, and the commentary is becoming part of the event itself. Already we see Twitter comment streams on CNN and “photos from our viewers” on the BBC. I believe that to be fully absorbed content needs to be left unadulterated by others comments or views, so that we can form our own opinions before being influenced by others, or worse, before the presenter is forced to change tack.

And that’s not to mention the creative aspect. We would never interrupt a concert pianist, magician or performance artist, so why should public speakers be any different? Allowing the conversation to dominate steals the creative freedom of the presenter, forcing them to bend to the will of their audience.

So how should we use backchannels?

Alistair being a Twitter ombudsman for Sean at Web2Expo

What we need is careful control in the ways we use backchannels, so that presenters can get feedback without being distracted or losing control. Here are some examples:

  • Only display moderated highlights from the backchannel, at the times you choose (or better still, never show the backchannel at all. Keep it separate).
  • Check the backchannel during scheduled breaks (which is what we did at ECS) and take necessary actions in the next session.
  • Have a colleague monitor and participate in the backchannel on your behalf, bringing important sentiments and questions to your attention – a sort of “ombudsman for the audience“, as Alistair did for Sean at Web2Expo (shown above).
  • Have regular “Twitter breaks,” as Robert Scoble suggests.
  • Use software like keynotetweet to send triggered tweets into the backchannel as you hit certain slides. This can help keep the backchannel conversation on track.
  • Include live polls in your presentations with software like PollEverywhere. This is a good example of inviting audience feedback but keeping control.

These are the ways that I think work, and are effective, adding value for presenter and audience alike. But of course there are always risks with any backchannel. The crowd may turn against you, especially if they become more interested in the discussion than what you are saying. There is more pressure for you to deliver value. This is particularly  a danger in classroom situations, where audiences may be less motivated. But in most cases this can be managed by ensuring someone is attentive to what the audience is saying, moderating and guiding the discussion, and feeding important things back to the presenter.

Above all, keep control, and keep focus. Do not use backchannel technology just because you can. Use it wisely and sparingly, only when it will enhance your audience’s experience.

I’d like to reiterate that I am not criticizing UXMTL. I enjoyed the event and look forward to getting involved with the community and attending future events. The purpose of this post is only to discuss the wider issues the situation raised for me. What do you think? Are backchannels worth the effort or should they be avoided?

Further reading:

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