Curbing Your Comments At Conferences

A Twitter backchannel caused quite the stir at the Web 2.0 Expo this week in New York. As Danah Boyd, social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, spoke about “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media,” the crowd tweeted their critiques of her talk. Many complained that she spoke too quickly and read her speech, as opposed to connecting with the crowd. Others quipped about dating Boyd. The audience chuckled as these tweets appeared. Only Boyd wasn’t in on the joke. She had her back to the screen and couldn’t receive the feedback needed to tweak her presentation.

Ironically, she talked about curating content and said, “We need technological innovations…tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work.” I wonder if she might feel that curating the content behind her would have worked.

The next day, the staff apologized for their handling of the Twitter disruption and said they would experiment with curating feeds going forward. Although, I felt badly for Boyd, I have to admit that a big part of me was disappointed. I wanted the real deal, not the CNN-like version of Twitter commenting. Then again, that was selfish. No speaker should be mocked during a presentation. Unless it’s done in light fun?

I ran into master Twitterer Chris Brogan the next day and asked him what he thought about the situation. He didn’t believe in curation of any kind. He thought that Boyd’s fast-paced speech was the main issue, not the live feed.

A Facebook friend Pinny Gniwisch added, “What happened to Boyd was sad and to a point mean, however Orielly is known to have the best speakers. If someone reaches that keynote level, they have to know they need to bring their A game and nothing less will do.”

Other speakers like Baratunde Thurston, who rocked his keynote about Hashtags, disagreed. “You can’t have a divided experience where the speaker is in one world and the audience is in another. But the larger point is that people have come to think there is an intrinsic right to heckling. What happened to actually listening to the speaker at a conference? In this new age where everyone demands to be heard, I fear that we are losing respect for the art of listening.” Easy for him to say. Baratunde is a hysterically smart comedian and commentator; it’s impossible not listen to him.

As a multi-tasking nation, the thought of sitting still and watching one person speak at a podium without checking an iPhone or tweeting a thought can be maddening. Anton Mannering, who recently produced the Audience Conference, ignores this point and refuses to add a Twitter backchannel to his events. He even goes as far as banning Internet usage during some of his events.

“Are attendees paying proper attention to the speaker, or are they busy monitoring the backchannel? Having laptops open for this is rude, and using them to target speakers is abusive. If event organizers allow this to happen, speakers will stop coming. Or speakers will change their message to a populist one, which is no good to anyone,” he says.

Many techsters remember the Sarah Lacy interview fiasco with Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW in 2008. The audience panned the BusinessWeek reporter’s interview style, claiming she didn’t control the interview or ask the right questions. Granted the interview was known as one of the worst conference moments, but I wonder if it was necessary to add fuel to the fire with a live, displayed feed.

Is it time to start curating stream comments at conferences? Or would you pull the censorship card? Event organizers might decide to challenge the crowd’s ADD and get them focusing by disabling Web
access all together.

Or maybe speakers should have teleprompters facing them with comments so that they can get in on the discussion. Of course, that might throw off their concentration, impair their talk and evoke more online cruelty. It’s not easy being public in a social media world!