The bite of the backchannel

I attended an Institute of Historical Research conference a few days ago on the impact of newspaper digitization for researchers working on the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a lively, fascinating day, and I enjoyed some of the best lunchtime conversations I’ve ever had at a conference. I also spent the greater part of the day feeling quite shaken, as I’d just had my first negative experience of the Twitter backchannel.

Early in the day James Mussell of Birmingham University gave an insightful talk on the urgent need to teach not only media literacy but also digital information literacy. His discussion of the often unforeseen perils attached to working with huge volumes of digitized information was enlightened, well-argued, and arresting. It had me bouncing up and down in my seat and tweeting like a madman. I agreed with every word he said … except that it seemed to me one key word was missing. Librarian. In the question session afterwards I asked about this, commenting that as a profession we’ve been aware of issues around electronic information seeking and management for over a decade, and couldn’t we work together in the classroom and on research methods courses to address some of these problems?

My comment evoked the following tweet from another audience member:
tweet from historical newspapers conference

Now, I’m aware that because I’m passionate about my profession I’m often frustrated by the surprise with which our ability to teach information literacy is greeted. I know that my enthusiasm can be overwhelming: one colleague described it as leaving her breathless (I suspect, not in a 100% positive way!). I also appreciate that being impassioned can be interpreted as being pushy, and that outspokenness can be heard as combative. But savage I do repudiate. Savage to me means derisive or dismissive, and I can’t see how either of those applies to an invitation to collaborative working. And I’ll admit it: that hashtag hurt.

Twitter bird kicks another bird off branchImage: Duane Hoffmann /

Not knowing if there’s a protocol for this situation I just did what seemed best, which was to reply to the writer, using the conference hashtag, to ask why she found my comment inimical. A couple of interesting points emerged from our Twitter conversation after this.

Firstly, the author appeared to be extremely taken aback that I’d read her tweet. Yet the conversation was about digital literacies, which surely include social media literacy. Why be surprised that someone who teaches information literacy uses Twitter? And equally, why be surprised to discover that a comment you post on a public forum, with a contextual and searchable hashtag, might be read by its subject?

Secondly – and following on from this first point – it doesn’t seem as though the author was actually following the conference hashtag stream, since she should have seen several hashtagged tweets from me along the lines of “Yes! Please come talk to your librarian!” during Jim’s talk. She would therefore have had plenty of warning about my viewpoint before I spoke up – over an hour, by the time all the speakers on the panel had finished presenting. If my opinion struck her as professionally inappropriate she could have tweeted me before I said anything (although the Twitter audience following the conference potentially outnumbered those who were physically present in any case).

Put together, these points indicate someone who doesn’t quite ‘get’ Twitter – in terms of either its visibility, its immediacy, or its impact. For example, within 15 minutes I’d had several amused, surprised or supportive messages which helped reassure me that my comments hadn’t been out of order. This begs a couple of questions: firstly, why use it if you don’t get it; secondly, and more seriously, what if you think you’re making the equivalent of a sotto voce comment to your neighbour, when actually you’re shouting it from the rooftops?

Man Holding Loudspeaker

I’ve only once seen a projected Twitter feed at a library conference, but surely it’s only a matter of time before it’s universal. And while backchannel bitching directed at the speaker is no longer a new phenomenon, it would be interesting to see what effect a lively intra-audience exchange might have on the room and the speaker. I’m not sure I’d welcome the equivalent of raised voices going on behind my back during a presentation.

For this reason I really like these tips for managing the backchannel while presenting. I find it particularly interesting that while the tips are geared towards a new phenomenon in the conference room, they nevertheless go back to the roots of good presenting behaviour: prepare, engage with your audience, respond to feedback. danah boyd’s awful backchannel experience was ultimately caused not by the lack of her laptop, the unexpected room setup or even the expectations raised by the Twitter feed: the problem was that she couldn’t see her audience, and therefore couldn’t gauge reactions and respond accordingly.

The experience reinforces my belief that while presenting may look like a one-way ‘sage on the stage’ opportunity, listeners will – and should – always find a way to make their feelings known. It’s just ironic that the whole situation arose out of my choosing to do so using the old-fashioned analogue method of verbal communication …

Edited to add that you can find the excellent James Mussell on Twitter at @jimmussell.

10 comments so far

  1. libreaction on

    Sounds to me that the tweeter in question was simply firing off what I call a smarttweet to get a reaction. My experience is that idiots are everywhere and in great numbers and that they are to be ignored. You know you were coming from a good place and they knew it really. They may even have been jealous that you had the guts to speak out. It is widely known that you are fab in every respect so don’t less this get to you.

    Feelings aside, you raise some interesting and important points about the backchannel and the importance of awareness of a new kind of session interactvity.

  2. Girl in the Moon on

    What an interesting post. Both the reaction of the author of the inimical tweet, and your analysis of the relationship between speaker and audience. Being engaged with the audience when speaking isn’t new advice, but these new technological outlets really do reinforce it’s importance!

  3. whispersinthewilderness on

    Really interesting post, Mongoose, but I’m not sure about the ‘why use it if you don’t get it’ perspective. Surely that’s fine if your the kind of person who can go from 0-expert without ever using something practically, but most of us are hands-on kind of people who need to learn as we use. Everyone has to make their own mistakes to learn from them :-)

    • librariangoddess on

      That’s a fair point :) I think I was influenced by the fact that the tweeter in question isn’t a newbie by any means but has been on Twitter for longer than I have, with over 2,000 tweets. So the author’s apparent lack of awareness of its very public nature, and of how hashtags work, kind of stumped me!

      You’are absolutely right about the learning-as-you-go thing – not only the best way to do it, but also (it seems to me) the only way to learn about social media tools. I love how there’s a significant element of playfulness in things like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, etc.: you have to do it to understand it, but doing it is so much fun! So really I was thinking along the lines of “how much do you get out of a resource if you miss quite a lot of its basic nature and functionality” rather than “I have no time for people who get it wrong”, if that makes more sense :)

  4. whispersinthewilderness on

    *you’re* obviously – sorry, long day!

    • librariangoddess on

      Oh, and I meant to add that I’m *definitely* not the kind of person who goes from nought to expert in any length of time you care to mention!

  5. Suzan on

    It sounds a nightmare situation having audience feedback posted behind you which you cannot see during your talk. Shades of bear bating. Why not set up stocks and issue delgates with sponges.

  6. Laura James on

    I think it’s a bit much to ask all attendees to pay attention to the back channel and the speaker. I confess to being someone who sometimes – depending on the event! – listens to the speaker but ignores the backchannel, but will still tweet the odd thought. Backchannels can be so noisy… so I could easily miss backchannel context and then tweet seemingly at random.

    But you are right that people are still learning about twitter and backchannels.

  7. Dave Ferguson on

    I think your post and especially the comments demonstrate that a presentation is different things to different people, as is the backchannel.

    The HEWEB09 audience (of the “harshtag” example) was technologically sophisticated–but there was no posted backchannel, and no one directly questioned the speaker about his apparently misfiring presentation.

    I have mixed feelings about speaking with a backchannel posted–at the least, I think I’d want a collaborator to monitor the channel and maybe alert me to questions or threads that were (a) relevant and (b) something I could deal with / incorporate within the framework at hand.

    Thelonious Monk once said that the piano ain’t got no wrong notes. It could be that it ain’t got no right ones, neither — you fit them together as you go along.

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