Bad Backchannel: My Take on Danah Boyd’s Bad Day

Danah Boyd's recent travesty with a backchannel at Web 2.0 Expo better have all presenters examining the use of this tool – which can be valuable or can be devastating! Danah said about the experience:

“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.”

 Why were they laughing — someone wanted her to slow down?  What did she do? She sped up because no feedback mechanism was in place.  Additionally, sexual slurs began smattering the backchannel.

When I use backchannels in presentations there are a couple of guidelines that I think are a good idea to do:

1) I don't like the backchannel on the big screen.  Period.  

It leaves people out in the audience. I was moderating a backchannel like this at NECC and was LAMBASTED by an angry person who didn't even read the comment I made and wouldn't listen otherwise.  She couldn't respond and so hijacked the Q&A part of the conversation. I felt badly for her but felt a lot like Danah Boyd did in her current blog post.

Honestly, it was the worst presentation experience of my life and I played a bit part which was escalated to a HUGE part.  I felt like Danah, wondering if I should even be presenting at all.  It was unfair to those in the audience without a laptop and couldn't follow the stream and it was unfair to me as the moderator who had a comment totally misread!  UNFAIR!

It would take something HUGE to convince me otherwise.  Level the playing field or whatever, if you are presenting you are NOT in the backchannel and the backchannel can become a BACKSTABBER that you cannot answer unless you have someone moderating the channel and providing you with feedback.

If you have it on the “big screen” have a backup slide or two and be ready to pull the plug.  Just be ready.

2) All presentation backchannels should have moderators.

Chatzy rooms, etc. – this makes sure that what is happening is OK and also allows the speaker to turn to this person and say “Hey, what is happening in the backchannel” and get feedback!  If Danah had had someone to give this feedback during her speech, it would have allowed her to slow down. 

When I have backchannels, I share the link on my slides and turn to my moderator(s) – {if more than 100 people I usually have 2} and ask what is happening and what questions they have.  This is a GREAT way to include an audience with laptops while not making the others feel too left out who cannot respond because of the digital divide.

3) Backchannels Should be Part of the Presentation from the Speaker
The speaker should know about it, understand how it is going to work and be on board with what is happening.  Period.  Speakers are paid a lot of money to do what they do and if something goes wrong with the PRESENTATION it is on their shoulders and their reputation is at stake.  (Here are the slides I use when sharing about how backchannels are to be used.)

4) Twitter makes a poor presentation backchannel.

I think chat rooms are definitely my favorite way to backchannel – everyone can participate and also you don't end up with the 140-character truncated version of what people were really trying to say.

If you truly participate in a Twitter backchannel it also causes a Twitter flood and if you follow your unfollow stats like I do — if you backchannel in Twitter too much – YOU WILL BE UNFOLLOWED, temporarily by some and permanently by others.  Actively backchannelling in Twitter will annoy your tweeps and could cause you to become marked as a Twitter spammer – it is not a good idea to do.

Really, a chat room is so much better for this anyway because it can be archived and allows more meaningful conversation and more extensive replies.  Twitter has a place but deeper connections can happen.

5) Backchannels Should be Intentional
My goodness – slapping together backchannels without a plan and without communication with the speaker is RUDE.  It doesn't make for a good conference and is just plain tacky.  Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Everything in a presentation should target towards the goal of the presentation and conference.  Backchannels can be very  useful when in a workshop, in small open source lab settings, or when you're trying to facilitate conversation.

My Take on Danah's Bad Day

One of my dear friends, Anne Bubnic, emailed me to let me know what happened to Danah.  She was at NECC this year when my horrible Backchannel Bad Day happened and I'll tell you what – it didn't matter that I had 12 pretty good presentations at NECC — the 13th one was very unlucky for me and made me feel like a total L-O-S-E-R!  Totally.  It was awful.

It didn't matter what anyone else said, it was one of the worst presentation experiences of my life.

Danah Boyd, I'm going to tell you something.

#1 You are brave.
Thank you for openly speaking about how you felt.  And you don't need ot make excuses for anything, being backstabbed by a backchannel that you didn't really know was there and having no conduit for feedback to you on the podium is totally the wrong way to do this!

There are enough people who have worked through the pedagogy of good backchanneling that we should be able to have some good backchannel guidelines that work for speakers so they don't have to write in their contracts that no backchannels are allowed!

#2 Keep on plugging!

Plug ahead – keep going.  My heartbreak over Kathy Sierra‘s experience with cyberbullying was that she STOPPED.  We as women must show we are especially resilient.  (Which is why when I received death threats on this blog that I didn't stop here!)  But we also have to have supportive families, who usually react by wanting us to quit!

You know that there are things worth dying for.  Freedom.  Purpose.  Cause.  And my goodness, although I wouldn't want to die for my blog, sacrificing pride and going right back out there after a horrible experience is the kind of “dying to self” that I think is appropriate.

Don't quit, Danah.  You'll come out stronger! 

#3 You are now an ambassador.  Use it Well.
Just as Kathy Sierra carries a lot of weight on cyberbullying – you can now speak and carry weight on backchanneling and how it can be best used.  There are many people (like me) who would be willing to sort of codify some backchannel suggestions or guidelines or some alternatives that have worked for us so we can share them with those considering doing it.

You know if this happens once, then chalk it up to learning but this is NOT the first time it has happened.  It angers me that we haven't learned from the humiliations of other speakers and improved how this is done.  The Web 2.0 Expo organizers should be embarrassed that they didn't have better communications with you on this!  It is a way NOT to do a conference.

Who wants to pay to go see speakers humiliated?  If they want to do that, there are plenty of TV shows that do that – my goodness!

OK, so my little tiny thoughts are added to the cacophony, but Danah, I appreciate your sharing and your thoughts.  Thank you for sharing your perspective, this is something I think I should do more next time when I have things happen, I guess, if appropriate.

Keep on going and moving ahead.  In many ways we're still moving through the “Wild West” phase of the Internet, but you know what… you're still standing.

Keep on going and perhaps one day our paths will cross.  And sometimes the very worst things that could ever happen to us, can end up being the best.  The spotlight is not out on this one, my friend!

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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1 comment

Kris November 30, 2009 - 11:31 pm

Interesting post-especially point 4 about Twitter being a poor backchannel, as well as the importance of moderators. This is particularly important in the education realm, specifically pertaining to webinars.

For example, on December 2nd at 7 p.m. EST, WSJ On Campus will be hosting an exclusive, live and interactive webcast “Inside the Admissions Office” moderated by Jordan Goldman, the Founder and CEO of Unigo. It is critical that social media channels continue to use moderators in webinars or live chats.

Great post-


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