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When Social Technologies Become AntiSocial

Submitted by on November 25, 2009 – 1:13 pm8 Comments

danah boydLast week at Web 2.0 Expo Danah Boyd , a well-respected researcher at Microsoft took the stage to deliver a keynote. In most respects the stage was what you would expect: lights, podium, giant slideshow to accompany the talk etc. In one respect the stage was totally different – there was a live, unedited Twitter stream coming from the audience being projected for everyone (except the speaker) to see.

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 ResponsiblePicture 2
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.


  • davidburk says:

    I find this in a league with Dachis group making the destinations of their emails part of their web site. As you point out, the experience wasn't architected correctly. But there is this other side of social media–the temptation to display too much and the voyeur's delight in seeing too much. As you have told me, social tools follow social rules. Everyone needs their own policy about how they wish to use these media.

  • joshuamross says:

    Great point David. I have also tried to understand how someone outside of their organization would derive any added value from that feature (for those that haven't seen it – the website David refers to has a constant feed of activity that is occurring within the company – including emails being sent out. They don't show the contents of the emails but the destinations etc.). In this case the trend is “Be transparent” being taken to mean “show everything” I think a little bit of filtering might be in order…. Then again, those guys are pretty smart. I may be missing something.

  • […] When Social Technologies Become AntiSocial – Opposable Planets Some additional insight and commentary on danah boyd’s Web 2.0 Expo keynote experience […]

  • Lars Voedisch says:

    Hi Joshua, great post in sharing this experience and bringing it down to the most crucial but basic question: What do you want to achieve; rather than putting tools or tactics over objectives.

    On the tools part, the folks at SAP developed a few nice twitter modules that you can include in your presentation: http://www.sapweb20.com/blog/powerpoint-twitter… – allows for some twitter-based interaction – when and where you want it.

  • joshuamross says:

    Lars – Fantastic link. I have been wanting to use this for some time… but again, wanting to make sure that the implementation serves a clear purpose (also, I run a Mac so these tools aren't yet compatible). J

  • cliffatkinson says:

    I like the intriguing title of your post, but it's not the technologies that became anti-social in this case, it was the people who used the technologies who became anti-social. Audience members often use Twitter during presentations to praise presenters, offer additional information and connect with one another – all of which are positive social uses of the technologies.
    There's more in-depth exploration of this issue in my new book “The Backchannel: How Audiences Are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever” – you can download a free sample chapter at http://www.backchannelbook.com

  • joshuamross says:

    Cliff – of course you are right – technology is not inherently social either. It all speaks to the feasibility that a technology affords us… how we take advantage of so-called social technologies can be either positive (supporting conversation and mutual understanding) or negative (alienating and divisive) — Your book is timely.

  • joshuamross says:

    Cliff – of course you are right – technology is not inherently social or antisocial. How we take advantage of so-called social technologies can be either positive (supporting conversation and mutual understanding) or negative (alienating and divisive) based on how we structure it. That was my point — Your book is timely and I hope to read it soon.

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