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Live Events With Online Chat

I’ve been to a few events this year that all had something in common: online chat during the presentations or discussions. Usually it was done with IRC, which allows anyone with an Internet connection and the technical ability to join in the chat. I’ve been thinking about my experiences lately and how it affects my attention.

I have mixed feelings overall. The chat creates a second place for me to spend my attention at the event and I’d say that if I split my attention between the chat and a presentation, I’d be able to devote 30-40% to each. Obviously, I’d be better off sticking to just one.

Sometimes the chat is on-topic, which maximizes both resources. As someone mentions an author (for instance), a chatter will post a link to the book or provide more info about the subject matter. I enjoy these additions to the presentation and often refer to the links.

The off-topic chat represents a unique problem for me. First, I’ve often found it more compelling than the live presentation. People may disagree or discuss something contentious that brings more people into the fray and my peaks my interest. I get sucked into watching the words scroll by. But, it’s off topic, so I feel bad for missing out on the presentation. I don’t want to be rude to the presenter and I would hate to know that it was happening during my presentation.

Something I found interesting last time was my ability to get to know people through the chat. I sat beside two people who were dedicated chatters. By the end of the event, I got to know them much, much more through the chat than I did sitting beside them. It’s a little sad, but true.

We talked about it at the event and I voiced my thoughts that the chat makes me divide my attention inefficiently. I quickly found out that others have a lot more bandwidth than me. I think I’m just wired differently. Tom Coates said he often chats on IRC, IMs multiple people, writes emails and keeps up with the presentation without skipping a beat. Not I, but I bet teenagers today are increasingly capable of this feat.

I saw a couple of examples of heavy chatters asking (in the IRC channel) “Has the presenter talked about XYZ?�?, which to me was an obvious example of presentation attention deficit.

I think the chat also created a digital divide in the room. People without computers were completely left out. Then there were people who couldn’t connect with wi-fi or couldn’t figure out how to get into IRC (I had this problem for a while). I was a little uncomfortable about the how this felt for the folks left out of the action.

So I have mixed feelings. I've only been in a few events with chat going and I'm sure there are a lot of other perspectives out there.