Conference speakers beware: Twecklers are watching. They're out for blood. And you may be their next victim. The Twitter "back channel" can be a powerful tool to quickly knit a gathering of strangers into an online community, a place where attendees at meetings broadcast bits of sessions, share extra information such as links, and arrange social events. But the same technology can also enable a "virtual lynching." That's the phrase one twitster used to describe what happened at last month's HighEdWeb Association conference, an event that has gone down in social-media history as perhaps the most brutal abuse of the back channel yet.
I posted some critical comments about a speaker's presentation, and a Microsoft Research employee who I knew only by name called me out on it. He expressed concerns about whether it was "fair" to criticize someone who wasn't there to defend his or herself, and pointed out that we were a scary audience, and should be more generous. While he was right in some ways, the comment had a chilling effect, and it made me reluctant to do the kind of stream-of-consciousness chatter in the channel that I find often sparks the best responses and conversations.
While I was sitting there during this presentation being frustrated and not that impressed, I logged into #cw09 on Twitter and was able to see that there was a whole back-channel discussion going on about the presentation, and I was not alone in my frustration. If you were there and you were following #cw09 on Twitter, a whole new dimension to that talk opened up– not the one Ganley intended for sure, but a new dimension of resistance and reaction and occasional snarkiness nonetheless.
Recently, I've been disturbed to read about some significant frontchannel disturbances arising through the use of Twitter backchannels to heckle speakers at conferences. I want to revisit some issues that initially arose [for me] 5 years ago, surrounding the use of another backchannel tool in another conference context, and reflect a bit on the dark side of how Twitter can leave us vulnerable to maliciously consequential strangers, even when we are in the same physical place ... and in some cases, especially when we are in the same physical space.
Last week, I gave a talk at Web2.0 Expo. From my perspective, I did a dreadful job at delivering my message. Yet, the context around my talk sparked a broad conversation about the implications of turning the backchannel into part of the frontchannel. In the last week, I've seen all sorts of blog posts and tweets and news articles about what went down. At this point, the sting has worn off and I feel that it would be responsible to offer my own perspective of what happened.