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 thoughts on “spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective

  1. deb lavoy

    bravo for turning your disaster into a valuable experience and discussion. as for the public twitter stream – I was in the audience at other Web 2.0 expo keynotes, and I also found it very distracting – the same reason I don’t like the scrolling line on cnn – I can’t read one thing and listen to another at the same time.

  2. Michael Nielsen

    I give a lot of talks at events where the crowd is not especially into twitter (I talk mainly at scientific conferences), and I’ve noticed an interesting thing about the twitter backchannel: how rude or respectful it is depends on whether the audience knows I’m on twitter. If I merely put my twitter user name on the first slide, the back channel tends to be more respectful.

    What is interesting, then, is that apparently this doesn’t hold in a context where everyone knows everyone is on twitter (as at Web 2.0).

    What I’d like to understand better is why there’s this big difference between what people will say to your face, and what they say on twitter. Presumably it’s because many people on Twitter don’t fear being held accountable for their words. To some extent that’s okay, but it’d be nice to at least get to some middle ground, and I suspect that can be done through changing social norms, without any technical changes. One thing I’ve seen done that’s interesting is people on twitter politely telling other people off for being cruel about a speaker. But that’s still the exception rather than the rule.

    I realize it’s small consolation, but this was a terrific post!

  3. zephoria

    Michael – I’ve come to accept that I’m a public figure and many people don’t see me as a real person with real emotions. Lots of people won’t say lots of things to my face, positive or negative. Some tell me that I intimidate them. Others tell me that it’s what I get for being a mini celebrity. Others suggest that I deserve whatever crap I get because I’m in public. I am painfully aware that public figures get treated differently, almost non-human. After years of blogging and putting myself out there, I never thought folks would talk about me instead of talking to me, but that happens over and over and over again. I read about myself on the web and there are even folks who talk about me in the third person here on my blog. It’s weird, but i guess to some folks I’m just not real.

  4. Britt Raybould

    @danah: I’ve had the pleasure of listening to you speak on multiple occasions. Your experience at Web2.0 begs the question of whether we deserve to have high-caliber speakers at the events we attend. Our willingness to give speakers only minutes, if not seconds, to engage before we tune out or begin to mock frustrates me to no end, particularly when the information isn’t best shared as a sound bite or bullet point.

    Dumbing down presentations or speeches isn’t the answer. Some may quibble with Obama as a politician, but he’s proven that thoughtful rhetoric still has a place in our society. The same is true for other public speaking. We’re cheating ourselves of opportunities to learn and engage if we demand light fluff from our presenters or focus solely on being entertained.

    Back channels have the potential to add richness to an event, but seem better suited to small gatherings where the speaker can review and respond. Auditoriums full of people all too quickly turn into mobs on back channels, leaving the speaker at a significant disadvantage and lowering the odds that the speech will be a success.

    Participants may pay to attend events and have certain expectations of content quality. However, as you’ve indicated, speaker objectification isn’t included in the package. I wish you the best of luck at your future events and can’t wait to see you at SXSW.

  5. Thor Muller

    A friend sent me a link to the text of your speech, and I adored it. It was something I wished I’d written, and I was saddened I missed the presentation.

    I fully relate to your experience of public speaking–it’s an excruciatingly rewarding activity. For a lot of us it’s an extreme sport as audacious and mentally challenging as base jumping. You’ve described the experience brilliantly, and make no mistake: this only enhances your rock star status.

  6. christian svanes kolding

    i can imagine how that must have felt pretty devastating…

    i’ve always been a bit surprised as well as painfully disappointed that twitter-empowered audiences have become exceedingly short-sighted in the manner in which a speaker is embraced or mocked.

    instead of a talk providing an opportunity for a shared experience between speaker and audience, the running commentary between audience members becomes the spectacle. we’ve all witnessed this time and time again.

    it has gotten old.

    i think part of the problem is that audiences are flat-out bored with the format of these talks, compounded by an increasingly evident lack of self-discipline to re-engage with the speaker as well as the subject matter that is being presented.

    you write that you lost the audience. sure, these things can happen, but are you really there to entertain them?

    “had I known about the Twitter stream, I would’ve given a more pop-y talk… andd provided maybe 3-4 nuggets of information… it would’ve been funny and quotable but it wouldn’t have been content-wise memorable.”

    a rhetorical question but i thought that was what twitter was for? why recreate that in a live space?

    instead of this, i’d like for audience members to remember why they are there in the first place – to be open to learning and to be a part of a dialogue with a speaker who has a point of view. audiences should offer a give and take in direct communication with the speaker, not via this passive-aggressive behavior. i thought we were beyond that.

    for many, that’s a long way to travel just to badmouth someone… some take-away.

  7. christian briggs

    thanks for your candor, Danah. Most people are unaware of how difficult it can be to speak publicly with passion and a commitment to spurring real thinking. I am not sure that there is a cure for this old problem (as old as ignorance, heckling and objectification), but please know that there are many of us who appreciate your commitment, and stand beside you in whatever ways we can.

  8. Max L. Wilson

    this sounds awful. makes you feel sick reading about it.

    obviously people are twittering about your blog. I mentioned as part of the conversation the research by drew harry into backchannels that you may already know about – but it doesnt come up in the blog, so i thought id mention it just in case. see http://backchan.nl/ they had a chi paper about it.

    would be interesting to hear your perspectives on their approach given your…. experience.

  9. Shannon Y.

    This is a great post and a lesson to all speakers and those tweeting during a speaker series. I commend you on your post and taking this tough lesson and turning it into something positive that everyone can learn from and with much hope, remember that respect is such an important attribute that many have lost in this more impersonal world in which we now live.

    Again, great post! Keep your head up!

  10. Alex Howard

    Due to deadlines, I had to be a virtual participant in this conference. As a result, I wasn’t part of the dynamic. I’m not sad about that. One challenge here might be in the way the audience was constituted that may not have been primed to listen to a long form delivery of a message like this, however informative the content may have been. Nonetheless, I’m ashamed of the audience and bummed you went through that. It’s eerily reminiscent of what happened to Sarah Lacy at SXSW, except that your message was simultaneously deeper and more, as you wrote, meant to inform.

    I ended up reading your talk, not watching it, and found it valuable in that form.

    I do think a conference backchannel can be valuable, especially for virtual participants. And I’ve suggested to organizers that, at a minimum, speakers are at least given the opportunity to get a feel for how the audience is reacting.

    I’m not so sure about projecting that raw stream, at least not without human curation and moderation. The Berkman Center’s Question Tool provides the means for the community to moderate, for instance, along with reply or annotate.

    If organizers do make that backchannel public through projection, I think they are responsible for enforcing that same norms of respect that would be enforced of those in the audience. Since real-time feedback of talks, speeches and events is now a given for events, I hope that those in charge of those decisions will learn from your experience.

  11. Jennifer Kane

    As a both a frequent speaker and a conference producer, I was watching that stream in real time and was mortified on your behalf. It inspired a blog post of my own this week as well. Thank you for the well written post.

  12. John Exley

    Hi danah I’m a 20 year old engineering & management student at Clarkson University in northern NY that was at your keynote. I am currently taking a public speaking class and part of the course requirement is to evaluate 2 external speakers.

    I have begun “following” your speeches for a couple month now (found an old article in BusinessWeek from June 2009 that captivated me and had you featured in it talking about friendship analysis and your research at Microsoft).

    I think your research is fascinating and I’ve watched your keynote on YouTube twice since I returned to college. I just want to say that we all make mistakes, we all let ourselves down from time to time, and I personally really look up to the research you have done. It’s all about overcoming it and exceeding your expectations on your next speech! Go out there and crush it and regain your confidence.

    Your post here has to be up there with one of the most fascinating blogs I have ever read (although I am relatively new to the blogosphere and have only been reading blogs since fall 2008). Good luck with your next endeavor, and I hope to read more of your research soon. Take care and have an awesome Thanksgiving!

  13. Julie Finlay

    Agree with deb lavoy abt turning your experience into a valuable discussion. Thanks for your courageous post. I hope you got some apology from the Web 2.0 conference folks. The set-up provided sounds like a trainwreck — and it seems like they tied you to the tracks.

  14. Joshua McVeigh-Schultz

    Thanks so much for this post danah.

    What a painful experience…

    I have to say though I really appreciate your candor in describing the raw challenge of public speaking (i.e. challenges that exist even outside the context of this recent event).

    So maybe that’s the silver lining here.

    It’s giving you a platform to talk candidly about the raw emotional experience of public speaking and helping others in the process.
    I think of you as such a fantastic speaker, and so hearing you talk about these personal hurdles has helped me rethink my own struggles with public speaking.

    Thank you for that!

  15. Noel Dickover

    I would echo Mario’s comment that what you wrote truly took guts, and merits deep respect and appreciation. We can all learn from this type of response to failed performances.

    Regarding the Twitterwall issue, you’ve certainly convinced me that this is never a good idea, even if the audience is respectful (I’ve been to many events where this was the case – often those who aren’t on twitter gain more from the twitterwalls than anyone else). But on the issue of respect, I would still contend the future you are concerned about is already arriving. This isn’t simply a technology problem, but this behavior change is more the result of an ongoing co-evolution of man and his tools that seems to be increasing at an ever faster rate. If a good segment of the audience has decided its OK to publicly ridicule the speaker while the speech is in process, our notions of mutual respect have already shifted! The technology was not the “cause” – the cultural norm to make this behavior accepted and in fact celebrated to some extent needed to have shifted prior to that.

    We’ve broken down the barriers between celebrities and regular joes, between professional journalists and anyone with an opinion, between professional and amateur photographers, and yes, between speakers (who traditionally are supposed to “know more”) and the audience (who traditionally receive the knowledge). Barcamps (my favorite venues) pretty much codify this change. Now you have an audience of techies, familiar with “being the star” on twitter, in blogs, flickr, and even in professional settings, who no longer seem to agree on how to act when placed in passive audience mode. Perhaps the “Backchannel being made as the Frontchannel” was the confusing aspect that led them to believe they were allowed to intrude on the spotlight, but I think something more fundamental is happening.

    Perhaps the nature of our conferences should change – perhaps the speaker-audience model doesn’t work as well in a web 2.0 world (this doesn’t account for the objectification part – that just seems like traditional message board trolling behavior to me). I know I personally get FAR more out of collaborative-style conferences than the traditional mode. But then again, I along with many others still seem to be able to decipher the difference and act accordingly. I hope the removal of the twitterwalls will allow things to revert as you state in your last paragraph (and I do think your post WILL spark the removal of these, at least in their current form), but I still can’t help thinking the nature of our interactions is changing. While many aspects are wonderfully positive, many are not – notions of mutual respect top the list here (texting in movie theaters comes to mind…).

    Again though, I was truly touched by your very detailed and personal account, as I went through a similar event – at the time I couldn’t imagine writing about it as publicly as you have though – I wish I had though as it appears from reading it to be a very cathartic approach to coming to terms with what happened. And I truly hope to be able to hear one of your illuminating talks in person one day.

  16. Jeremy Buehler

    You’d think at any focused tradeshow or conference where people pay money to attend that attendance reflects interest.

    But that’s not always the case.

    Having attended many shows and conferences in the past as a reporter/writer, and as a business person, many times the presentations were a backdrop for other motives. My reason for attending was not personal interest but either because I had to for my job or that I hoped to run into someone in the audience, etc.

    Twitter provides a backchannel venting area where people can express their non-interest in an almost safe environment (depending on who they follow, hashtags, etc.) in many, typically negative, ways.

    It’s like yelling at someone who almost cut you off from inside the safety of your car. Or swearing at someone through your monitor because they killed you in a video game. Neither are things we tend to do face-to-face, but with that distance and safety, it happens.

    There will be many an awkward moment until we reach a point where social values integrate all the new tech around us.

  17. Lisa Tran


    Thanks for having the courage to share your challenging personal experience. I watched your Web 2.0 Expo talk from the livestream, so had the benefit of observing without being caught up in the hot emotions of the crowd. I found it truly ironic that what was happening was actually the darker expression of what you were actually talking about, in terms of the content stream and information flow. It was really mob-think on screen, literally behind your back. It doesn’t really matter that you were unable to add to the stream – the tool is out there now and we’re exploring ways to use it, and you happened to be the guinea pig in a bad experiment. I have a feeling they’re rethinking the Twitter backdrop for speakers. You had excellent points to make, albeit delivered at lightening speed, and I am sorry that you were objectified. There were those who fought for you in the stream, but haters are often louder. I think it’s important to use the laws of Aikido in this, because what happened really didn’t have anything to do with you, but with the crowd’s force. So don’t absorb that bad experience, just listen to it. Living in the stream and flowing with it is important, but hang on to what you have to say and be unique. Every stream needs its interesting fish. I’ll look forward to following your thought leadership.

    Kind regards,

  18. Todd Sieling

    danah, thanks for sharing your experience about what happened. I think it’s brave of you, and opens up an important discussion of how we deploy technologies into social spaces.

    The backchannels, especially when placed outside of the presenter’s view, has never sat well with me. In their worst forms they smack of an invisible chorus passing judgement on a person’s performance in real time, as if pubic speaking didn’t already come with a bag of anxiety in the first place. As web geeks we’re often too ready to introduce a new communication tool into a situation without first thinking of how well its design will integrate with that situation, making the people involved quasi-willing participants in an experiment. If it works out, great. If not, we don’t seem to care much for those affected by it and hide behind the notion that we were ‘trying something new.’

    The backchannel can be a really good tool for engaging and participatory discussion, but it needs to be designed for the forums we introduce it to, understanding that the emotional and public image integrity of real people can be harmed when the tool is used poorly.

    Again, thanks for sharing this, and for what it’s worth, I find the first few minutes of presenting very rough as well, and then magically find my flow where all goes well. I really wish I knew how to get to the second part without the first. Looking forward to seeing you speak at SxSW!

  19. Michael Nolan

    This kind of thing is happening more and more. Reading your reaction to the backchannel chatter was heart wrenching. Help is at hand. New Riders has just published Cliff Atkinson’s _The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever_. The book explores how the backchannel can get out of hand, and how it can be harnessed for a positive outcome. I’ve arranged for a copy to be sent to you, Danah. Be on the lookout for it.

  20. Trevor Speirs

    I am truly sorry for what happened. Hopefully we can turn a positive of new learning from your negative experience.

    From your description, it seems like Twitter works like an amplifier. A series of negative opinions build on one another fueling the negativity of the group. When you add a level of anonymity (like that provided in twitter) an amplified negative wave can transform into an angry mob; people engaging in incredibly improper behavior simply because other people are doing the same.
    On the positive side, it can act as an amplifier of positivity. If comments start out positive, it could make a good presentation memorable. Unfortunately, humans prefer to engage in a mob of destruction rather than a mob of altruism.

    So given it is an amplifier under anonymous conditions, the question becomes how can we keep the experience positive.
    Do we remove anonymity (i.e., would we see less amplified negativity if people commented using their facebook account id)?
    I am not sure, but without changes to the twitter’s structure or whatever tool we use, going forward speakers will need skills to quickly respond to negative amplified waves. Of course, it would be beneficial to see them – I am talking to you, Web 2.0 Conference!

    Anyways, I glad to see the mob hasn’t stopped an important voice in the social media world. Keep up the great work!

  21. Kevin Jones

    Danah, I was not there but watched the Twitter stream from my desk at work. It was horrible and made me sick. Speaking a decent amount myself, it was difficult to imagine myself up there – it could have happened to anyone.

    Then I got thinking about what this meant. In the end, what did this Lord of the Flies moment show us about ourselves? Are we really that cruel? Is this any different with or without Twitter? No, human nature is the same, the context can spur us to do things we ought not to do.

    Thank you for exposing your side of the story. You took the higher ground and are better for it, as are we.

  22. Suzanne England

    I saw you at Pdf in June and thought your research and presentation were among the best. And that is saying a lot in that situation. I’ve had a couple of those times when I felt I was off the rails in the beginning and couldn’t get back on. The most recent time was because the AV/computer setup was not at all what I expected/needed and I had spent the hour before the talk trying unsuccessfully to hook up an unfamiliar computer to show a video, without which the talk made no sense. By the time I was due to present I was already fried and rushed through the whole mess nervously. But this was nothing compared to what you faced.

    Irrespective of the specifics of the ‘tweckling’, your reflection should be required reading for all academics who present and those aspire to do it. We are (or hope we are) idea people and the best want to talk about what they are working on and puzzling over–not old stuff. To do a talk like that you need an empathic and curious audience, or at least one that has something at stake, like a grade, not one full of people who just want it confirmed that they are indeed very smart people. A wise mentor once commented on a particularly well-delivered talk in which nothing new or complex was presented, that “Of course it was a success with this audience [academics], he just told them what they already knew and confirmed that they are smart.”

    I agree with the comment that people are bored to death with these talking head speech formats and a couple of days of it will have a lot of folks looking for blood. We need more of your kind of consciousness raising about what is profoundly wrong with talking head, stage & podium formats, especially when the conference is a gathering of those who don’t communicate (or make their living) that way. Seems to me the combination of that format and an unmonitored Twitter or Google backchannel is a predictable disaster and abusive of both the presenter and the audience.

    BTW I just reread Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. It puts some of this in perspective.

  23. Christian Long

    Want to echo the hear to many of the speakers’ comments:

    Thank you for taking such a brutal human experience (and that is what it was at the heart of things; technology was only the vehicle) and managing to showcase what is possible when we construct meaning from challenge.

    Like @Britt’s point: “Your experience at Web2.0 begs the question of whether we deserve to have high-caliber speakers at the events we attend. Our willingness to give speakers only minutes, if not seconds, to engage before we tune out or begin to mock frustrates me to no end, particularly when the information isn’t best shared as a sound bite or bullet point.”

    And yet while I deeply agree with him, my real take-away is that there was a deeply passionate professional on stage that was unnecessarily blind-sided in the most spurious of ways…in ways that none of us are trained to handle or should find ourselves licking wounds from after the fact. You’re a public figure, sure…but there are lines we all intuit that technology should not ignore.

    And all of us deserve better (both on stage and sitting in attendance).

    Finally, as several others have stated, thanks for the courage/candor to recover ‘in public’ and to write such a striking piece of reflection.

  24. Tim Maly

    Reading over your experience, it reminded me of grade school descriptions of what it was like to see a play in Shakespeare’s time. The stage is thrust out and surrounded on 3 sides, it feels more like a ball game in the audience, people are selling snacks and talking to one another. Part of why his characters have to repeat plot points so often is that the actors were essentially shouting over the audience all the time.

    We’ve since tamed that beast and now talking or using your cellphone or any number of things that might distract from the performance is considered unbelievably rude in most circles. So plays, movies, and talks have tended to get a reasonably respectful audience.

    Livestreaming Twitter feeds is seductive. It’s audience participation! But silent and so, unlike heckling, non-disruptive, right? Well, as your experience here shows: no not at all. It can be extremely disruptive.

    I think it’s possible for speakers to adapt to this kind of thing. If a bunch of the other material condition of your talk hadn’t been so bad, if – as you say – you’d chosen a more rehearsed set of points, and so on. Shakespeare’s actors managed to get through Hamlet with all the shouting. I’m sure a key skill they all learned was getting the audience on side.

    But you’re not the only person who has trouble speaking in public and if we raise the bar for what kind of skills and conditions need to be in place for a talk to go well, we end up with an environment where less people can give good talks. This is the opposite of what I want

    I love Twitter. I use it heavily every day. But I’ve been to a number of conferences and I’ve yet to see one where having random de-synced-from-the-talk heckles and asides have improved the quality of the presentation or of my experience.

    The last bit of your post boils down to, “Hey everyone, maybe let’s treat one another like decent human beings?” Sometimes it feels like we have to relearn that with every new social tool.

  25. Daren Brabham

    Thats sucks, danah! Very sorry to hear that this happened to you. I’m quickly getting fed up with all kinds of speaking engagements, especially the scholarly ones. I don’t think many of the people in the audience really want to be there to hear the research that’s being presented. Most of the attendance is explained by wanting to schmooze with people or to be seen at all the “right” presentations.

    Better luck next time. I say demand that the Twitter feed not be shown onstage. And demand that you use your laptop. Paper is so last millennium.

  26. amy.leblanc

    this whole thing sounds like a complete nightmare. i can just imagine this in other stage/audience situations, say, a fashion show where the audience can tweet opinions on what they see. there’s no f*n way i’d get on that catwalk.

    so i’m wondering who, if anyone, had a GOOD experience with the invisible twitter stream experience? doesn’t it unnerve everyone? is the audience even capable of ignoring it even if they want to? it’s an interesting experiment, but it seems like it should have been OPTIONAL for speakers.

  27. Charles H. Green

    danah, I speak through the same agency you do, and know very well the rats on crack screaming in my head at the start of a speech. It does get better.

    I saw something like this happen to another speaker nearly 8 years ago, when this new technology was available in intranet form at a conference of 800 people. Monitors were available on every table, but not to the speaker. He, like you, was made a victim of public gossip; I don’t know how bad it was at your event, but it was flat-out malicious at this one.

    One question it raises is the responsibility of an audience. Fans of social media like to believe it is a way of creating networks, connection and trust. And I for one believe it can be.

    But it can also be an excuse for narcissistic and juvenile behavior, under cover of anonymity, and fueled by a desire for cheap fame in a mob.

    We have a long way to go to grow into the technology that’s been made available to us. I hope you’ll resist the temptation to dumb it down; keep doing what you do so very well, and challenge the rest of us to live up to it.

  28. janetti !

    you’re a great speaker. and as a member of the audience i can say that yes, the frontchannel was *really* distracting. i had an inkling it was moderated but not sure of it. so your fears, understandable.

    there are already so many distractions for audiences: cell phones, laptops, sleep… i think it was a bad idea.

    i repeat.
    you’re a great speaker.
    and as noted above, writing about this experience makes you an even better speaker. bc you’re fans want to (and should know) what went wrong. the perspective from your side of the stage is one only you’re aware of.

    thanks for taking the time to prep an insightful speech for the event itself, but for sharing the perspective and experience. good or bad, sharing is caring.

  29. Disa Johnson

    Rats on crack? LOL. Okay. The only reason anyone fails in my opinion is if they come across like a self important jerk. The fact is that timid presentations don’t always fail. They shouldn’t be given up on. Unfortunately when that happens, embarrassment ensues for folks. I’ve moderated 100s of panels and had to step in once in a while. I think this was an obvious fail by a moderator who didn’t have the wherewithal to step in and play assist. You want your speakers to succeed. This is increasingly important with the instant communication stream to Twitter et al. There is a shortage of good moderators out there. Let the lady shine for being brave enough to survive it, address it afterwards. The intellect gap between being a snarky twit and a speaker is the Grand Canyon.

  30. Jacob Haller

    This might be an odd thing to focus on, but I’m not an expert on social media before and basically read your blog because we knew each other at Watermyn.

    I’m a little confused by the semiotics of the setup you describe. I’ve performed under a spotlight where I couldn’t see the audience (and can confirm that it’s completely terrifying, at least until you’ve done it a few times) and generally the message that this is supposed to convey is: you should be focusing on the performer or presenter; that is what this event is about. (If the house lights are up then the focus is less on the performer/presenter and the audience tends to feel more free to talk among themselves, which obviously has its own problems.) To then project a twitter feed behind the performer seems to then send the message: what the performer’s saying isn’t actually that important; please talk among yourselves. Is my understanding of this setup correct?

    I have a hard time seeing how this can lead to a better experience for anyone (for the audience or for the presenter), but presumably this is done for a reason. Has anyone been to a talk or other performance that was enhanced by it?

    I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience.

  31. jordan

    i wonder how much of the tendency to objectify the speaker is related to the audience/performer dynamic. of course, presentations and talks have their advantages as formats, but i think they also create a divide between the speaker and the audience, by putting the speaker on stage while the audience sits passively and listens.

    the backchannel and other technologies might be one way to mitigate this, but presumably only if the speaker is included, and in a way that helps to re-humanize them.

    thanks for the frank discussion of what happened! but i imagine most people are still aware that you’re awesome and worth listening to.

  32. Anne Collier

    Wow, silent heckling. Seems evil. The only difference between your experience and bringing a prisoner into an interrogation room with the interrogator behind the bright light is that – for you – there was no Q&A! Thank you so much for relating this awful experience, danah. It’s comforting to read this from a thinker and communicator as gifted as you are, and I hope it gets conference organizers thinking about the impacts of their setups on speakers. Web 2.0 is about humanity, not technology, by God.

  33. Neil Kandalgaonkar

    What a horrible thing for you to go through. And while I guess it’s good that you’re trying to learn from this experience, I don’t see you as being very much to blame here.

    Unfortunately, most people go to conferences for entertainment, or to network. If you aren’t providing the entertainment, they’ll try to seek obtain it some other way. Add in the consequence-free environment of a twitter stream, with an audience that includes more misogynists than average, and we have the perfect storm.

    Even when it doesn’t go so wrong, I have always found it rude when people divide their attention between the speaker and the backchannel. It’s like they think the speaker is some sort of content hose, rather than another human being who needs attention and feedback. Plus, they may *think* they are being more efficient, but their comprehension is greatly attenuated. It’s really just a way of saying to themselves that their thought process is so much more important than anyone else’s.

    Personally, I’ve always enjoyed your talks, precisely because you come to present fresh original research, rather than warmed-over blog ramblings. The rapid-fire delivery, for me, was part of the charm. I guess not everyone agrees.

    You might find this helpful. Perl hacker Mark-Jason Dominus made a classic presentation on how to give conference presentations.

    http://www.perl.org/tpc/2002/movies/mjd-conf-judo/ (links to movie, mp3, slides)

    Not that your presentations aren’t good already, but maybe it will help you keep the audience’s expectations in mind — and to be more cheerfully cynical about them. Works for me.

  34. Catherine Ventura

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.
    I was in the audience and, while it was a struggle not to be distracted by the screen — which felt like the digital equivalent of a giant bubbling aquarium: hypnotic, almost impossible to ignore — I was very energized by your content. I read the text as soon as you posted it, and enjoyed watching the video too as soon as it was posted (a video that reveals that, aside from packing a lot of content into a short time, there was nothing so horribly bad about your presentation. Maybe it wasn’t your best, but I’ve seen much, much worse.)
    I do want to highlight one dynamic, though, with regard to audience laughter. I was in the front row, next to the photographer, and the loudest burst of laughter I heard was when someone posted “I just wanted to see what my picture would look like up here.” That got quite a laugh and is an important part of the dynamic that needs to be considered too. It’s very inviting to have that feed rolling and inviting participation, like an empty wall to a graffiti artist. Even if you had given the best presentation of your life, that screen invited competition from people who wanted to “make their mark” and see their picture up there on stage.
    I tweet a lot from conferences because I type quickly, because it’s my way of taking notes, and because I hope it adds value for people who are unable to attend. But I have to admit I was distracted to see my own face up there.
    The rude tweets were unforgivable, but the “innocent” immature grandstanding tweets were just as distracting to those of us who were trying to give you their full attention.
    It also was interesting to see a later speaker fill that screen with his own pre-programmed tweets. The effect was like a “streaming power point” with the key points that the speaker was emphasizing looping continually on the feed. It kept reinforcing those ideas and therefore added a bit of value. Other than that, I would suggest that it is fundamentally competitive and should be rethought now that the novelty has more than worn off.
    Again, thanks for sharing what must have been harrowing for you. And know that while a couple of squeaky wheels were tweeting snark, most of the audience in my section was listening with great interest and pulling for you.

  35. Susannah Fox


    I saw you speak at the Pew Research Center in DC and at Pdf in NYC and was marveling at how the same material can be transformed in the moment by the setting, the audience, and the speaker. What garnered polite nods at the PRC got people fired up at Pdf (and by the way, I saw the same exact thing happen with Mike Wesch – curious tilts of the head in DC, standing ovation in NYC).

    Social media gives as much as it takes away – and here you’ve proved that a communication is never over. You’re sparking as many (or more) ideas for people with the posted text of your speech and with this essay. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  36. Nick Wade

    What an experience. I didn’t read all the comments so let me side with Jacob here. I’ve presented out to a lot of audiences. What your experience has told me is that if the event has decided that an implicitly snarky backchannel should be made available front and centre, right with me, whilst I’m giving that talk or presentation, then I have to seriously question whether or not that event is worth my time.

    Well done for completing it even with such a horrible time up on stage – that’s professionalism. I do hope this feedback reaches the Web 2.0 organizers; time to rethink.

  37. Danny

    Huh. I thought we learned this lesson about not foregrounding the backchannel *years* ago. There was a brief fad for doing so until everyone realised how toxic and distracting it was, and then it was quietly dropped. It seems strange that O’Reilly of all the conferences would bring it back.

  38. Kevin Marks

    It was a great speech, full of insight and thought; I read it, I watched you give it (from an angle where I couldn’t see the projected tweets), and I watched it again on video with my son when I got home. It’s a shame the video doesn’t have your slides, which do exactly as you say; provide right-brain context; but the talk does come through. I then went and re-jigged my web2 talk to incorporate your insights into it. I was very angry that they did that to you; I wanted to berate the audience for their ignorance when it was my turn to speak.

    There is a place where backchannel works as frontchannel – we saw it at SXSW last year in panels and longer-form sessions, where the focus is dispersed among several speakers, but it doesn’t work in the intense, Ignite-like form that the web2 keynotes were structured as, where people are literally talking behind your back.

    Keep up the great work, I look forward to seeing you at Supernova and Le Web too, and do know that the web is a better place because your insights into it plant seeds in the minds of developers so that they do things better.

  39. zephoria

    Thank you to everyone who is providing context and perspective and thoughtful feedback!

    I do want to clarify one thing… The folks behind Web2.0 Expo were VERY aware of what was happening and have apologized profusely. They’ve been nothing about AWESOME about the whole thing. The whole reason they took down the Twitterwall during my talk was out of respect, but they weren’t prepared for the consequences of this decision. But really, they were amazing. And while one can argue they didn’t think it through, it should be noted that they had run such a system in other settings where people were much more respectful and engaged; they weren’t prepared for the context shift. So a lot of what happened happened because of this context and this audience, not simply the presence of the technology. But like I said, the Web2.0 Expo folks were super apologetic and supportive and wonderful through it all.

  40. vsbrowning


    Thank you for taking the time to share this experience and the insights you took away from it. As one who delivers 100’s of presentations each year, audience behavior still amazes me.

    With the advent of technologies such as Twitter, the masses now have the ability to feast like sharks – ravenously descending upon anything and anyone they do not like. We no longer place ourselves in the shoes of another and consider what is happening from that perspective. Rather we join the mob and feast to our hearts content – assuming that our texts are more important that pausing, listening, learning.

    Surely you will be stronger as a result of this experience. Hopefully the mob is listening and they too can take something away that can lead to a more mature approach to these types of situations in the future.

  41. Joel Hughes

    you’re a super star for picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and getting on with it.

    This is a great article which, in line with many other comments, made me feel sick reading it – it must have felt like a nightmare.

    Obviously you had a unfortunate mix of events which colluded against you. This was compounded by having a raw tweet stream. Putting up a big screen to display a live tweet stream is hardly elegantly integrating live conferences with social media – we need to do better than this.

    As for the rude bullies in the audience? They may rue the day they used a public channel to show what hurtful, insensitive clods they are.


  42. Joel Hughes

    you’re a super star for picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and getting on with it.

    This is a great article which, in line with many other comments, made me feel sick reading it – it must have felt like a nightmare.

    Obviously you had a unfortunate mix of events which colluded against you. This was compounded by having a raw tweet stream. Putting up a big screen to display a live tweet stream is hardly elegantly integrating live conferences with social media – we need to do better than this.

    As for the rude bullies in the audience? They may rue the day they used a public channel to show what hurtful, insensitive clods they are.


  43. Ellen

    Dana, I just wanted to thank you for writing this post. I’ve recently been introduced to your work, which I think is very good, and this post is an extension of your ability to use your experience and insight so others can learn from you. I’m sorry that you had to experience such rudeness in both the context of the situation and people’s behavior within it.

    I certainly don’t want to make an excuse for such rude behavior. However, it might be an interesting exercise to consider how the context could have been altered to encourage a more respectful exchange between you and the audience, rather than facilitate rude distractions. I bet some creative, interesting ideas for best practices could come of it.

  44. K.G. Schneider

    “The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself.”

    I hate what that conference did to you. I would like to take sharp sticks and poke the eyes of everyone who did what they did. But I also hate what that conference did to itself, which was to create a tool designed to bring out the worst in people.

    You’re an amazing, wonderful speaker, and I’ve thought that since we first met, at a tiny conference where we had a highly-visible-to-all backchannel. Back in the days of kindness and good manners.

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