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How to survive the next-gen confab

At Web 2.0-era tech conferences, audiences join the dialogue via Twitter, blogs, and IM. Sometimes, that can shift the conversation--and make for lots of drama.

AlwaysOn conference
At AlwaysOn conferences, the IRC backchannel has often been projected on a screen for all to see.
Dave Winer

There's no fighting it. Conference 2.0, as some have called it, is here to stay.

The term refers to tech confabs where audiences communicate about what they're witnessing via a vibrant backchannel on Twitter, blogs, IM, and other forms of live media.

But while this new form of conference interactivity--where audiences are using the online tools to demand to be heard--may best be known for ugly scenes at South by Southwest this year or at Gnomedex last year, there's no reason participants can't turn the emergence of this backchannel into something positive for everyone.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, consider this: Today, there are so many ways to communicate that even in a conference ballroom where there's no Wi-Fi, many audience members likely have smartphones they can use to Twitter their impressions of whoever is speaking. Add working Wi-Fi and you've got a full-throated echo chamber of people who aren't at all shy about making every last thought public.

So, if they're not happy about what they're seeing onstage, or feel they're not getting to ask the questions they want, audience members are increasingly venting their frustration in the backchannel--and from time to time, that irritation has manifested itself in some rather unfortunate exchanges between audience members and those onstage.

Blame it on the sense people have these days that every conversation is interactive and participatory.

"It's interesting now that it's being pushed right into the room," said Jennifer Pahlka, the general manager and co-chair of the Web 2.0 Expo. "Conferences are media. People expect to be able to comment on articles online, and they expect to be able to comment in conferences while they're in them." (The Web 2.0 Expo is an official partner of CNET Networks' Webware 100 Awards; CNET publishes

To some, this is a warning sign that the traditional order of things has changed irrevocably and that audiences can no longer be controlled.

But others see it as a harbinger of new opportunity, of finding ways to let audiences take part like never before and make any public conversation richer and more interactive than many would have thought possible.

"I think when people try to fight it and put up resistance, it becomes more challenging," said Chris Heuer, founder of Social Media Club and organizer of numerous BrainJams unconferences. "That's really at the heart of it, people sitting in an audience, finding their voice online."

In fact, if the backchannel is properly managed, a conference organizer, panel moderator, or speaker can use it to reach out to audience members and bring them into the conversation.

For example, well-known blogger Robert Scoble said that when he's speaking to large groups, he will sometimes stop every 15 minutes or so for a "Twitter break," to see what people in the room are saying about the talk--and about him--and to see if there are questions being raised in the backchannel that he can address.

Well-known blogger Robert Scoble is a frequent speaker and attendee at conferences all over the world. He suggests taking regular Twitter breaks during a presentation to allow those taking part in the backchannel to have their say. Dan Farber/CNET

"That can give you more audience empathy," Scoble said, "and (you can) see how you're being perceived."

Scoble's way of tackling the issue is illustrative of something a lot of conference-goers would probably like to see: speakers who are there to add value to attendees' experiences.

"Part of it is just having audience empathy," Scoble said, "understanding what the audience is thinking about you, looking into their eyes and gauging their reactions. And if it goes south, not arguing with them. Because you can deconstruct it later. At that moment, your role is as a representative of the audience. You have to put yourself in their shoes right then and there."

Heuer agreed.

"People know the difference between a good presentation and a bad one," Heuer said, "and they want a good one. Time is our most valuable asset, and if it's being wasted, we're not going to take it. We want our time to be well-invested. When we choose a session at a conference, we're expecting the people on that panel to be talking about what's described in the description."

There are many lessons to be learned, then, about how to manage the new conference dynamic.

Conference 2.0 tips

One part is that speakers would do themselves a service to stick to what the audience came to hear them talk about, as Heuer suggested.

But there are also plenty of ways to incorporate the backchannel itself.

One idea, Heuer suggested, would be to ensure that someone, be it the panel moderator or someone working on behalf of the conference itself, monitor the backchannel and look there for clues that the audience isn't getting what it came for. Or, conversely, that a number of people in the audience are itching to ask questions, and are voicing that desire.

Of course, just because people in the audience are getting antsy in the backchannel doesn't mean that a speaker, moderator, or conference organizer has to turn the mike over exactly when the room demands it. But if someone is monitoring the mood of the room, as expressed in the various online venues, that can mean it's possible to take a break and let people ask questions or offer observations for a couple minutes and create some good will.

That said, Heuer acknowledges that the backchannel has a high noise-to-signal ratio--and he said that conference organizers would be wise to follow the lead of a slightly older medium for clues on how to handle backchannel chatter.

Specifically, he said, there are lessons to be learned from how producers on radio call-in shows handle the flood of people trying to get on the air while a host and a guest are talking.

"We can learn a lot from other forms of live media," Heuer said. There's "a parallel to radio and other forms of live event production."

Several people intereviewed for this story pointed out that some conferences, including Tony Perkins' AlwaysOn events, have long provided visual access to the backchannel, often in the form of projecting an active IRC channel on a screen behind the speakers. To be sure, the discussion content on IRC during AlwaysOn sometimes verged on snarky color commentary, but it did provide a window into the thoughts of the audience.

But some, like Scoble, find that it's problematic to have the chat displayed behind them.

"With the chat screen behind you, I found that hard," he said. "I would rather have had that in front of me, so I could follow along."

The IRC backchannel during a conference in 2005. This was an early example of a phenomenon that's exploding at tech-centric conferences today. Flick user pkedrosky

Scoble also said there are a lot of advantages to maintaining an open dialogue with the backchannel--especially at tech-savvy conferences where nearly everyone in an audience has a laptop and finds it easy to get distracted by what's on their computers.

"If you want to compete with that," Scoble said, "provide visuals, or things onstage, that are more interesting" than what's on their computers.

Or, he added, speakers or a moderator could engage the backchannel by offering participants an online poll about some aspect of the panel or speech.

"That way, it actually uses the interactivity of the audience," he said, "so (people will say), 'I'm going to listen to him, now I want to hear what he has to say.'"

And if someone onstage can find a way to engage the audience that's already active on Twitter by replying to posts there or offering their own thoughts, that can also give speakers an advantage.

"People listen better, because they realize (the speaker) is listening to what's going on," Scoble said. "So they pay better respect to you onstage. I've been in audiences and I felt like I'm being treated like a captive, like I'm being talked at...For a Twitter- or blog-savvy audience, that rubs them the wrong way right away."

For someone like Pahlka, who is knee deep in planning a conference for a very tech-savvy audience, this is an extremely challenging moment in time.

She said that she and her colleagues have been talking about how to manage the backchannel for some time, and that finding the right balance is a delicate matter.

That's partly because it's obvious that sometimes individuals hijack the backchannel to attack speakers, while other times it can be a fantastic way to pass on helpful tips in real time.

"Ideally, in a conference context, with a room of 700 people," Pahlka said, "you would recreate that feedback in such a way that the speaker can adjust on the fly and make a better presentation."

Regardess, though, Pahlka said she and her team planning Web. 2.0 Expo are aware that they have to give people the tools that let them have expectations of being heard. As she said, audiences have much greater expectations that their voices will be heard than just five years ago.

"I think what we're going to see in the next year is that different events are going to experiment with different models," she said. "And hopefully what we'll end up with is not, 'Here's the new way of doing it,' but, 'Here are several new ways of doing it.'"