When back channels become front channels

Yesterday, I attended an annual day-long conference hosted by my friends at PaidContent.org.

The format of the conference was what I call “talk show,” no presentations, but a series of groups and individuals who were interviewed in a conversational manner about topics related to their insight (from an insider’s perspective) into certain news and trends at that fascinating intersection where old media meets tech-enabled new media — you know, that intersection where you can go see cars wrecking all the time.

[There is plenty of great coverage of what was said, implied and guessed at the conference, so I’ll skip that. (Although I will have a follow-up post later about a specific participant and her analysis of the tablet market.)]

What I want to observe here, however, is what a strange feeling it gives me to compare yesterday’s conference with something I wrote on this blog in 2003 after the first conference I attended that had the word “blog” attached to it.

(From 2003) “When a big percentage of a seminar room full of people is blogging live and some are even participating in an IRC chat simultaneously, it’s a peer into the future of pedagogy. It’s like having several presentations going on at once: What the people at the podium are saying; that conversation that’s going on in your mind; those conversations going on in other people’s minds that you’re getting to observe. You then are able to have the really strange experience on going back and reading the transcript of the presentation along with the commentary and snide comments and you realize how much you missed of the presentation the first go ‘round. For instance, I can read someone else’s blog on a particular speaker’s presentation and marvel at the insight they recorded because, despite listening to the same presentation, I didn’t even hear that particular insight.”

There have always been “back channels” for meetings (think, note passing in the third grade) and for some people, the whispered wise-crack is a pressure valve that enables them (okay, “us”) to endure the boring or pompous.

But a steady-march of wireless-enabled tools, platforms and devices has seen the back channel go from laptop computer IRC and blogging pre-2003 to, well, what was experienced yesterday at the PaidConent conference: A gigantic screen above the panelists on which was projected any tweets that were hashtagged #pc2011.* While I’ve been to other conferences with smaller versions of this idea, this is the first time I’ve witnessed the back channel “looming over” the main event. There is nothing “back” about this kind of channel.

I’ll have to admit that the presence of that screen had a direct influence on what I tweeted (at least, with the tweets in which I included a hashtag) and what I chose to keep locked away in my brain’s “better judgement” file drawer. At least two other people in the audience, Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) and Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon), are people with whom I regularly exchange tweets that are, well, irreverent. But I’ll confess, the thought of seeing my “Popup Video” captions projected above a person who may be pompous at the moment, but who I’m sure is a perfectly delightful person in real life, throttled me back. [Note: I am not referring to anyone specifically. And, since she was being funny, I did a fun tweet related to Arianna Huffington that you can see in the photo above (if you’re reading this on my blog).]

The ginormous front-channel screen also made me think that there are good reasons for formally-known-as back channels: helpful contextual information like when I tweeted what Felix Salmon and Nick Denton meant by their reference to “The Rex bet” (which had nothing to do with me); questions that get to the heart of something a panelist is trying to dodge; annotations or links to websites the speaker mentions; observations that, in a civil way, present an alternative to the panelist’s point of view.

However, I think there may also be good reasons to keep certain back channels in the back. Such back channels (back-back channels) that can be like “the kids table” where it’s okay to get loud and throw food and laugh at fart jokes. Perhaps there should be a suggested suffix to hashtags (bc?, as in “pc2011bc”) to indicate “back channel, not to be confused with something that should be projected up on a screen to get laughs” tweets. And I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be tweets that passionately disagree with speakers — I’m saying that a pop-up video approach to that debate is not the best way to handle such disagreements.

Bottomline: I think there needs to be a way to tweet goofy quips and cartoon captions that can add life to a meeting, but won’t make you seem like a real asshole when they appear 30 feet tall.

*Note to the paranoid or malicious: There are ways to limit or moderate what appears on such a tweet stream.