Ross blogged the NY Times article on backchannels first, it seems. But I'm not interested in quoting it…I'm more interested in talking about its implications, and the responses it seems to generate from speakers.
I feel their pain. For six years, I've been teaching undergraduate students in information technology, and I've become accustomed to their constant multitasking in the classroom. I don't always like it–in fact, when I'm trying to get a key point across in lecture, I'll often ask them to turn their monitors off so I can be sure their attention isn't focused on the screen. Conference speakers don't have the luxury of pedagogical power to back up those requests.
Almost every study on teaching and learning has shown that lectures are among the very worst methods of delivering content. Don't buy that? Well, think about the last conference you went to. Now tell me, in detail, about what speakers at that conference said. No fair checking your notes, or your blog. What do you actually remember? Not much, I suspect.
That doesn't mean conferences aren't valuable. I had a long talk about this with my husband when I got back from Supernova. He asked whether the conference sessions/speakers had been good, and I told him that a few had been. Then he asked me what I learned from those speakers that I couldn't have gotten more easily from their online writings, or from a video of their presentation. After I grudgingly acknowledged that I hadn't heard anything particularly unique from the speakers, we started talking about why people go to conferences. Be honest. You seldom go to hear the speakers. You go because of the other people who are going to be there. That doesn't mean the speakers are irrelevant. Far from it. They provide a focal point, a context for the conversations. When I look at a conference speaker list, it tells me about what kinds of issues will be on the minds of the participants, and what kinds of ideas are likely to be tossed around.
What's happening isn't new. It's just been transformed by the new tools at our disposal. Before the wifi-enabled backchannel started to emerge, there was still a backchannel. You sat next to people you knew, and whispered to them. “Did you hear that?” “Hey, doesn't that remind you of xxx?” “What did she say?”
What in-class and in-conference backchannels do is push that process from the P2P form it has traditionally taken to a many-to-many (!) version that can only happen with the kinds of social software tools we're seeing emerge today.
As a result, you end up with a feedback loop that can either enrich the experience of listenting to a good speaker, or provide an escape hatch when listening to a poor one. At Supernova, we saw three distinctly different modes of activity on the #joiito IRC channel that many conference-goers (and non-conference-goers) participated in. The first was a near-cessation of activity when speakers like David Weinberger lit up the stage. The second was a buzz of questions and debate around the topics a speaker was discussiong–as when Joi Ito himself was speaking. The third could only be described as a free-for-all, untethered from the room entirely, when corporate speakers regaled us with tidbits like “At BigCo, our goal is to give customers what they want.”
Is it ego-crushing to walk to the front of a crowded room, step up to the podium, and look out at a sea of faces all focused on the screens and keyboards rather than your carefully prepared remarks? You betcha. But as speakers (and teachers) we have to get over that. We have to learn that complete control over our audience is seldom possible. We have to accept that we can't always demand and receive the full attention of the room we're in. We have to find ways to let people–at conferences, or in classrooms–learn from each other as well as from us.
Conference organizers and speakers–and classroom teachers–would do well to think about the relevance of Dan Gillmor's discussion of how weblogs and other social software tools are transforming journalism:
Today's (and tomorrow's) communications tools are turning traditional notions of news and journalism in new directions. These tools give us the ability to take advantage, in the best sense of the word, of the fact that our collective knowledge and wisdom greatly exceeds any one personâs grasp of almost any subject. We can, and must, use that reality to our mutual advantage.