So I’m one of those people that conference speakers hate. I sit in the audience, 17” Powerbook open in my lap, with IRC windows, AIM chats, blog entry screens, and web pages drawing my attention away from their faces.

The thing is, they really don’t have any less of my attention than they used to, before I started multitasking in meetings. It’s just more visually obvious now.

Believe it or not, I really can type and listen at the same time. And often the typing is directly related to the listening. I’m taking notes by blogging the session, or I’m asking questions about the presentation of the conference IRC channel, or I’m pulling up web pages that the speakers are discussing.

I’ve blogged about backchannel before, and I’m increasingly convinced that my initial impressions at Supernova were on target. I can consistently identify three modes in a non-projected IRC channel—and a fourth that kicks in when the channel is public (or the hecklebot is in play).

The first three modes are dependent on two variables—the quality of the speaker, and the relevance (to the audience) of the content.

  • good content + great speaker(s) = near silence in the backchannel, as people focus their attention entirely on the stage
  • good content – great speaker(s) = lively relevant chatter in the backchannel, with questions, annotations, challenges, and links
  • poor content = lively (and often snarky) backchannel that drifts entirely away from the topic

The fourth mode comes into play when someone (typically Joi Ito) projects the conference IRC channel on the screen during a presentation. This creates a significant shift in the environment. The people in the physical room tend to be more cautious, since they can see their words being projected publicly—they lose the sense of semi-private camaraderie that IRC often creates. But more significantly, the people not in the physical space seem to become much more disruptive in their behavior. The channel gets flooded with not-on-topic comments, a flurry of what’s essentially “hey, mom, look at me! i’m on the screen in another city!”

I had high hopes for the hecklebot and projected channel idea, thinking it would provide a valuable feedback loop for panelists. (In fact, I think I was the first person to project #joiito in a conference, back in July during Supernova.) But I no longer think that’s the case. I think that once it’s brought out of the perceived privacy of the individual screen—where each user can control whether or not they see the conversation—and pushed into the physical space, the channel becomes the focus of attention in a negative way.

(Happily, the panel I’m in has shifted into “great speakers + great content” mode, so I’m turning my attention back to the room itself.)

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