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. Brock Craft

    Danah, I didn’t see your talk but I recently was broadsided by a similar experience and your observations captured my feelings more precisely than I ever could have. Thank you!

    I was an invited speaker giving a talk at LUGRadio, a small, somewhat informal, and highly geek-centric open-source conference in the UK. I was the first speaker and went on stage just after the conference welcome was given by 3 of the organizers. They made a point of saying there would be a twitter stream and that speakers would just have to deal with it. Although I consider myself reasonably au fait with technoculture, I was not really clued-in to what they were talking about and didn’t realise there would be a twitter backchannel behind me – and at the time didn’t really know what that was!

    I experienced the same feelings of disconnection from the audience (who even commented on my attire), frustration, and anger, which, combined with the usual speaker jitters, didn’t help my delivery. I also felt that I couldn’t just abandon the talk or launch back retorts or I’d risk being percieved as a “bad sport”. Besides, I was not there to engage in an argument!

    The backchannel breaks a social contract that exists between speaker and audience. The speaker offers to hold the audience’s attention with an interesting message and in return, the audience gives their polite attention. Live heckling is acceptable, but never anonymous, and carries its own agreed norms. The backchannel (and especially the anonymous tweet backchannel that I was subjected to) breaks this contract by changing the power dynamic. As you described, it gives the mob control of the platform and in so doing robs the speaker of any chance to engage in a structured and meaningful way. She becomes a marionette.

    I would never have agreed to speak under these conditions and in the future I never will, because this is no longer a speech, but a different kind of social construction which we do not fully understand – and for which the social rules have not been worked out culturally. If conference organizers want me to talk, I’ll be making them agree to my terms. I would rather speak under my own terms, as much as I can define them, until there is a better understanding of this mode of social discourse.

    Thanks for sharing you experience!

  2. Bill P

    “they had run such a system in other settings where people were much more respectful and engaged”

    Seriously? Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but the first thing I’d be thinking when I heard about someone’s idea to put a semi-anonymous outlet for real-time comments behind a public speaker would be “Are you on crack?” Even if you assume that _everyone_ will be on their best behavior – and you shouldn’t assume that, even if most people will – it just doesn’t make sense to do things that way. What you will end up with is a situation where the speaker will be competing with audience members for the audience’s attention, and what good end could that serve?

  3. Liz Davis

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. You are an incredible scholar and an inspiring person. I would love to have the opportunity to hear you speak live. It kills me to think about all of those lucky people in your audience who wasted their opportunity.

  4. Louise Desmarais

    I once watched a live webinar that was very poorly presented to begin with (Hey we all have to start somewhere.) But what made it worse was that the presenter was able to see the Twitter feed and he knew exactly what people were saying about him. He didn’t acknowledge the comments but proceeded to fumble through – and it was very painful to watch. I simply don’t see the point of the Twitter feed. It only gives insensitive people a window to show how small, hurtful and unprofessional they can be.

    I’m sorry for your experience. But I really, really admire the way you have handled it. And I hope that it has made you stronger and more determined to knock ’em dead the next time!

  5. Bruce Esrig

    What I notice in online communication is that there is a need to edit.

    Some, especially those who are new at writing for a public forum, are seduced by the sense of freedom they get when their communications are inhibited neither by any other person editing their writing, nor by any sense of a need to edit themselves.

    This leads to reprehensible communication. Some people’s twitter streams are sources of delight. Other twitter streams are a clear window into an intermittently-polluted cognitive space.

    It is important for writers to know about a stream: who is reading it, who is prepared to respond to abuses, and what that response might be. It takes a steady hand to craft an interaction that has a form of oversight sufficient to keep rude impulses from hijacking our public discourse.

    We’ve had success with a publicly-posted twitter stream in contexts where everyone participating considers themselves part of a single community. As you suggest when you talk about losing the audience, perhaps that is what broke down here. Perhaps the abusive remarks were from those who saw the speaker as a distant other, and failed to imagine that they themselves could be speaking at that moment, hoping to connect with, inform, and help others.

  6. prowse

    2 main points here I need to make – both from my experience.

    1. There was (and still is) absolutely no excuse to NOT having a stream moderator and a way for a Web 2.0 conference to provide an angled podium AND allow a laptop on stage. That is nonsense. It’s Web 2.0, not Windows 3.11

    2. As I have worked on and back stage most of my life, there is penultimately never a good excuse for A. not allowing the speaker to have control as to whether or not the House Lights may up nor B. allowing the stage lights to be painfully bright – that borders on insanity and any professional LD will tell you so!

    I think it unconscionable that Techs would not honor professional Speakers’ wishes and concerns that come to their venues – it especially never matters who the promoter is, in this case Web 2.0 Expo committee (or whatever their legal moniker), as most promoters are ironically counting on the tech staff to know that part of their job is to accommodate the TALENT in all cases – not to Fuck With Them.

    If Web2.0 people thought that in order of fairness that people wouldn’t have laptops on stage, I say bunkum! Allow it, but make it policy to BYOLT – obviously the tech crew at this venue did not have the technical chops to handle the myriad problems that inevitably occur when hooking various brand laptops up to A/V equipment. Boo hoo.

    Now, knowing and having seen SxSW webcasts these passed two years, there WILL BE Twitter streams available IF YOU CHOSE to have them on, and there SHOULD be someone volunteering from SxSW staff to moderate language and context of those streams – especially since uStream.tv once again will be there in many forms, so moderation will be key – AND ALLOWABLE.

    From your overall experience (and just taking the facts without the emotion), it sounds like Web 2.0 Expo needs a serious upgrade, especially in the technical staging department. Seriously FAIL on them this time.

    And what does “apophenia” mean?

  7. Bob Calder

    It looks to me like a massive fail for the entertainment design folks who totally blew the venue setup. If you are the only presenter who felt uncomfortable, that’s one too many.

    The lesson here is that you should gracefully back out of an appointment when control feels like it is slipping from your fingers. Everyone had display technology except you. It was massively unfair not to mirror everything for you.

  8. Sara Winge


    First, poor bubbie! Yes, you’re a public figure and prepared to take what comes with that territory, but you didn’t at all deserve that treatment. And it hurts.

    I wasn’t at Expo NY, but I did read your excellent talk sometime that week, at the quiet of my breakfast table. It’s damn good–insightful, clear-headed, and full of vivid phrases that provoked “aha” moments. I’m so sorry that the dark side of “living inside the stream” played out while you were sharing those same insights live, with the very people who should be most thoughtful on the topic.

    You rock.


    And for those haven’t read the paper or seen the talk, check out “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media”: http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/Web2Expo.html

  9. xian

    danah, I watched your talk on youtube, and while I did note that at times your delivery was halting (I mostly noticed it since it contrasted with your more familiar fluid style) I was riveted by your words and immediately favorited and shared the video widely.

    How terrible that you should have been subjected to abuse and disorientation like that! It is very stressful to put yourself in front of people and give your best and feel that you are being ridiculed. This is probably one of my deepest darkest fears!

    Thank you for sharing your experience so immediately and transparently. I hope it does some good.

  10. Alcides Fonseca

    I agree that it takes a lot of guts not only to write about all of this, but also to end your talk. With such a feedback as you described, I wouldn’t be able to finish the talk, specially since everything on stage is so much more intensified.

    I only read your talk via this blog and I really like the way your present problems that we should think of how to solve them. I would loved to be there during your talk, and I wouldn’t glance at my screen for no more than 5 times (what I usually do). If I was more interested in the twitter stream, I would be there in the first place.

    I do think twitter backchannels could be used in good ways. One being for complementing the talk with relevant links (projects mentioned in the talk), and other being as a way for speaker to get feedback during two(or more) parted presentations. I’ve seen this in a Portuguese Microsoft conference, and in the break the speaker filtered the feedback and improved the second part of his talk.

    I would say the major problem in your situation was the lack of control you were given. I organize a small conference and I try to provide speakers with the tools/scenario that allow them to pass their message. I don’t restrict their usage of their computers (I even provide a desktop and my own laptop for hosting whatever is needed). If there was such a podium, why not use it to hold your laptop instead of written notes? And I would say it’s impossible to give a talk without getting visual feedback from the audience. Or else it you could just record it at home, and play it during the event.

    Oh, and I also happen to speak really fast on stage. I usually ask a friend in the audience to signal me if I’m going too fast, running out of time, or if any other thing happens that I cannot perceive given that I am in “speaker mode”.

  11. Steve

    This is a great conversation that I wish I had found before I started writing critically about the purposeful and informed use of backchannels early this morning and then stirred up a bunch of offense.

    Beautiful transparency into the life of a person onstage and the interaction with backchannels. Thanks.

  12. Jason Romrell

    While you obviously survived a terrific experience (and lived to write about it), you’ve given me (and many others) a wonderful and useful education. Thank you for sharing your experience in such a vivid and emotional way.

  13. Edwin Aoki

    Thanks for sharing this. Having spoken at Web 2.0 Expo in the past myself (and being told when I showed up in the morning for my run through that I wouldn’t have the ability to have any notes), I’m very sympathetic. Like you, I was doing a new presentation (I generally write a new presentation for every conference I do), but fortunately for me, I a) only had to fill 7 minutes and b) there was no Twitter feed for the audience to, er, feed off of, so I think I fared slightly better.

    Recently, I spoke on a panel in a conference where the Twitter feed was part of the discussion; audience members (both present in the room and participating in the webcast) were invited to post questions via Twitter. The format worked pretty well, but I will admit even there it was distracting, and I agree that it’s a way for what used to be occasional whispers between audience members to get magnified into a dull (and sometimes very negative) roar, or, as apparently happened in your case, for it to be a way for people who should be listening respectfully to hijack the audience.

    As Noel puts it in one of the comments, this collapse of the fourth wall is already beginning to happen as the Internet in general and social media in particular break down the barriers between “presenters” (whether that be performers, journalists, academics, or speakers) and their audience. In creating a culture where we encourage dialog, we’ve also created an environment where we tolerate “talking back” (in the negative sense of that phrase).

    I feel badly for the experience you had to go through, but I, like many others, appreciate this post, and I’d suggest that it’s a positive example of taking what would have otherwise been a backchannel conversation (your dismay at your experience) and elevating it to a foreground conversation. I think all of us have a obligation as we develop and shape these new media to also think about what new responsibilities they create in all of us (which, in a perfectly circular development, was the subject one of the one of the early talks I gave some years ago).

    Thank you again for elevating the discussion, and for bringing your talents not just to Web 2.0, but to all of the venues, large and small, that can learn something from your considerable experience.

  14. Gary Barber

    Why are conference organisers still using a back channel on stage so it can become the front channel. This really does show a complete lack of respect for the speaker, and the other fellow attendees. As has been stated the distraction level is just too high. Remove it. If it’s that critical you really have to rethink your conference.

    For a reasonable conference not to be able to allow the speaker to see their notes or have their laptop on stage is a little bit of a concern. All these things are technically possible. It really does make you consider the professional standard conferences that don’t allow for this.

    Danah thank you for this. There are a lot people organising and attending conferences that can learn from this. Speakers are not puppets.

  15. Matthew Mahoney


    Thank you for the very honest and thoughtful response. You’ve taken an experience that was miserable for you going through it and turned it into something instructive for all of us going forward. Few things get better than that. Thanks for reflecting and giving back.

  16. Leesa Watego

    Great Article. Shame that it took such an awful experience to create it – though perhaps that’s the source of some of the best thinking & writing.

    Will make this required reading for my students. There are lessons here for all the players in the dynamic – Speakers, Organisers
    and the Audience.

    A commentor menioned above – “the social contract” between speaker & audience – there are real implications for this with the backchannel. I think they’re spot on.

    With Social Media it sounds like we’re still in the “contract negotiation stages” of communication …all over again.

    Thank you for your contribution.

  17. James Duncan Davidson

    Thank you for posting what happened from your side. There’s a lot in what you said for all of us to chew on.

    I have to say that I was incredibly pissed off by what happened to you up there. And, it didn’t start with you. I thought the spam that appeared on the backchannel was tacky. And I thought it was reprehensible that people were catcalling Caterina when she was on stage before you. It befuddled me that the Twitter stream wasn’t moderated in the first place. I’m tempted to go further and say it was irresponsible to have an unmoderated channel for anybody to say anything and have it show up on stage.

    We do need to respect public speaking and listening an artform. One of the things I cherish about the TED conferences is that laptops and such are banned from the room unless you’re at the very back. As a member of the audience, you are there to listen to people give a great talk and you own them (and yourself) your attention.

    At this point, after having watched more than my fair share of conferences roll by from a very close vantage point, I’m convinced that promoting or supporting a backchannel is a horrible idea. Watch the presentation. Then talk about it. This partial attention stunt that people are trying to pull off is bullshit. It’s handy when the presenter is poor and we want to politely pass the time, but that’s bogus too. Public speakers deserve your attention or you shouldn’t be in the room.

    Finally, I wish there was something I could have done from up there in front. I tried tweeting a few times–tweets that made it up on screen. But of course, that wasn’t for you. It was aimed at the bad actors in the audience. But seeing it all happen, I was shocked, mortified and pissed off. I wish I could have figured out how to reassuringly say “slow down” with sign language, but i was afraid that if I did that, I’d spook you more.

    Anyway, I’m glad to have the opportunity to hear your thoughts. And, don’t worry, you’ll rock you’re future presentations. 🙂

  18. christine walker

    Fabulous article.

    I increasingly suspect people are busy commenting rather than really LISTENING. They want to be stars by comment, not by content.

    Speaking is a great challenge even for people who do it all the time and do it well. Many audiences have never stood at the podium and wont understand.

    I think the burden on speakers is increasing and being voted on whilst on stage is dreadful.

    It is even distracting as an audience member and detracts from the content of the speaker (good or bad).

  19. Martijn Linssen

    Danah, two thumbs up and deep respect for you

    Again, I reread your what I call poetic and inspiring piece which is so much to the point. Your second-to-last sentence:

    “Keep it exciting and, please, recognize the power that you have!”

    ‘Nuff said. I love Twitter and info and sharing, but the notions of backchannel and backstabbing have too much in common to me

    The channel shouldn’t be in the back of the speaker, how would that benefit him or her? If it’s supposed to add information, that information should be available to all

    A speaker should draw information and inspiration from a Twitter stream, as if it would enable him to read the silent words or minds of part of the audience, giving way for the icing on the cake by acting on last-minute insights and feedbacks. It should enhance communication and collaboration and connections, not impede them

    Take care, and take it easy. You’ll do fine. Try classifying it as a “specific experience of an abnormal meaning*less*ness” 😉

  20. prowse

    Forgive my hideously bad grammar and syntax.

    The following mostly to others that might not follow Ms. England’s example:
    As an aside, and on the side of techs off-stage or in the booths everywhere, Ms. England (from above), I must commend you, that you were at a speaking engagement an HOUR BEFORE YOU ARE TO PRESENT is applaudable and laudable!

    If only 90% of ALL PROFESSIONAL speakers would give at least that kind of lead time – these are PCs (for the most part) people, don’t EVER assume the setup is going to be as you desire or ask for (although, the venue-techs need to make EVERY effort to see that it is so), you can never assume.

    You all MUST ask for and consider when crafting your Media :
    OS version
    PowerPoint version
    Is SOUND required of the PP Presentation?
    RAM desired vs. RAM required
    CPU speed
    MS Office Version (you need both Office and PowerPoint installed if you want to use PowerPoint – even in Pack-and Go method)

    If using PowerPoint; ALWAYS SAVE IN PACK-AND-GO mode. The native files you created MUST be with your presentation at all times, and Pack-and-Go is the ONLY way to do that AND guarantee that.

    Don’t run the PP off a thumb drive or even a CD- or DVD- ROM! Thumb drive installations can be just as funky as anything else. COPY it to a local machine whenever possible. DELETE and use SHREDDING software on the TRASH BIN when finished (if proprietary info and /or copyright is critical, otherwise EMPTY TRASH after DELETE should suffice)

    You MIGHT want to consider having a live backup ready “in the cloud”, but always ask for a LIVE and ready internet connection. In some venues, while even having asked ahead of time, the techs might not “open it up” until you get there, and that can take a few minutes, especially if they have to wait for the “guy with the password” to arrive!

  21. Chris Kilmer

    Frankly, I’m not a fan of the live stream up on the big screen during a presentation. Public speaking can be nerve-wracking. It takes a lot of time, energy and courage to get up in front of a room of folks and talk about something important to you. The streams are nothing but a distraction. Show some respect for the speaker and listen! If you aren’t there to listen, then try to do something other than derailing the presentation.

    And finally, I wonder if the folks who tweeted the disparaging remarks would have had the guts to make the same remarks in person. I’m betting they wouldn’t. The live stream just encourages cowards.

    I for one would love to see them go!

  22. Anca Mosoiu

    Wow Danah, I’m really sorry that you had to go through that. Your thoughtful words and research have definitely made a big impression in me and my own perspective of society and technology. Don’t let this schoolyard display get to you!

  23. prowse

    @Max L. Wilson

    backchan.nl looks nice, but it isnt ready for new users yet, so not sure it can help (they have shut it off).

    Personally, I have used CoverITlive, very excellant but could use a moderator during talks, but not wholly necessary once you, as the speaker, get a hang of it. Using any typical laptop’s dual monitor output capability, you can have just the final moderated streams be projected, while the producer side stays only on the laptop. Very nice free service.

  24. Jeff Lawshe

    Great post!

    I wonder if the situation you describe could have anything to do with the growing pains of a new communication form? I don’t know if this is your experience, but over the years, I’ve seen fewer and fewer flame wars happening over e-mail. It used to be a common thing–I even participated in a few in my early days online before I realized how pointless and ridiculous they were. Maybe they’re actually subsiding, or maybe I’ve just learned how to avoid the lists and groups that tend to host them.

    I think lots of times when you introduce a new medium, users perceive it as a mask that lets them flaunt ‘who they really are’ (that 12-year-old kid) instead of playing nice like they do in the other media they’re already using.

    It seems like over time, as the new medium becomes more important (and more mainstream), the mask you wear to participate in that new medium becomes a part of ‘who you really are’ (your personal brand, something that must be cultivated and protected), and then the normal rules of decorum gradually reinsert themselves into your behavior.

    I’ve seen situations like you describe here–and it never ceases to amaze me how posters are willing to sacrifice their personal reputations just to see their asinine opinions up on the wall. But I think they’ll learn, if the medium sticks around long enough.

  25. Kara

    Sorry to hear of your bad experience with backchannels. Especially at a conference like Web 2.0 where you wouldn’t expect any of that to happen.

    I work for Peachpit/New Riders and we just released a book by Cliff Atkinson that explores the rewards and consequences speakers face with backchannels. The author also explains how to manage this growing medium. I thought it would be a book of interest to you and your readers:


  26. Janet

    Wow Danah, thanks so much for your bravery in writing this post. Not one of us who speaks hasn’t had a moment when we just knew we were in deep and with all that you went through before, during and even after the event it’s amazing you’re coming back for more.

    However, the back-channel can be useful, especially if you have someone to field comments and moderate that channel for you, feeding you questions and info as you go.
    Please don’t write off the value of the back-channel because of a few insensitive jerks.

    As for you insensitive jerks out there, what goes around comes around and if you tweet like a jerk……we see you.

  27. DaveLaFontaine

    Danah –

    First, thanks for your courage in sharing this story – you’re obeying Rule #1 of Web 2.0, which is that when you screw something up (as you made plain in graf 1 of the story), you stand up on your hind legs and take your lumps. And by so doing, you have mobilized & motivated the people who are your defenders, and also counteracted any lingering negative publicity/impressions from the incident. So bravo – and you’ve also earned yourself a pretty decent case study here.

    BTW – I’ve given at least five speeches (and organized a half-dozen meet-ups) where there’s been a live Twitter feed – three of ’em with it projected behind me. Each time, the comments have been very supportive and have actually added to and amplified some of the points I’ve made, as audience members have shared links with each other.

    However, I can see how, once things have started to go in a negative direction, that “The Room” can quickly turn into Lord of the Flies, with the speaker in the role of Piggy.

  28. Brooks Jordan

    Danah, I just watched your presentation on YouTube, and, for whatever it’s worth, I found myself getting quite drawn into what you were saying.

    I’m sure it was experienced a bit differently live by the audience and from your perspective.

    But, if that’s you giving a bad talk, your good ones must be amazing, and I’m sure they are.

    Much learning all around regarding back/front channel, no doubt, but also don’t be too hard on yourself regarding the talk. You still taught, and we still learned.

  29. Doug De La Matter

    SO did the audience show up to listen and think, or to tweet kneejerks?
    Are they all Bart Simpsons typing “Look at ME! Look at ME!”?
    This behavior started when TV replaced movies and we could pass snide comments in our living rooms without disturbing others. People gradually forgot how to act politely in public. This technology just feeds that process and the cult of the individual.
    AS for presentations, I think organizers have to make mature use of technology. Just because we “can” doesn’t mean we “have to”.
    Technology should be there to enhance the purpose of the meeting.
    Having everyone talking at once didn’t work in grade 3 and it doesn’t work at a serious intellectual gathering.
    Speakers… if they want to hear your ideas, the presenters should give you the forum you ask for. So insist on YOUR right to give your presentation the way YOU want it to be presented.
    The audience deserves nothing less.

  30. Wolfie Rankin

    From my perspective as an interested party watching the live stream from media140 in Sydney… I was at home, watching on my laptop. and I found that I was paying far more attention to the twitter stream than what the speakers were saying… unless something was said that really grabbed my attention. Although using twitter at the same time was kind of fun, it wasn’t all that useful as my mind couldn’t take in all the info… and reply, at the same time. I think that if I’m in this situation again that I would prefer to just sit and listen to what is being said, and then load up twitter. Perhaps it’s down to the manners Grandmother taught us… never speak over another person, it’s just plain rude. (and not all that helpful).

  31. Kim Pallister

    Wow. That totally sucks, and I echo the sentiment of others that you are a totally class act for posting on what obviously was a painful experience to allow others to learn from it.

    Also, I’ve seen you speak before and I have to say that I was quite surprised by your confession of pre-talk nerves. We’re all human but you come off *so* awesome in your talks that I guess I thought it was second nature.

    Anyhow, let’s hope the Web 2.0 conference can learn from this. Back-channel is useful for some types of topics but not for others.

    Courage, mon ami!

  32. annie

    Why have people forgotten “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” It’s a sad reflection on people, not on you. Bravo to you and i’m delighted to see intelligent comments and respect for you here.

  33. PurpleCar

    I wasn’t there, but I’m wondering, danah, based on your post, how much sexism was behind the rude comments. The comments so far have glossed over that aspect.

    As for the social media conferences, perhaps you should consider not speaking at them. You have to consider this population. I’m not making general statements, but as a scholarly type I can definitely attest to threads of common social behaviors in a group. The behaviors you describe are getting more and more typical of the social media cohort. Paying their way into conferences is no guarantee that they can resist common peer behaviors in order to be a good audience member.

    But I know you want to keep speaking. If I were you, with your resources, I’d look to the sociologists and the secondary school educators. They already have a lot of experience with partial attention audiences and could probably guide you if you want to pursue speaking to that type of group. No need to reinvent the wheel.

    Perhaps you should start your own “How to speak to the natives” conference, with established and successful educators in the forefront. We could all use some innovation and inspiration in this specific area. I would attend, as I’m sure many tenure-track teachers and professional speakers would.

    Good luck. I enjoy your scholarship and your mind.

    -Christine Cavalier

  34. Rolando Peralta

    this is a terrific post. I have to thank you because I’m learning from your text (from both sides). I couldn’t make it to be @ this conference, but I don’t approve rude behavior with speakers. I think good manners and politeness are ahead everything, specially in public presentations/events. But I’m pretty sure, judging by your great job, that this experience will be good for you.

  35. Patrcia Agatston

    I so value your work danah, and it made me ill reading about what happened to you while presenting. How are we going to teach our youth to be positive digital citizens when the adults in the room are behaving like that? I am particularly upset about your experience of being sexually objectified.

    But I really appreciate your candor and allowing us to use your experience for reflection. Keep up your amazing work.

  36. Anna Watkins

    danah, your recounting of the experience is infuriating. I admit, I have yet to fully embrace Twitter. there are good and bad things about it, and your experience in this talk is all bad. In a conference session, Twitter in any use at all seems akin to passing notes in class — good or bad, it distracts from the speaker’s presence and message. And if you are not participating in the messaging — EXACTLY like passing notes in class. By immature 9th grade boys.

    I was at AASL a couple of weeks ago, and was stirred by your (Twitterless, mostly female audience) keynote talk to really think hard about my role as school librarian in Etherland. I am struggling now with the plusses of reaching out to students (via Facebook) and the minuses of finding out about things I don’t need to know about off-campus life, but would have to address if I did know.

    On the personal side, because of your talk, I have decided to let my busting-at-the-seams almost-a-teenager son set up a Facebook when he’s 13 (in January). He’s thrilled, and I feel connected to him in our deal to let me have the password and go through this together. Thank you for pushing me to re-evaluate my heck-NO stance.

    Don’t let the dweebs get you down. the rest of us need you!

  37. Anna Watkins

    danah, your recounting of the experience is infuriating. I admit, I have yet to fully embrace Twitter. there are good and bad things about it, and your experience in this talk is all bad. In a conference session, Twitter in any use at all seems akin to passing notes in class — good or bad, it distracts from the speaker’s presence and message. And if you are not participating in the messaging — EXACTLY like passing notes in class. By immature 9th grade boys.

    I was at AASL a couple of weeks ago, and was stirred by your (Twitterless, mostly female audience) keynote talk to really think hard about my role as school librarian in Etherland. I am struggling now with the plusses of reaching out to students (via Facebook) and the minuses of finding out about things I don’t need to know about off-campus life, but would have to address if I did know.

    On the personal side, because of your talk, I have decided to let my busting-at-the-seams almost-a-teenager son set up a Facebook when he’s 13 (in January). He’s thrilled, and I feel connected to him in our deal to let me have the password and go through this together. Thank you for pushing me to re-evaluate my heck-NO stance.

    Don’t let the dweebs get you down. the rest of us need you!

  38. jon

    Wow. As so many others have said, I feel horrible for you that you had to go through that — and admire your courage in posting about it.

    It seems to me that you’re letting the Web 2.0 folks off the hook too easily. As well as them not allowing you to bring the equipment you wanted and setting up the lighting badly they also set up the backchannel in a way that maximized the chance of abusing speakers. The bar at a high-profile conference should be higher than that.

    And they created an environment which led to and tolerated objectification of women — not surprising, given the history of complaints about sexism and O’Reilly conferences, but that doesn’t make it okay. Did they do anything about it, during or after the presentation?


  39. SG

    If you don’t want to be objectified by men who act like 12 year old boys, then don’t go to conferences that cater to those kind of people.

    Web 2.0 is attended by small, jejune, puerile men.

    I speak at conferences wherein the subject matter and the speaker are respected, if not agreed with.

  40. Sabina Nawaz

    danah: What a thought provoking, touching, inspiring piece of writing. You have really modeled what personal accountability should look like. And unlike what your tweeting audience did at Web 2.0. Good for you for taking a stand for what you want when you speak in the future and for honoring yourself.

    I have been speaking in public since my teenage years. And your description of the heckling reminded me of when I (and all others on stage) was badly heckled when I was about 15. It was a terrible experience and hard not to take personally. The interesting thing was that none of the hecklers were presenters themselves. Those who can’t do, heckle perhaps because they have no idea what it’s like to be on stage. Some of this is human behavior when anonymous and unmonitored regardless of the technology being used. I’m just sad to see it repeated with each new “innovation” and mode of interaction.

    Lastly, I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to have to live at least some of your life in public and for many in the public to feel entitled to objectifying you and saying whatever they want. I don’t quite understand why people react this way to fame, and one of these days, might actually spend some time researching it.

  41. KateH


    My heart goes out to you for being put in such a potentially toxic situation by the conference organizers and the audience of enthusiastic tweeters you encountered.

    Just because you’re a microcelebrity doesn’t mean you don’t deserve respectful conversation.

    Thanks especially for naming the sexism and objectification you experienced. It’s only by pointing out the impacts of that behavior that we can hope to silence it’s makers.

    I really appreciate your work and the myriad of media you use to diseminate it.

    Thanks for continuing to blog and live your life out here in the ether. My world is better with you contributing to it.

  42. T. Lynn Lloyd

    Danah – Thanks for putting yourself out there again in this debate. Fortunately, I had to leave early that day and didn’t get to see what happened to you; “fortunately” because if I’d witnessed firsthand what happened in your talk, I wouldn’t have been able to sit with and learn from the folks in the audience for the rest of the week. I’m a fan of face-to-face confrontation which, unfortunately, has decline with the use of all social media. Don’t blame the technology, though, because the humans from which deplorable behavior emanates would exist anyway. It just wouldn’t be so easy to find them.

  43. Lance Wiggs

    That is an outstanding and courageous post danah – well done, and clearly you are drawing n such courage each time you present. And wonderful to see the great supportive comments. We saw you out here in NZ at Webstock, and you were absolutely marvelous. Please come back. I’m stunned to hear how nervous you get – it’s not so unusual it seems.

    I’m not sure that enough speakers realize just what sort of power they yield once they get up on the stage, despite what the organisers may think or have told. Once you are up there with the mike in hand, then you have the ability to ask, over the mike and so everyone can hear, for things to get done.

    – You can ask for the lights on you to be turned down, or for those on the audience to be turned up
    – you can ask for more, or less time
    – You can ask for the tweetwall to be turned off
    – You can call the audience out when they laugh or comment out of turn – “What was that about?”
    – You can tell the audience how you feel

    We saw all of these done by speakers at Webstock, and all managed to get results. If the conference logistics people don’t change things on the fly then the audience will at least hear that you wanted a change and didn’t get it. They’ll be on your side.

    I understand that you have a whole lot of other stuff to worry about (like not throwing up), and the blame for this episode clearly belongs to the organisers and the hired professionals – it’s up to them to meet your needs and to do so without pushing back. The laptop situation was appalling, the inability to see the audience a rookie mistake and the tweetwall in a place where you could not see it was reprehensible.

    but it’s your courage that stands out here. Wonderful.


  44. Jennifer

    I personally find this practice hideous, except in cases where the twitter back-channel might be incorporated into the presentation, and as planned by the speaker.

    Human beings have as much potential to be great as they do to be frightfully small-minded. I find it a little baffling that no one thought what happened to you was an inevitable outcome of displaying a live Twitter stream behind the speaker’s back. All it takes is one or two visible people who are seeking an opportunity to prop themselves up by way of taking others down, and it becomes a quick trip down from there. Basic human behavior.

    I feel for you, but BRAVO for this post.

  45. Emily Cunningham


    I am deeply sorry for the horrific way you were treated during your talk. What a terrible setup. Oy, I found myself cringing while reading through most of your post. But I was also rooting and cheering for you! This took guts to write. Thank you. And echoing what an earlier female commenter said: thank you for explicitly calling out and describing the vicious sexism you endured. Sexism is alive and well and it ain’t pretty.

    One of the things I admire about you is that you take risks and push yourself and others to think in new ways. You wrote a fresh, new talk for Web2.0 because you thought it was important — bravo! I look forward to reading and listening to your future talks. We need your bold, brilliant mind.


  46. Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

    Your poignant experience exemplifies a torturous waking nightmare.

    I have seen you speak multiple times over the years and somehow feel like I myself have been kicked in the gut hearing what happened up there with you in voodoo doll style, as if I were substituted in your place. (shades of bodysnarking/objectification flashbacks, and part of my press phobic persona to boot!)

    There is a reason I remain behind the keyboard with my bold words and ways vs. joining the speaker circuit in the public arena, because civility has devolved into a backchannel SNL skit with anything goes commentary, and crass sophomoric fodder. Not comfy.

    Ever since I read that scholarly piece on how people use Twitter at conferences http://j.mp/gUw3U I remember thinking that partial distraction of a Twitter stream would be a horrific deficit if used on stage concurrently (as opposed to an asset for deep diving on a personal backchannel)

    As for your vulnerability and raw, jangled nerves, Bertrand Russell once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

    I truly cannot think of a stronger case where this holds true. 😉 Rock on, brave one.

  47. katinka hesselink

    You’re part of the leading edge of online research and developments. On events like this they test out these things. They should have asked your permission to have a twitter stream at the back of your head. And in future if they want that and ask you, you’ll say ‘NO that does not fit the kind of talk I’m good at giving’. But the etiquette and issues with this sort of technology are still being developed and you got the full heat of it.

    I’m so glad I’m not in your shoes on this one, even though in other ways your position seems a quite enviable one.

    Oh, and hear hear about the objectifying women part. I mean seriously – that should not be part of a public meeting like this. Totally unrespectful to the speaker. That job is hard enough as it is.

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