My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective

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.

First, context. Web2.0 Expo is an expensive conference filled with all sorts of webby types, entrepreneurs, and business folks interested in technological development. It’s a conference known for great talks by high profile people. Most of the talks are pretty conversational in nature – there are plenty of staged interviews and casual presentations.

Because of the high profile nature of Web2.0 Expo, I decided to write a brand new talk. Personally, I love the challenge and I get bored of giving the same talk over and over and over again. Of course, the stump speech is much more fluid, much more guaranteed. But new talks force folks to think differently and guarantee that I target those who hear me talk often and those who have never seen me talk before.

A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn’t actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn’t look like I’m reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn’t going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I’ve learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn’t know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn’t get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn’t know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the “audience” was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough.

Now, normally, I get into a flow with my talks after about 2 minutes. The first two minutes are usually painfully rushed and have no rhythm as I work out my nerves, but then I start to flow. I’ve adjusted to this over the years by giving myself 2 minutes of fluff text to begin with, content that sets the stage but can be ignored. And then once I’m into a talk, I gel with the audience. But this assumes one critical thing: that I can see the audience. I’m used to audiences who are staring at their laptops, but I’m not used to being completely blinded.

Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn’t even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn’t know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone’s attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare.

I walked off stage and immediately went to Brady and asked what on earth was happening. And he gave me a brief rundown. The Twitter stream was initially upset that I was talking too fast. My first response to this was: OMG, seriously? That was it? Cuz that’s not how I read the situation on stage. So rather than getting through to me that I should slow down, I was hearing the audience as saying that I sucked. And responding the exact opposite way the audience wanted me to. This pushed the audience to actually start critiquing me in the way that I was imagining it was. And as Brady went on, he said that it started to get really rude so they pulled it to figure out what to do. But this distracted the audience and explains one set of outbursts that I didn’t understand from the stage. And then they put it back up and people immediately started swearing. More outbursts and laughter. The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. Not me.

Yes, I cried. Yes, I left Web2.0 Expo devastated. I hate giving a bad talk but I also felt like I was being laughed at. People tried to smooth it over, to tell me that I was OK, that it wouldn’t matter, that they liked the talk. But no amount of niceness from friends or strangers could make up for the 20 minutes in which I was misinterpreting the audience and berating myself. Nothing the audience could say could make up for what I was thinking about myself while on stage. So I went for a massage. And I spent 90 minutes trying to tell myself that I am a lovable creature. And when that wasn’t working, I told myself to suck it up and deal. I knew that if I could convince myself to look like everything was OK that eventually I would believe it. Or at least that it would all go away.

Being on stage involves raw emotions. I have never gotten over the rawness of it all. I no longer vomit before every talk (although I used to) but my stomach does try to do the macarena. Or, more likely, the ridiculous dance done by 80s hair bands as they thrash about. I can’t eat before I give a talk. And I visit the bathroom a bazillion times. Even when I’m brilliant on stage, I’m nervous as hell. But it’s also emotionally and physically exhausting. I walk off the stage high as a kite and then, two hours later, crash. Giving talks drains me. It’s brutal to try to publicly convey information, to be the center of attention. I much much much prefer to be the one observing than the one speaking. But I feel like giving talks is important. So I speak. But it ain’t easy. And so when I walk off a stage not feeling invigorated, all I get is the raw drain, the gut-wrenching, nauseating feeling of pure misery. 20 minutes of being punched in the face, kicked in the stomach, and the shameful sensations one gets when one is forced to watch a Lars von Trier film. That’s how I felt at Web2.0 Expo.

So…. the Backchannel?

Now that you’ve been forced to read my inner neuroses on public display, let’s talk about making the backchannel the frontchannel. First off, let’s be clear: I could not and did not see the Twitter stream from stage. Nothing was conveyed to me until the end. The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself. Lots of folks have talked about making the stream available to the speaker. Have any of you seen ustream? This is filled with “speakers” reading the stream and it’s very choppy. There’s no way that a speaker can simultaneously consume a stream and convey a message. Sure, a message every 30 seconds or so, no problem. But a stream? No way. And certainly not a long message… and, on stage, 140 characters is long.

Let me highlight a comment that Dan from HonestlyKid.net left on my blog earlier this week:

It seems that the more subtle the speaker’s point, the more impatient and nasty the audience became. While it’s easy enough to blame the new tech in the room for this shoddy behavior, I’m not sure we’re seeing anything new at all here. It certainly didn’t feel new to me from where I sat. Consider the recent Town Hall meetings around health care – substantive discussions of important issues were subsumed in cat calls and shouted rumors.

That said, having participated in this bad behavior, I noticed something else about the way it felt to put something on that wall. The twitterwall subverted twitter’s more symmetric conversation model of communication. Posting to the wall was like creating and sharing a public secret about the speaker (a little like political grafiti except it wasn’t anonymous).

The wall made a spectacle of the crowd’s impatience and anxiety feeding on the speaker’s inability to respond. That spectacle united us not as a single group receiving challenging ideas from a thoughtful orator but as quite separate individuals struggling to listen, read, respond, and make sense of the event. We moved from web conference to twitter circus.

I think that Dan nailed it. I think that the backchannel is perfectly reasonable as a frontchannel when the speaker is trying to entertain, but when the goal is to convey something with depth, it encourages people to be impatient and frustrated, to feed on the speaker. There’s a least common denominator element to it. I was not at Web2.0 Expo to entertain, but to inform. Yes, I can be an entertaining informant, but there’s a huge gap between the kind of information that Baratunde tries to convey in his comedic format and what I’m trying to convey in a more standard one. And there’s no doubt I packed too much information into a 20 minute talk, but my role is fundamentally to challenge audiences to think. That’s the whole point of bringing a scholar to the stage. But if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over.

The problem with a public-facing Twitter stream in events like this is that it FORCES the audience to pay attention the backchannel. So even audience members who want to focus on the content get distracted. Most folks can’t multitask that well. And even if I had been slower and less dense, my talks are notoriously too content-filled to make multi-tasking possible for the multi-tasking challenged. This is precisely why I use very simplistic slides that evokes images for the visual types in the room without adding another layer of content. But the Twitter stream fundamentally adds another layer of content that the audience can’t ignore, that I can’t control. And that I cannot even see.

Now, I’m AOK with not having complete control of the audience during a talk, but it requires a fundamentally different kind of talk. That was not what I prepared for at all. Had I known about the Twitter stream, I would’ve given a more pop-y talk that would’ve bored anyone who has heard me speak before and provided maybe 3-4 nuggets of information for folks to chew on. It would’ve been funny and quotable but it wouldn’t have been content-wise memorable. Perhaps that would’ve made more sense? Realistically though, those kinds of talks bore me at this point. So I probably would’ve opted not to give a talk at all. Perhaps I’m not the kind of speaker you want if you want a Twitter stream? But regardless, what I do know is that certain kinds of talks do not lend themselves to that kind of dynamic. I would *NEVER* have given my talk on race and class in such a setting. I shudder to think about how the racist language people used when I gave that talk would’ve been perceived on the big screen.

Speaking of which… what’s with the folks who think it’s cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny… if you’re 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

Now, I don’t mind being critiqued. I think that being a public figure automatically involves that. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years, but there are still things that get to me. And the situation at Web2.0 Expo was one of those. Part of the problem for me is that, as a speaker, I work hard to try to create a conversation with the audience. When it’s not possible or when I do a poor job, it sucks. But it also really sucks to just be the talking head as everyone else is having a conversation literally behind your back. It makes you feel like a marionette. And frankly, if that’s what public speaking is going to be like, I’m out.

I don’t want to be objectified when I’m speaking – either as a talking head or a sexual toy. I want to inspire, to invite you to think, to spark creative thoughts in your head. At Web2.0 Expo, I failed. And I failed publicly. I’m still licking my wounds. But I can take the fall. I can’t take the idea that this is the future.

So I have a favor to ask… I am going to be giving a bunch of public speaking performances at web conferences in the next couple of months: Supernova and Le Web in December, SXSW in March, WWW in April. I will do my darndest to give new, thought-provoking talks that will leave your brain buzzing. I will try really really hard to speak slowly. But in return, please come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I’m ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well. And if you don’t want to listen, fine, don’t. But please don’t distract your neighbors with crude remarks. Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form. Maybe that’s too much to ask for, but really, I need to feel like it’s worth it again.

For those looking for the text of my Web2.0 Expo talk, it’s here: “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media.”

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236 comments to spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective

  • Perhaps the time has come for conference organisers to think hard. If you don’t put up the wall, Tweeters complain and bury their heads in their phones and computers.

    You don’t see the same phenomena in unconferences, where people are engaged and having their say face to face.

    Personally, I think this is more of a reflection on ‘stand and tell’ conferences than on you. And on audiences who expect to have their say rather than listen.

    Perhaps some organisers could try allowing the sudience to tweet questions, then turning off the back channel to allow the speaker to talk, turning it on again for reactions and responses?

    This is bad PR for conferences if they allow the heckling of speakers. Good speakers may simply refuse to take the platform, leaving them only with hard skinned ‘gurus’.

    It isn’t just you, by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t make it better that it has happened to others too, but perhaps it will take away some of the feeling that your content was to blame.

  • Jon B

    Hi Danah

    I have an edit for your post…

    “Web2.0 Expo is an expensive conference filled with all sorts of rude, obnoxious and bullying webby types, entrepreneurs, and business folks who should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves”

    Illegitimus non carborundum.

  • Gah, reading this post gave me heart palpitations. Huge points to you for being able to even talk about this, as it feels to me like it would be pretty devastating. The blatant rudeness is embarrassing – not for you, but for those who committed and spread it. The sexism is both shocking and completely disgraceful from a group of educated adults – those who found it to be entertaining should be totally ashamed of themselves.

    Stay tough, and keep pushing forth.

  • @danah I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at the Internet Librarian conference a couple of years ago, I still tell people it was the best keynote I’ve heard.
    Though I love social media and the potential is represents we can get too carried away with it. It is not the solution to every problem nor does it have a seat at every table. I’m sorry you had to go through this, thank you for writing about it, hopefully it will cause some people to stop and think, about having a twitter stream on stage & what they say on twitter.

  • I think it’s impossible for a speaker to actively monitor the backchannel in any effective manner. The way I’ve seen it work is either through the intervention of a producer quietly “re-tweeting,” whispering into the ear or otherwise signaling feedback in a subtle manner; or a moderator who is actively and publicly monitoring and sharing feedback at certain intervals or at the end of your presentation, sharing the questions/feedback publicly and offering you a chance to respond.

    Public speaking while reading the twitter/irc backchannel is like trying to talk and drink water from a firehose at the same time.

  • Thanks for sharing this experience, it’s a real help to me in getting over one’s public speaking nerves.

  • You were subjected to a Web 2.0 experience on a Public Speaker 1.0 platform. The fault lies squarely with the organizers of the Web 2.0 event. In order to be able to accommodate the front and back channel there has to be a pre-defined format for speakers to make full use of it, rather than just to be a distraction. No doubt someone will write a book on best practices and offer it at a 75% discount for purchase before midnight.

    Taken at its best the feedback can be useful if audience members who would not normally ask questions or interact with the speaker are given the chance to ask (semi-anonymously) and if the question is pertinent, someone will ask it. It can open up really good debates and deliver substance and not just content.

    Taken at its worst it becomes a reality-spectacle to humor the audience and humiliate the speaker.

    As I said earlier it was an organizational fault not yours. It’s entertainment, get yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Long may you continue to stand up and be counted 🙂

  • James Landay

    Sounds like a horrible situation, but I’m glad you have recovered and have given recommendations on how to use this media in talks.

  • Did not see your presentation
    I was at Web 2.0 only Wednesday afternoon, saw the keynotes.
    Agree with Deb Lavoy that the Twitter Feed during presentation was a distraction.
    My take on what happened to you is that someone from the Web 2.0 team should have passed a quick note to fill you in as to what was happening so you could fix it.
    My favorite keynotes on Wednesday were Douglas Rushkoff and Anil Dash because they made you think beyond the usual geeky techie hot spots.
    Yes Web 2.0 is very expensive that’s why I sign up only for the Free Expo Hall.

    Wrote a piece on mishaps and communication titled Confessions, Failures and Presentations That Are Not Canned on ‘Serge the Concierge’

    Happy Thanksgiving

    Serge
    ‘The French Guy from New Jersey’

  • I’m sitting here with my jaw on the floor, having had a bit of a twitter debate with a friend on the entire subject of backchannel (in the context of the incipient competition between Twitter and Google Wave for backchannel supremacy).

    Before pointing me to this article, my comments were around the idea that passing notes in class was always punishable by detention (or public humiliation), and that people cannot multi-task well enough to listen, tweet, and assimilate the tweet-stream all at the same time. That people who talk during lectures or at the theater or the OPERA, heaven forefend, were to be ostracized from polite society. That being a good listener means listening and not formulating your response while the other person is still talking. And that objectifying a woman, a race, any person is grounds for being a pariah.

    I promise that I expressed these before I read the article.

    You will forgive me if I do a little Dilbert-style Dance of Validation.

    I am an old timer, I teach as well, and I am appalled that such rudeness exists among the alleged cognoscenti. To what possible constructive purpose does such a thing as a TwitterWall even exist? To what end is the backchannel such an exciting phenomenon? Our attention spans are dessicated to the point of no return already.

    I feel awful on your behalf. Anyone who participated in this ugly display should be ashamed. I don’t (nor does my university) allow tweeting during class. And passing notes gets you tossed.

    Thank you for a great article. If there are those who think me a Luddite, have at it.

  • Listening to your talk now on YouTube and it looks and sounds v good to me – looking forward to reading more of your research.

  • Danah,

    It’s rare that I encounter an article as thought-provoking & heartfelt as yours, with the eloquence to be truly empathetic. May I add to the numerous comments of sympathy, and thanks for sharing with others.

    A cautionary tale, and full merit for being brave enough to fully explore the wider implications of the Twitter issue (ironically that’s how I found this).

    Keep going with the great content!

  • Danah, Thank you for sharing this, we had already respected your work at the Altimeter Group, but have a new level of respect for you for sharing this.

  • Sorry to hear you had a rough time on stage. I didn’t attend the event, but I did read your speech the next day and it blew me away.

  • Bert Bates

    Danah, you totally rock!

    Not only is a front channel disrespectful to the speaker, it’s disrespectful to the audience.

    When I attend a session at a tech conference it’s because I want to hear what the presenter has to say. My experience is that presenters are smart people who have spent hundreds of hours thinking about and researching their topic. What they are presenting to me is a distillation of that effort, and it’s a great gift.

    While I also assume that most of the folks in the audience are smart professionals (they ARE at a tech conference after all), it’s truly arrogant for audience members to think that their ad-hoc thoughts merit the same weight as the speaker’s.

    Note to front channelers: I don’t want to hear what you reckon about this topic. Maybe later, after the presentation, but not during. A front channeler’s tweet is basically noise. It’s distracting every brain in the room. I don’t want to be distracted by your noise in a movie theater, I don’t want to be distracted by your noise at a concert.

    Note to conference organizers: If you want to create and experiment with new forms of session, awesome! But tell us beforehand. When you spring a front channel on us you are breaking your contract with us.

  • First . Joining the other kudos on your courage, coming back so quickly and writing this post — but that’s what makes you so awesome. Wish I could be at Supernova to hear your next speech, where you deserve a standing O!

    As a frequent speaker, I want to add my voice of concern to the increasing incivility of the backchannel at events, especially when it’s devolves into personal attacks.

    As an advisory board member for Web 2 Expo San Francisco, I’m definitely keen on making sure that this doesn’t happen. As I understand, this was not an isolated experience, and the context was that this bad behavior was being exhibited at multiple sessions, especially toward female speakers.

    And as an audience member and participant in the backchannel, I’m now thinking about what responsibility *I* have in helping perfect what you so eloquently describe as the art form of listening. We are all responsible in helping shape and shift the conversation because we are part of it. So I’ll be extra diligent in making sure that my comments move the discussion along, not distract from it. Might be helpful to have an informal “audience code of conduct” at events!

  • danah

    I wasn’t there. I did what I always do — read your speech, loved it, and broadcast about it to the many folks I thought should know about such splendid thinking.

    Your experience raises a big question: What are the antidotes to jackasses? Let’s ponder layers of responsibility.

    Organizer responsibility: What are O’Reilly Media and TechWeb Live Events thinking about all this? What, if anything, do they plan to do? What terms of engagement will they offer speakers at future events?

    Community responsibility: What norms of behavior and qualities of discourse do audience members want? There will always be hecklers and snickering trolls. They now have new ways to interject themselves into public spaces. The rest of us also should have the capacity AND willingness to call them out, shout them down, or digg them down.

    Speaker responsibility: Your experience has put high-profile conference presenters on notice that these could be ugly encounters. So the message has to be “presenters beware” — be smart and negotiate hard for your interests with the organizers.

    Market responsibility: Boycotts and girlcotts of the jackasses and their enablers.

  • Thanks for sharing this, danah. No question, it’s rather rare to see such detailed personal reflective analysis of this kind.

    Clearly, the backchannel is significant and offers great value, but what’s the point in the audience paying full attention to that very same stuff they can read on their laptops? Beaming it on screen for a few seconds as reminder at the start of a session and for genuine networking purposes, then switching back to full attention to speakers, appears to be the most appropriate way.

    It strikes me as both, bad practice and somewhat power-gamish, to not support presenters more in their need for attention. After all, what sort of Questions do you get from an audience that can’t concentrate on the speaker?

  • Danah, great post and comment thread.

    I’m surprised Charlene Li (above, 9:48) is still considering showing audience tweetstreams during panels and keynotes at the next web 2.0 conference. It’s a misuse of technology. Those public boards are great when you want many voices at once – like at a social or in a conference hall – but at a keynote we’ve paid to hear just 1 voice. Let attendees check the stream on their own devices. From what I’ve seen, opening up a public board before q&a is an unnecessary distraction.

  • Hi Digital Humanities Scholars:

    As a conference organizer who is somewhat knew to these discourses I would just like say how much I enjoyed Zephoria’s essay. Thanks!

    But a question.

    Do you think that the back stream would work if it was turned on at a certain point, let’s say after the talk is done, during a Q and A? I like the idea of another stream of ideas in the room but also do not see how, as you say, a thoughtful presentation can honestly be given with the constant threat of being undermined from the audience.

    I am considering whether a back stream would be a good thing for my upcoming conference (see url above).

    Thanks!

    Taylor Spence
    Yale University

  • First of all a great post. What you have written takes a lot of courage. Kudos to you for doing that.

    While it may be great to use twitter as a back channel, I have come to realize that tweeting while listening to a speaker in itself shows disrespect for the speaker. Perhaps the organizers of such events will come to that realization sooner. If the idea is to create a conversation, let the conversation be in the physical world following the talk – taking the questions through twitter is a good example.

  • BobM

    Thanks for the post, danah–provocative, as usual. Sorry the experience was so traumatic; I can empathize

  • its already been said, but I will add my voice – thank you for being courageous and posting this. Others who were subjected to the same ordeal have said very similar things. danah, I thought the transcript of the presentation was awesome, so thank you, and while I am commenting, I just want to say thank you for making your work so available, it is a huge resource.

  • First – happy birthday!! Celebrate your honesty and kick ass brilliance.

    Speaking is tough and rewarding {thor described it perfectly]. Your post reflects what many people go thruough when they speak these days – heck last year I rewrote my Web2 speech the day before thinking i had to bring something fresh etc etc – As a result I was less than comfortable with the material – I felt like I sucked – but we are our won worst critics.

    You are a compilation of all your actions thoughts and experience – not just ONE event.

    Hugs and drinks when i see you in SF next

  • Unmoderated Backchannel without Speaker’s consent should be banned once and for all. It’s a reminiscence of Antique Rome circus where Christians were fed to the lions. Web2.0 FAIL! Thanks for post!

  • First, Danah – hats off to you for writing this. It is an act of leadership – and, looking at the comments, this may be a turning point in how we use these technologies in public events.
    To Charlene’s point above – I think an informal “code of conduct” is a top-down approach that never took off during the blogging heyday. There is no reason to think it will work here. This is a social issue and explicit codes of conduct don’t resolve social issues. What we need is (1) a sensible approach to deploying these technologies in service of communication – which means it isn’t always appropriate to have a projected Twitter backchannel (much less one behind the speaker) and (2) the beginning of a dialogue that creates some social norms around the use/misuse of such technology. Again, my sincere respect that you had the courage to turn your personal experience into such a valuable conversation.

  • #respect! I recognize the influence of a back/frontchannel as a speaker. For me it became a (new) fundamental part in preparing myself. I always follow the event-hashtag for about a week upfront. Staring my presentation with a few screendumps of recent tweets (from like 5-30 minutes ago) in my keynote and make some jokes about it helps. They know that you’re connected as well :-)…

  • I couldn’t agree with you more. I recently presented at a conference that was marked by a clear division between the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ (the conference was organized by the Nordic Institute of Asian Scholars, and focused on governance and democracy in China). The older generation of scholars were visibly annoyed by the half of the audience that was running a backchannel – there were more than a few complaints about laptop use during presentations. This I have come to expect. Sinology in Europe is dominated by a core group of scholars, many of whom spent a considerable amount of time in China pre-reform (1978), and in my mind (and I am not alone) they are struggling to come to terms with a China after the Internet. So we ran our backchannel anyway, and it proved productive, but the focus still remained on the presenting speaker. An unmoderated backchannel on display behind a speaker makes is no longer a backchannel. It is a distraction, and disrespectful. I’m a little surprised that a Web2.0 conference would a) allow this to happen, and b) prevent you from using a laptop yourself. That just seems anachronistic.

    Anyway, I look forward to seeing your upcoming presentations (time/cash permitting). And I’m a huge fan of your work! Thanks!

  • I couldn’t believe it when I heard about this — it seems to becoming something of a common practice at conferences. What a dumbass idea to post twitter streams publicly during a talk. Talk about trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. It’s this need to try to cram this stuff into every nook and cranny of our lives that will turn off anyone beyond the early adopters.
    Someone should take the organizer of this event put a dunce cap on his head and make him sit in the corner at your next talk.

  • Found this article through a retweet from @SocialEdge ” @peterkaminski perfect demo of why @danahboyd rocks: thoughtful & heartfelt ” Couldn’t agree more. What a disappointment re: the event itself. But super-kudos to you for redeeming the event for yourself & others, for turning an awkward experience into many valuable lessons for everyone. I echo Tobit’s post: thank you!

  • Danah,

    Thank you for sharing your experience and your 360 view on your experience. You hit bare bone. Sometimes we forget that we are speaking to or about real people. I challenge the audience members who were critical and those that chose to be exhibitionists to stand on the stage themselves.

    As a neophyte to the concept of back channel I have been researching it. The idea of the presenter losing control of audience has been with my while undertaking my research. What you spoke to was an audience gone rogue. The bottom line of what happened was rudeness.

    I appreciate the heads up. I will now will be aware of situations where back channel is not appropriate and be vigilant about insuring that my stage set up meets the requirement that I need to present well.

    Many thanks for your forthright post.

  • Danah,

    The content of your talk was extremely good but it was the way it all played out that had the most interesting messages – its difficult to escape the irony of the relationship between the talk content and the talk event – web 2, stream, flow, participation, directions of info flow, fragmented attention, attention economy

    I appreciate how uncomfortable this may have been but your “broadcast” was about web 2 – are you really expecting the audience to actually be “passive consumers of information”.

  • Christina

    I didn’t attend the event, I’ve never of you and thus have never heard you speak. Because some of my colleagues (and Twitter friends) did attend Web2.0 Expo, I heard about the backchannel. Since then I’ve been checking in/out on the follow-ups to this fiasco. I just want to say that I’m sorry this happened to you. I can identify with the feelings you’ve expressed and am glad you had the courage to write it publicly. This shows you are of stronger character than those who participated in the backchannel.

    The most common greatest fear people have is public speaking: the audience’s reaction is tragically ironic. Unfortunately it was bound to happen to somebody; I hope the fall out becomes a positive one in that future audiences remember why they’ve chosen to attend such events and that if have qualms, they deal with it directly.

    I also hope that when those who participated returned to their real lives, they realized that what they did was engage in riot behavior and succumb to grammar-school peer pressure-how embarrassing is that?

  • Faraday cages should be made mandatory in all conference venues.

    I’m not sure how to handle the lighting aspect, other than asking for them to be turned down or moved when encountered such.

  • Elisabeth Robson

    I am sorry that this happened to you, and really appreciate your thoughtful post on the matter.

  • Stacey

    I really feel sorry for you for what happened. You are a wonderful speaker, and I am glad that you are able to keep strong. I would have given everything up! (Just proves how weak I am right there…)

    I hope the next speech goes well, and the audience is a lot more kinder!

    You’ll do well, I know it!

  • Liz

    danah, first, thank you for providing the text of your talk. That is what I came looking for here but I needed to read your comments once I found your blog.

    Second, I don’t know if you should generalize the audience’s experience. From where I was sitting in the back, I couldn’t see the Tweets at all & I didn’t hear laughter. All I noticed is that you were speaking very fast & the audience was getting restless and was fidgety. I still don’t know the content of the Tweetstream except I was told some Tweets were “rude”. But I listened oblivious to them, I was just struggling to keep up with the speed of your presentation.

    This was my second Web2.0 Expo and probably my 30th social media/tech-event over 2 years and this is the first time I’ve seen someone read a paper which is the norm at academic conferences. I really think that this was the issue, not the content of your presentation. This is an audience with a short attention span & at Web 2.0 keynotes are short & chatty, 5-20 minute soundbites. Compare this with the Internet as Playground & Factory conference the weekend before at The New School where each panel lasted close to 3 hours.

    At this point I’m trying to find a way to bridge the two worlds and I’m not optimistic after your talk. You are a great communicator and unlike many academics, you used visuals effectively instead of cramming your Powerpoint slides with text and bullet-points. I have just grown to think that the portion of the world that can sit & devote attention to a thoughtful, challenging intellectual presentation is getting smaller & smaller.

    The Tweetstream just turned up the volume on the restless of the audience and gave them an outlet to vent their frustration which was distracting both for the presenter (you) and the audience. Your opening point about the flow of information and the currency of our attention was an argument against trying to have competing flows of information thrown at an audience to try to manage & digest. The only place for these Tweetboards is in the hallways of a conference so people can get idea what is happening in breakout rooms. Speakers should never be blindsided like that & I’m sorry this happened to you.

    It probably will be cold comfort but everyone who gives presentations, myself included, has disaster stories from technology-dependent talks with malfunctioning projectors to hostile audiences. I think this will soon be an unpleasant memory and I really look forward to future presentations from you in a more speaker-friendly environment.

  • Dear danah,

    I’ve followed your blog and your research for years now. Sometimes, with the ebb and flow, I’ve missed entire chunks of what you’ve been doing (but then I always come back and find stuff that is very, very valuable). But when this happened I realized how hard it is for people to understand that, despite being public figures, we are also human beings.

    I, like you, am an academic (whose research is on environmental issues but whose personal blog has become popular-ish in Canada) – and I find this issue of giving talks with having a twitterfall as a backchannel one that really gives me the creeps.

    I think this post where you show your raw emotions as well as a very well thought-out analysis of what happened also gives us perspective. Social media is fluid. We need to keep the social in social media – and that means, that even if we are keynote speakers, we expect and hope to galvanize our public into having a conversation with us. You are amazing at this, don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Your thinking and speaking sparks conversations, not only at the conferences but also offline.

    I’m not 100% sure if I’m going to SxSW but if I do, I will buy you a drink. For sure.

  • Tim

    Danah,
    I know you only from your blog and you research on race and class. I am impressed by your knowledge, thoughtfulness, and insights.
    I am in awe now after reading this post. It takes tremendous courage and confidence to describe your humbling experience in front of (notwithstanding their knowledge, degrees, positions, etc.) cretins. What struck me from the start was the incredible naivete of the conference sponsors for making all the tweets visible, and then their stupidity for leaving them public after seeing what was being posted. As you say, the 12-year-olds in the audience loved it.
    This was as honest and, frankly, as hard to finish, a post as I have ever read.
    Take heart that so many people here support you and empathize with you.
    But I agree that you should carefully consider your future public speaking offers and simply refuse any that allow such rude behavior.
    Keep up the exceptional research.

  • Kathy Sierra

    I always wonder why people still bother attending live events when all of this “information” can be consumed, discussed, debated, parodied, whatever online. I know why I go — because there is still something magical about being in the same physical space with so many other people interested in hearing what people like danah boyd have to teach us. People like danah boyd who have something the rest of us don’t: specialized knowledge and insight on a *particular* topic, and a willingness to craft that knowledge and insight into something I can benefit from. Like Bert said, I see that as danah (and the conference) giving me a wonderous gift.

    I fear I’m a dying breed of Human1.0: someone who does indeed discriminate between speaker and audience for *any given topic*. Someone who attends specifically because these people DO know something I don’t, even if at times that thing they “know” is simply a way to creatively inspire me (also a gift).

    There’s already a space for higher levels of audience participation — UNconferences, *Camps, webinars, BOFs at “normal” conferences, etc. I’m sorry, but when we put the speaker and audience on some kind of “equal” footing for having shareable, useable, knowledge and wisdom… when we blur or destroy that line, we might as well say that the future of ALL live music 2.0 is… user-generated/karaoke night, and the future of all cinema is “choose your own path” or the midnight Rocky Horror Music Show singalong. Entertaining, yes. Spectacle, yes. High audience participation, yes, yes.

    I’m stunned by this notion that Audience2.0 Won’t Tolerate Being Passive Consumers of Information. Since when did “thinking” become a synonym for “passive”? When did “active engagement” change from “engage your brain” to “engage your typing/tweeting/talking skills”?

    You know, even the guy who wrote “Wisdom of Crowds”– a book/idea used to justify so many user-generated/2.0ish notions–used to start his talks with the simple statement that, unlike ants, humans actually become “dumber” the more they interact with one another.

    As always, I love you danah. And I know at least a zillion other people who would like to personally kick the ass of anyone who might have diminished our chances of hearing you present — live — in the future. Your presentation was a gift. And then you took your experience with the frontchannel debacle and gave us yet another gift.

    We’re so lucky you share some of your world with us.

  • FWIW, having been giving talks about as long as you’ve been talking, I will tell you it gets easier as you encounter more and more bizarre events and somehow live through them (my worst was the time I showed up at a conference evening session and they told me they’d decided that I was speaking that night instead of in my slot the next morning – definitely regretted that we’d been partying instead of attending the afternoon session – glad that was before twitter, and in fact the Web, was invented – so no back channel or youTubes).

    I still haven’t decided what I think about the backchannel being projected, have done it at some meetings and find the only way I can cope with it is to ignore it as best I can – but watching webcasts of my talks, I definitely notice I do more playing to the audience in the ones where that is going on – not sure whether that is correlation or causation, though.

    Anyway, FWIW, I can promise you they’ll let you use your laptop at WWW, and having seen you talk, I’m sure you’ll blow them away.
    -JH

  • I’ve been reading your work for years and was involved, peripherally, in organizing your talk at the Americal Libraries Association a few years back (great hat that night afterwards, by the way). I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read and your talk that afternoon especially.

    When I read about this incident, my first thought was, “Who thought it was a good idea to have *ANYTHING* projected on the stage that wasn’t part of the presenters’ plans?” I’ve been involved in setting up dozens of presentations, and have given a few myself. The idea of having a non-related media up there just blew my mind (in a bad way). I can’t think of a good reason for it, beyond the hope of some kind of serendipitous spectacle. Which, clearly, didn’t happen.

    For a backchannel to be useful, it must be (I feel) in relation to the frontchannel, not in conflict with it. Discussion of a presentation afterwards? Great. Commments, questions, thanks… fine. When it occurs simultaneous and overlapping with the event itself, that’s not backchannel; that’s another, conflicting channel that happens to share the room.

    Sorry you had to go through it. Echo all the warm thoughts above. Hope that your example can be quoted by others as a way to avoid similar nonsense.

    -A

  • I enjoy talking to people and talking up a storm is natural to me.

    I made the mistake to think that giving a talk and talking to people was the same thing. Sure, some people transition to public speaking without a problem. But, the nerves still get the best of me.

    It took me many talks to eliminate the “Uhms” and the “you know” when putting together my thoughts.

    I can only imagine what you felt like during and after your speech.

    I know sharing personal struggles is hard.

    But, I thank you for sharing this experience with us. I know you have helped other public speakers especially those just starting out (like me) by sharing the experience with us.

    For that. I thank you,
    – Dave

  • For a web 2.0 conference is sounds like a terribly 1.0 experience. You had no idea who your audience were and they couldn’t connect with you. That staging was an organisational stuff-up! I suspect it is yet another great example of organising committees being no substitute for intelligence.

    Don’t take it personally at all – they broke the medium long before you got there. Anybody would have been lost in that abominably dysfunctional set-up.

    Forewarned is forearmed so thank you for posting this. Now that I read your example, I’d be tempted to critique the medium. I’m a bridge-burner from way back so I’d probably have half the audience up on stage to see how bad it really was. It sure serves as a good example of how the medium and the network can empower & depower interaction.

  • Wendy St. Clair Pearson

    Thanks Danah for sharing your thoughts.

    My heart broke for you while I was sitting there in the audience. I wanted to stand up and scream out, “slow down — we just want you to slow down!” Thinking then maybe it would break the spell. The Twitter stream on stage – i think needs to go.

    Regarding your research and work, I could tell it was important and you knew your stuff and I wanted desperately to hear what you had to say, but I could not understand it. The speed and reading took away the context and that is how I got lost.

    Please don’t give up sharing your ideas with the world publicly – but do consider that your message could be much more powerfully shared and understood if you found a way to carry note cards with topics and talk more naturally. Let that passion shine through and you will win hearts every time!

  • I faced my backchannel fear at New Media Atlanta a few months ago. After watching speaker after speaker get slammed via the Backnoise application, I was terrified, because I’d be the last speaker on the stage. They’d said nearly nothing nice about anyone, and I read almost every word with that “don’t look away and things are going to go bad” feeling in my belly.

    Moments before I got on the stage, I decided I couldn’t face it any other way besides head on, so I asked the tech to put backnoise up on the screen as my background. It was larger than life. Every character was about a foot tall.

    I didn’t watch your speech. I had to leave (I was 2 before you, and had a meeting to catch). But I’ve seen you speak before and loved what you had to say. I am sorry for how it all went down, and I am glad you shared your experiences. I think this is one of those watershed posts that should spread everywhere for consideration.

    I look forward to saying hi at Le Web.

  • I attended Web 2.0 Expo on Wednesday/Thursday. As a result, I heard this problem referenced, but not what actually happened. It was nice reading a first person account.

    I liked the “censored” tweet stream they used Wednesday. When I missed a point due to being a bit behind via note taking, I could look up and see it. (I took mainly paper notes – old fashioned I know – and tweeted a tiny bit.)

  • Very much food for thought in this post, Danah. I wasn’t at, or closely following the Tweet stream for web 2.0, though I did see many tweets pop up about the “censorship” of the displayed tweet stream. So, now I know what was taking place. As I said – much food for thought.

    I’m a huge proponent of using Twitter to micro-cast live events (conferences, in particular) so that those who are unable to attend in person can get a sense of both the info being shared, and the mood/tone of the event. I haven’t personally been at an event where the back channel shanghaied the discussion and stole the audience’s focus away from the speaker, though I have heard of another such event (Publishing Fail, SXSWi last year). Though in that situation, as I understand it, the back channel grumbling was completely in reaction to what was (and was not) being discussed by the panelists. So, in that case, the audience was definitely listening to the speakers, but were using Twitter to voice their discontent with the presentation.

    I find the use of Twitter as a reporting and note-taking tool to be invaluable. And, yes – I do sometimes miss some of the things happening (facial expressions, occasionally slides that are going by quickly) on stage because I’m busy typing, but I really get a lot out of Tweeting about conferences and reading the tweets of others from conferences I can’t attend. I’d be very bummed if the practice were barred. And, I think it’s very much the responsibility of other Twitterers to police tweet streams and let those who are abusing the privilege know it isn’t appropriate, or appreciated.

    Regarding the tweet stream display — I agree that it definitely IS distracting to have a visual display of the tweet stream on stage with the speaker. It doesn’t do anything to enhance the experience for the audience who is physically there. I can see an argument that the speaker should have access to the tweets should they want it – in order to answer tweeted questions or clarify information that the audience may not be grasping, but it’s simply impractical to expect a speaker would be able to give a talk AND monitor a the tweet stream at the same time.

    I’m still parsing what Kathy said about the audience and speaker not being on equal footing. I know that she’s right – but some of the best conference session I’ve been in have allowed for at least a little direct interaction between the speakers and the audience. Even if it’s just a q + a relegated to the last few minutes of the session, having audience participation can be really valuable for the attendees AND for the speaker.

    Thanks again for the post.

    ~ Kat Meyer

    p.s. – what IS up with the blinding stage lights? I really hate that.

  • Keith Clark

    Coincidentally, I watched your presentation about two hours before Chris Brogan tweeted about your blog post with a link here. I guess I missed out on not being able to see the twitter feed. I loved your talk and feel I got a lot out of it. I guess I am used to people talking fast. :)As a reult, I sought you out on twitter to follow.

    You do a great job here of explaining what happened and I think it sounds like some of your points were made for you by the distration of the back channel. Great Job!

  • Danah – thank you so much for having the courage to reveal your inner world like this. Public speaking is still the #1 fear and now with the social media backchannel, it can make being on stage that bit more difficult… or, we can embrace and integrate before, during and after our talks.

    I too wrote up a vulnerable blog post after speaking on stage recently in front of 840 business owners and marketers. Though I’ve done a ton of stage work, I felt under pressure to perform particularly well and make a lot of sales. Platform speaking is one thing, platform selling is another. lol!! I made the fatal mistake of getting all kinds of last minute coaching and radically changing up my style. I deviated so much from my authentic self that it was awkward for the audience and for me.

    As soon as I got off stage, I monitored the tweetstream like a hawk. I felt really down for the rest of that night and the next morning was devastated to see a couple of tweets from audience members saying how they were disappointed in my presentation. I was more upset at letting the audience down than anything else. However, I tweeted back to these folks and DM’d and we happened to meet in person at a lunch break and I just really wanted to know from them what worked and what didn’t. I think the only way we grow as speakers (or anything, for that matter!) is to be wide open to receiving feedback – which we can choose to take on or not.

    Fortunately, I too was able to rescue my perceived “disaster” — it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it was myself. (I’m my own worst critic!) It was just that people knew me in the audience and others had high expectations too, and I was just so different.

    Anyway, correct and continue. It’s a mistake I intend not to make again ever!! 🙂

    I so appreciate your sharing your experience so that others may learn too.

    Cheers
    @marismith