When Social Technologies Become AntiSocial
Danah’s talk was difficult – you should read her post on the subject. She had a rocky start – couldn’t see the audience (lights), couldn’t see the Twitter stream (projected behind her) and the podium made it difficult for her to see her notes. When critical comments began coming through on Twitter it began a downward spiral. The audience laughed at inappropriate moments, throwing Danah off her game. The audience then fed on her increasing anxiety and so on.
Danah’s post is remarkable in that she makes a painful personal experience even more public in order to foster dialogue on the sort of culture we are creating with social technologies. Hats off to Danah. The whole spectacle seems to present a great learning experience for all involved; event organizers, public speakers, audience members.
Architecting a Proper Social Experience
In my opinion (and with the benefit of hindsight of course) the architecture of the experience was bound to create problems. Speaker facing audience but can’t see them. Audience facing speaker and having the ability to project their thoughts onto a screen for everyone except the speaker to see. It doesn’t help relate the speaker’s intent, it doesn’t clarify anything for the audience (presuming they came to listen to the speaker), it makes the false equation that the speaker’s well planned presentation allies well with the spontaneous commentary of the crowd, and ultimately it alienates both parties from each other. I have moderated panels by fielding questions in real time from the audience using Twitter. It worked extremely well because it didn’t divide the panelists’ attention, but it allowed a richer, more diverse set of questions to be posed. In each case we need to ask ourselves how the technology will serve our communication goals. Which brings me to the next point…
Thinking the Trend is the End Game
The mistake above is part of a larger mistake that is being made everywhere; embracing a trend without thinking of why you are doing it. In this case the trends are (1) the audience is now part of the conversation and (2) we consume content in smaller, faster bits. These trends are not applicable to every situation. In the case of a large public event where the audience is coming precisely to see a roster of well-known speakers (that is how all conferences do their marketing), there is an inherent and justified asymmetry in the flow of attention. Large audience pays attention to a single speaker. Just because “the audience now has a voice” doesn’t mean it should be exercised without interruption. There is still value is prolonged focus, there is still value in the art of the lecture, there is still value in simply listening. In fact I have argued that being able to focus and having a capacity to sit still and listen will be the traits of the next generation of leaders in our staccato-signal world.
The Audience is Responsible
We don’t have much experience with simultaneously being able to be present in a group setting, heard by our peers and yet relatively anonymous to that same group. Previously, if we wanted to raise our hands to say something – we had to pay the price of being identified with the comment or question that we asked. This is why your professor always said, “there are no dumb questions” – to encourage people to accept the price of being identified with a dumb question by reframing the equation. Yes, you have a Twitter handle and someone could look you up… but this doesn’t carry the same stigma as being publicly identified in-the-flesh.
Recently I listened to a Fresh Air interview with Mike Judge, creator of King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead etc. In a very thoughtful, funny interview Judge stunned me by saying that he was most proud of Beavis and Butthead. He thought they were cultural archetypes; two un-self-aware do-nothings heaping criticism upon the outside world, while remaining completely oblivious to their own sorry condition. Perhaps it is a bit harsh – but often the Twitterverse allows us to be Buttheads – free to heap scorn upon public figures from the safe, cozy confines of our computers. As a frequent audience member at conferences I am recommitting to the act of giving my attention and focus on the speakers I have paid to see.
Full Disclosure: I have worked at O’Reilly Media (co-organizers of the event) and know both Web 2.0 Expo Conference chairs. I have nothing but respect for how well they do their job and continually push the boundaries regarding how to enhance the event experience.
Here is a link to a transcript of Danah Boyd’s talk. It is worth paying attention to.