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. Jean

    Although it’s awful to be in a position where a presentation bombs, I think your experiences highlight something more important – the fact that things like Twitter develop so fast the accompanying etiquettes and socially acceptable rules (for want of a better word) of behaviour get left behind. The instant and relatively anonymous nature of tweeting allows people to ‘say’ things during a presentation which they would probably be less likely to do if they had to stand up and do it face to face.

  2. Brid

    Wow, thanks for your candour here. Well done for sharing, there are some significant lessons to be learned from it.

    1. Anonymity is not good. Twitter can encourage people to hide behind pseudonyms and then feel that basic manners are irrelevant. My view, if people want to be negative, they shouldn’t be so shallow as so hide behind anonymity.

    2. I’m assuming that the audience did not comprise teenagers who resented this usage of their football (or whichever) time. These were professional people who paid good money and spent time traveling to the venue. Who / what on earth made them think it was ok to behave in this way. Whatever happened to treating the presenter with respect deserving of any human being.

    3. I study educational technology and a rule that has clearly emerged in my studies is that a technology should not be used just becasue it can be used. I’ve held off allowing my students to tweet in class, even if the idea of them being able to pose questions, give viewpoints, etc real-time is appealing. I simply think that it could cause a class (particularly a large class) to fall into chaos. There’s no way it could be managed without a teaching assistant to filter the incoming tweets. Looks like they could have done with a filterer in your case too. I’m amazed the organisers didn’t consider this.

    Finally, well done again on keeping your dignity around this one and for sharing your story.

  3. Darryl

    It sounds quite bewildering how conference organizers could have possibly orchestrated a more unsympathetic and uninviting environment for the speakers (bright lights, no laptops for speakers, weird podium design).
    The account of the audience’s reactions seem odd and unprofessional, considering the premise of attending a conference (or so one would think) is to gain knowledge and inspiration from the speakers.
    I think it takes a lot of courage to get up in front of an audience and deliver a talk to a large group of people. It sounds like you did fine.

  4. Rick:

    Dr. Boyd – This obviously was not a very decent way for conference organizers to treat invited speakers. One almost wonders what their real intent was. Or if they were even thinking at all or just trying to nurture a reputation of being the trendiest of the trendy.

    Reflecting myself on your experience, I wonder if you have any thoughts you might be willing to share in a future blog post about two questions:

    1) If the future is that conference organizers and the audience will demand the backchannel, is the only wise choice to just make it the front channel? By that I mean a physical forum that includes a real-time audience communication channel like Twitter may be both optimized for and circumscribed to a more-or-less Socratic dialog-style presentation.

    2) To pick up on your exhortation to not be utopian or dystopian, is your experience evidence nonetheless that real-time social media are actually just destined to be the tools of Propaganda 2.0 (some would prefer the softer “PR”) rather than generally enlightening positive forces in society? The journalist Evgeny Morozov has a very provocative perspective in this regard, but one that seems to square well with reality.

    Personally, what I’m increasingly struck by is how real-time social media, and new media generally, primarily seems to highlight the difference between literacy and critical thinking. A literate, skilled communicator can definitely impress a group and move them to react, in real-time. But that is quite apart from having something genuinely perceptive to impart and inspiring wise action. As you unfortunately experienced.

  5. Whitney Hoffman

    Hi Danah!

    I was in the audience during your presentation at the Web 2.0 Expo. i think your assessment of the situation above is correct, and I admire you for coming out and discussing it.
    I do think that it’s generally a bad idea to put the backchannel on center stage, moderated or not. I think it distracts and detracts attention away from the speaker, regardless of their subject or style. As someone who does a podcast all about learning disabilities, I can tell you this fragments attention for every person with even a small amount of ADHD in the room, and asking a speaker to compete with a live stream conversation from the audience while presenting is unreasonable. I think it’s not the greatest of practices.
    However, I think part of the problem is that you read your speeches. It’s not a question of letting you fake it by a different set up, I think it’s about talking to an audience instead of at them. We all saw you were nervous, and I certainly understood that; but the speed of your speaking meant it was next to impossible to process the wonderful things you were trying to say- there was no space or time to take a breath and let the words and thoughts sink in and resonate- it was like getting pelted with rapid fire snowballs, one after another with no break in between.
    I would love to the read the text of your talk, because it just got so fast I could not keep up with you, and I started missing ideas and thoughts, and could not follow everything you were saying- it was way too fast. As a result, the twitter stream was all that was left to focus on…and I got so fed up with the bad behavior, I left a little early.

    I believe you are one of the brightest women in digital media, and I hope experiences like this will make you a better speaker in the long run. I do think sometimes less is more, and while you want to challenge an audience, in a short period of time, like 20 minutes, 5 ideas work better than 20.

  6. anysteph

    I had two primary thoughts while reading this, which really pissed me off (not your post but the whole event).

    What does it say for the people attending this conference that they are rude enough to laugh and make noise during a presentation? Are manners truly so dead and gone, even at professional conferences that include supposedly top people in tech? I find this behavior outrageously rude.

    What is the purpose of having a Twitter feed behind a speaker, anyway? Why create an environment of split attention for a speaker and the audience, who can watch Twitter all they’d like on their laptops as it is? Why have speakers at all and bother to gather together at expensive gatherings to read Twitter feeds, rather than hear interesting, new, substantive content someone took the time to prepare?

  7. Matt Evans

    Wow, I am floored at how what may have seemed an innocent experiment in social media turned into a cruel psych experiment. I’m sorry you had to serve as the lab rat. I read your talk from a link that a colleague blogged about internally here at Microsoft. I found your talk particularly insightful and I was exceedingly impressed with your ability to distill your ideas and express them clearly. Then I clicked over to your account of your presentation and I couldn’t believe how crazy everything went.

    I’m really impressed with your account of the event, as painful as it must have been to experience it. As others have said, you really have managed to turn it into a useful lesson for yourself and others.

  8. Eric Weaver


    You’re a brilliant thought leader and speaker and your reaction to this behavior is totally understandable. It’s one thing for attendees to share a reaction about a speaker, and a totally different thing to childishly tear someone down or objectify them and then try to excuse their behavior with the “public figure” argument. So many people are unable to take any responsibility for their actions (including some of the commenters here, sadly), and I hope you won’t let these people squelch the great thinking you have to offer.

    Keep up the good work and please keep putting your valuable thought out there, both in print and in person. Thanks.

    – Eric

  9. mj

    DROP THE BACKCHANNEL!! Will we be having the backchannel in the church next so you can tweet and comment during the sermon? In Congress/Senate and inside comedy clubs and at movie theatres? Please, people STFU and listen and actually focus and LISTEN instead of commenting on every little thing you hear at a conference.

  10. Kemp Edmonds

    I remember reading about snippets of the story through the interwebs the days and weeks after. I remember reading the twitter stream and barely noticing the incident among the mass of other tweets going on at the conference at that time.

    A few minutes ago I was reading 9 Tips for Enriching Your Presentation and they linked to your blog post. I have always felt backchannels are important and still do, but I think you have hit the nail on the head about the purpose of the presentation and the tempo of it.

    THE POINT: There is no point putting a Twitterfall or Twitterwall up on a projector because those who want to be part of it can access it for themselves.

  11. John Dyer

    This was the best description of the highs and lows of public speaking in the tech world I’ve ever come across. However bad your talk might or might not have been, this post alone is so golden it more than redeems it. Thanks!

  12. CTodd

    I found this interesting: “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.”

    Are you suggesting that quantity means an audience thinks? Too much information does not stimulate the audience to think. QUALITY does.

    Most talks are speakers trying to jam information at their audiences. This is where many fail.

    I applaud your bravery not only in your talk, but also your in-depth posting about your side, your emotions of the ordeal. Remember, if you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough.

  13. Glenn Hilton

    Danah, thanks for sharing your experience with us. I hadn’t heard about what had happened until someone informed me today in relation to a tweet I sent on backchannels & presentations. My heart went out to you when I heard what you went thru. Thanks for being so transparent. We all need to be aware of this and be sure not to treat anyone else like you were treated. I hadn’t come across you before but you definitely gained my respect and I’ll be following more closely in the future. 🙂

  14. Greg Machlin

    Good for you for giving it your best shot anyway, Danah. I can’t think of a worse idea than having a live twitter feed from the audience behind a speaker. Just wow. They never should have put you in that position.

    I once had a crucial dramatic scene in a play I directed that was derailed because we were using projections and the computer we were using decided to pick that moment to search for a wireless signal. That’s the only comparable experience I can think of that I’ve been through. Oy.

  15. Will

    As someone who presents fairly regularly, I found this just horrifying. You have my sincere sympathies. And shame on this audience. You’re a bunch of toads. Really, that does toads a disservice.

    I want to thank you, though, for writing one of the most important posts I’ve read in a long, long time. I hope this will be referred back to and learned from. We cannot forget that regardless of the medium, we are dealing with real human interactions here.

    I told someone on Twitter yesterday that some days, it feels like Twitter is a direct window into the human id, and it is often an ugly sight. Society evolved for a reason, and we’d better take care not to forget why.

    Zephoria, the last laugh here will be making this something of value to you. It took a lot of courage to write this. Thank you again.

  16. Brenda

    From anyone who presents, even occasionally like myself, our sympathies are with you, as Will mentions. I’ve just been having this discussion with some colleagues about the importance of a critical look at the concept of the back channel and the developing best practice around it. Obviously, your organizers and audience goofed big time! If I had been provided the wonderful opportunity to hear you speak in person, I would have been mighty peeved that people were behaving that way…very disrespectful of you and your work! How incredibly stupid of them to have missed that opportunity!

    You might be interested in some points my friend was making about the back channel http://theconstructionzone.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/the-backchannel-what-affects-its-efficacy/

    In our urge to adopt many of these easy to use tools, I think we need to always stop and question the purpose and effect, intended or otherwise. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  17. Adam Randall

    This is new to me, I have never been to an event that would put up live streaming of a speakers performance.

    What a way to crush a speakers confidence, its hard enough to get in front of an audience without something like that going on.

  18. garybau

    the old way ‘one-way’ media meets/crashes into a new way ‘two-way’ media

    delivering talks has always been a blancing act…know the audience is the key.
    plenty of assistance on how to guide the audience
    nancy duarte
    garr reynolds
    cliff atkinson

    but..this all falls in a heap when audience comments are permitted.
    audience participation is a very volatile activity
    ask any stand up comedian!!
    the way forward is to have two screens…the prepared one, and the interactive feed
    presume sufficient people in the real(or virtual) audience have something to say
    crowd-sourcing theory says they do..

    then provide preliminary material prior to the day, pauses in presentation for audience to genuinely participate, rather than compete for attention

    other wise if participation is to b e ignored, then why have it live?
    no productive point…
    the only remotely plausible point is more like the romans and the lions and a spectator sport for those who want to show they know more than the presenter..or have a dab turn of phrase…
    we all have those 14 YO boys in the back row of the classroom…attention seekers with little substance when challenged.

    however, given anonimity, they are a pain!!!

    is twitter any different for many in the commentariat??
    hang in there, it can only get better…perhaps a second screen, and a co-presenter would turn it around some…preparation is all

    ambushes…like the one you walked into are to be avoided..

  19. Jessee

    Hi Danah

    I found your site via this one.


    So I feel quite late to the party.

    I spent a lot of time in Toastmasters learning to be a better speaker and a better listener.

    I think having a visible display that the audience can see and write on but not the speaker is counter productive in a lecture format. It’s equivalent to giving everybody in the audience (and on the web) a microphone that broadcasts at the same or louder volume than the speaker and giving the speaker ear muffs. Most lectures depend on the – I talk and you listen – even when it goes to the Q and A format – speakers and listeners must take turns or it can’t work.

    Any chat channel with more than 15 or so active participants becomes so hard to follow with everybody talking at once – you can’t even tell who they’re addressing their comments to most of the time – so in a lecture format – there must be editing and timing of any comment format.

    As for the inappropriate comments – I feel that not much has changed in the geeky IT industry since it started. Or it’s even become worse as men who have no idea how to relate to women, use internet porn as their guide (clue for the boys – that’s a mistake). I still dress in loose baggy head to toe clothing and generally don’t advertise my gender on techy based internet forums if I want the boys to pay attention to what I’m saying.

  20. Australia

    unbelievable. I can not understand how people in an audience can be so rude or the team organising the event not forsee a disaster waiting to happen. Either the speech is a one to many, interactive with the audience taking turns to ask questions and make comments, or you have a panel discussion. The twitter interaction is rude (in front and especially in behind) and disruptive during a speech – if you have a question or comment, stand up and make it face to face. At least we can be certain that no self-respecting event will make the same mistake.

  21. Heather

    This hits a little too close to home. As an educator, I have given some presentations at conferences. I vomit before each one. I get migraines too. I have a high afterwards for about 30 minutes, and then crash.

    A good 20 minute presentation takes at least a month (or more) to craft well. And several run-throughs to convey it clearly and naturally via voice.

    I read from my laptop–the viewers get the slides, while I read from my notes. It never appears that I am reading… I present in much the same way you describe. I find it unacceptable that you were unable to have your laptop on stage. Or that the podium was not suitable for reading notes.

    I am terribly upset that this happened to you, but I hope the experience will provide some enlightenment into how we use social media appropriately in the future. Thank you for sharing your story and insights. I hope this never happens to another person.

  22. Dr Mariann Hardey

    Dear danah boyd,

    yours was not a ‘disaster’, but a familiar experience for any professional speaker.

    I am a social scientist and for some people parts or all of my presentation at the recent TEDx might be dismissed as ‘trivial’, ‘uninteresting’ or ‘boring’. Such critics have every right to hold and broadcast their opinions. However, in so doing they are closing their minds to the possibility of understanding or as Max Weber (another social scientist; but rather more venerable and long dead) put it “verstehen” – by which (broadly) he meant to indicate that human interaction and society is so complex that it may be best understood through detailed description and interpretation. Even if this is ‘just to’ state the obvious.

    It might be maintained that we “just get on with” our interactions across SNSs and so forth. My talk was not of a “how to” kind – as clearly for the audience at these events – Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and so forth are a part of everyday life. Like other social scientists (for example, Erving Goffman and more recently Anthony Giddens to name two) the concern is to “get under” the everyday, the often mundane and taken-for-granted. Something that you also pose in your talk/s.

    Should this matter in our web 2.0 world? Yes – because as social life embraces or (according to some) moves “online” (an old fashioned label to some, including myself) this brings with it all the good and bad aspects of human behaviour. Indeed this shift may enhance or exaggerate and accelerate some forms of behaviour – we have all read reports of “cyber” bullying, relationships damage through SNSs “affairs” and so forth. More pragmatically, an understanding of how and why people move across social media will help in the design of better and sustainable resources. However, the study of such things is still in its infancy and conventional academic work struggles to keep up with the fast pace of change in social media and accompanying research, not to mention (difficult) audiences.

    Thus, the media that we are immersed in and take-for-granted is at once strange, risky, fast, ephemeral and can even be dismissed as ‘trivial’.

    Like your Web2.0 expo experience, my TEDx presentation proved to be just as interesting – Here was part of my reply on my blog : I’d like to thank my critics for their considered thoughts – I don’t (yet) have a complete answer (but then I’m not as well established, prominent or well-rewarded as the “great men” mentioned above or the other participants at TEDx) – but your responses will feed into my research and the work on my book, “Seriously Social. Social life in the network society”, where I am exploring the issues raised in my talk as well as by many others (such as yourself) in appropriate depth.

    I look forward to viewing more from you danah.

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  25. ReaderX

    I don’t think sexual toy is a very realistic manner in which you might be objectified, with rare exception. I’d cross that off your list of things to worry about. You look fine, but you’re not a sex symbol of any sort.

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  28. Michael

    First of all, it takes you two minutes to get into the flow of your conversation? Are you kidding me? How do you grab an audience’s attention when you’re stumbling for 2 minutes? Perhaps you need more practice.

    Second, you can never judge how well you’re doing on stage while you’re onstage. I’ve been a performing musician for a good part of my life and done many speaking engagements. What seems to you like a terrible performance may be amazing to the audience and vice versa. I remember having a conversation with Richard Patrick (Filter) after a concert. He thought they sucked but those of us standing on stage were blown away, as were the audiences. Their performance, according to reviewers after the festival was on of the highlights.

    Third, how many audience members or organizers have approached you after a speaking engagement and told you that you sucked? Probably none. Then how are you going to gt any feedback that will help you improve? Does it hurt your feelings to be criticized by the masses? Then don’t be a public personality. Otherwise grow a thick skin and learn what to ignore and what to learn from. How do you think President Obama is feeling right now? How do you think almost any Grammy artist feels after the crappy performances most turned in?

    Fourth, you were thrown off because the setup was not what you expected? How many times have you done this? Live events never go as planned, you have to be prepared to deal with any circumstance. I’ve had to change a string on my bass mid-song, while continuing to play, give a client pitch on a white board because the projector broke, give a talk without my slides. Learn from Steve Jobs, practice your talk so many times that you don’t need to know what the next slide says.

    Hopefully you learn from the experience. Just from reading your overview I can tell you what a big part of the problem is: too much content.

    If your talk is alot to remember, and you’re talking too fast, and you still finish with only a minute left and no Q&A, you might have been talking about too much. Most people prefer quality over quantity. How can they remember so much? Focusing and offering less better. Give yourself time to breath, and for your audience time to take notes.

  29. Robin Wilton

    Hi danah –

    I didn’t comment on your excellent post at the time, because enough people had expressed what I would have said (which was, essentially, that what you experienced reflected problems on the part of the audience and, to some extent, the conference organisers, not you or your presentation).

    Two things have happened since then to spur me to add my 2c-worth.

    1 – I have spoken at a couple of events with a live Twitterfall behind me. At both events, I first did a ‘podium’ presentation and then was on a panel. My firm conclusion is – a Twitterfall is an unwarranted intrusion into the “speaker-to-audience” dynamic, but can work for the panel setup… However, importantly, because of the angles, I was the only person on the panel who could see the audience, the rest of the panel *and* the Twitter feed. That meant I could react/contribute to all of those as inputs. If it’s not set up that way, I think it’s more likely to distract than contribute.

    On consideration… if a conference organiser insisted on a Twitterfall behind my ‘podium presentation’, I would regard that as licence to depart from my script and respond directly to tweets, if I felt like it. (Imagine… suppose you called out one of the offensive Tweeters and asked them to stand up in the audience…). OK – so a pretty drastic use of ‘speaker’s privilege’ – but hey, if folks are going to impose a radically altered dynamic on you…

    2 – Yesterday I spoke at an event where they also re-broadcast your SXSW presentation, as part of the agenda (with permission, I hasten to add).

    It was excellent. Your content and intellectual credibility were exemplary.

    Just sayin’…

  30. Mike Chan

    Thanks for giving us an insight into what you were thinking that day! I echo the thoughts of many of the other posters here: find it amazing that you weren’t able to see what was happening with your own laptop on stage, and for “professionals” to act the way they did is crazy, I would expect that from 17 year olds. Thanks again for sharing!

  31. Jim Wordes

    Giving folks something to view or read WHILE your speaking is always a bad idea. Whether your an 11th grade teacher, an Amway presenter, or sharing secrets of Twitter, it’s as if the presenter is insisting that the audience do something “other than listen to me.”

  32. Jim Wordes

    I’m sorry – I also meant to say what an awful experience that must of been and it’s such a shame that a Web 2.0 speech can turn the audience into the group of psychos from “The Lottery.” Your writing about the experience is so refreshing and honest – I think you’re awesome!

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