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Passing Virtual Notes in Class: Backchannels and Conference Presentations

There has been some recent discussion about new ways people are interacting at conferences. The New York Times "In the Lecture Hall, A Geek Chorus" and Ross Mayfield got some of the discussion started and Clay Shirky followed up with some good points.

Here's a quick introduction from my perspective:

It's a little like passing notes in class- except via the Internet. Wireless Internet connections at conferences and lectures are allowing people to use laptops and other tools to communicate in real time during presentations. These communications occur in what is called the "backchannel" (which is a term I've used to mean communications with online community members outside of the community.)

In these backchannels, people use instant messaging, blog entries or text messages to talk about the presentation, refute points, share related web sites, etc. It's been occurring at high tech conferences recently, but is slowly becoming mainstream. Some like the idea, some dislike it.

There are two major points, in my mind:

1. Attention span- people can only take in so much. If they are more interested in what people are saying during the presentation, how can they devote attention to the presenter? Some say that it adds a new level of value to the presentation- but I can't see how splitting attention during the same time frame can lead to a more rich experience from either perspective.

2. Is it inevitable? As Clay writes:

We have seen only the barest hint of the disruption ubiquitous Wifi + automated discovery is going to bring about...It doesn't matter if the Wifi backchannel is a bad idea; it's not going away.

It is intresting to me to think that, in the future, we'll be wirelessly connected to the Internet almost continually- and this may disrupt the normal ways that we are used to paying attention to one another.

In almost any circumstance where a person is attracting or convening a crowd, there will be an opportunity for people to disrupt (or contribute to) their cause via the backchannel. It makes me wonder if speakers in the future will be forced to consider the backchannel in their presentations- perhaps providing quick references to sites and resources that ensure that the backchannel stays on task, or at least interested in the presentation versus each other.