Liz has been talking about the backchannel that emerged at the conference (followups here and here). I was an active participant on the channel: indeed, I was one of the few academic participants, actually, on the first day1.
Here's my take.
The channel was an interesting place. It was filled with an awful lot of noise, random insults, weird proto-in-jokes, and silly name memes. But it was also filled with in-line questions and clarifications, links to researchers' work, discussions of how the work might be expanded, refined, or applied to other topics, discussion of how the theories might be used, and similar.
It was an informal space for chatter (about which I will write shortly), but it was a place where certain amounts of useful, social work could get done on the side. If nothing else, I met and had a chance to talk online with Liz, Clay, David, and Joi. On the second day, after the workshop, Tom Erickson and I sat down for a while, talking through some ways that a back-channel could be used in a corporate setting. It's a space for questions, for links, for discussion. At a large corporate meeting, there is a lot that might get done.
I realize things like this have been tried before in some forms: Active Class, for example, provides a way for a professor to poll his class, and a way for students to pitch questions at the professor. But it's not a full-on annotation system. Are there any out there?
There's a problem, though. For all that we proudly spoke of continuous partial attention (to use Linda Stone's term) and "multi-tasking", I have to admit that I got less out of some talks than I should have. "Continuous partial inattention," perhaps? I sometimes forced myself to drop the lid and watch with full attention, but the temptation was great. Must ... check ... IRC.
Of course, if there wasn't a back-channel, I'd still be online. There would be email to check, crises to defuse, code to write, and blog entries to blog. Indeed, the back channel guaranteed that the conversation, and my thoughts, stayed roughly on topic.
And if we couldn't be online, some people would sit there, twitching in their seats and pressing buttons on their cell phones. Others would go through withdrawal. The moment the conference was over, the more wired section would run off at high speed to go find a network connection somewhere and go log in--instead, they lingered, talking for hours and rehashing the issues in new ways.
The second problem is that it's kind of rude to be splitting your attention. We were all aware of the problem: there were jokes, for example, about monitoring speaker quality by how much and how loud the typing got. It was, roughly, a reverse applause meter. Roughly, because the typing would also get loud for particularly controversial comments and even particularly good ones.
In the end, then, I'm curious. Can we picture the back-channel as more than a source of noise? I think--I think--that it was a valuable contribution. In the forgettable, and mercifully forgotten, film "Starship Troopers," TV broadcasts came with hyperlinks. A year or two later, WebTV promised the same feature for ordinary TV broadcasts. Of course, those are annotations provided by a central company; they are pumped down from the same people providing the program.
I liked the alternative stream we provided. How do I maximize its value without costing my attention?
fn 1. We largely divided our world, it seems, into bloggers (Clay Shirky, Joi Ito, et al) and academics.2 The first day was a little tense-neither group trusted the other-but I think we got a little better, and more accustomed to each other, on the second.
fn 2. danah, as suits her, defied genreApril 1, 2004 06:33 PM | TrackBack | in Microsoft Social Computing