How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists

The bar's been raised. Use of the backchannel--years ago it was IRC, today it's Twitter--lets the audience compare notes and pool their dissatisfaction if the program misfires. Here's what we did to avoid that at SXSW.

17 Mar 2010 11:17 pm Comments Off on How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists

If you follow me on Twitter, you will occasionally hear me mention “audience atomization overcome.” I’ve been using this phrase to describe something that has changed in our world because of the internet.

Audience Atomization Overcome The people formerly known as the audience, once connected up to big institutions and centers of power, but not across to one another, have overcome their own atomization, which was a normal condition during the age of mass media. With the rise of social media and mobile devices they are now connected horizontally, peer to peer, at the same time as they connect vertically: to the news, the program, the speaker, the spectacle. Simple example: Tweeting during the Academy Awards. More intricate example: Pet lovers find each other on affinity sites when the major media isn’t attentive to their concerns.

The horizontal flow changes the situation for speakers and producers in any communication setting that retains the trappings of one-to-many. The change is especially dramatic in an arena I know well: the professional conference where I might sit on a panel or attend a presentation. The popularity of the backchannel—years ago it was IRC, today it’s Twitter—has empowered those in the audience to compare notes and pool their dissatisfaction during a performance that misfires. Audience atomization has been definitively overcome, raising the bar and increasing the risk for speakers who walk in unprepared.

Especially at risk are “big name” speakers whose online or offline status is such that they may complacently assume their presence alone completes the assignment and guarantees success. Organizers may be so delighted to have landed the CEO of the hot company or the thought leader in a particular space that they fail to ask for much in the way of new material or a carefully thought-out ideas. This was always a problem at conferences; what’s different now is the audience is able to do something about it, and they will savage you on Twitter if you falter.

These facts were clearly in view for me and my colleagues as we prepared for our recent panel at South by Southwest: The future of context. We were acutely aware that the bar had been raised, especially at a conference like SXSW where everyone is wired. When Twitter CEO Evan Williams appeared at South by Southwest for a keynote interview, the answers felt so thin to so many in the room that he had to post this after.

Here are ten things we did in recognition that audience atomization has been overcome. I must say: our plan worked. The Future of Context was the most well-received panel I have ever been on. (A good live blog of it is here, a reaction post here, a sample tweet here. The room—Hilton H, a big one—was full and people were turned away. You can list to the event—panel plus Q & A—here.)

How to avoid getting killed in the backchannel

1. Unfamiliar to them, super familiar to you. First, you need a subject that hasn’t been picked to death at conferences. But it’s also got to be something you grok or the thing won’t rock. I wrote my first post on background narratives vs. newsy updates in 2008; I’ve been thinking about it since then. Co-panelist Matt Thompson introduced the phrase “the future of context” in 08, as well. He spent a year on the problem as a fellow at the University of Missouri. In a sense, we had two years prep time. But to most of our listeners, the problem was new. That was our edge.

2. Go for intellectual diversity. We had a mainstream journalist (Matt Thompson of NPR) an academic (me) a software developer and entrepreneur (Tristan Harris of and a tech writer and media reporter (Staci Kramer of The youngest panelist was less than half the age of the oldest. We had an African-American and three whites, a woman and three men. People notice.

3. Get serious about advance planning. One conference call (“So Sally, what do you want to talk about?… Is Sally still on the line?”) is not what I mean by serious. We had five calls over four months. We worked out a beginning, middle and end that made sense to all of us: Frame the problem, drill down on a few specifics, float possible fixes, then go to the crowd.

4. Blog it first. Eight days before the SXSW panel I posted News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at South by Southwest. A few days later Matt Thompson posted The Case for Context: My Opening Statement for SXSW and Tristan Harris came in with Context: The Future of the Web. By blogging it first we could promote the event with something juicier than “come to my panel!” We could use early reactions to hone later presentations. We had three comment threads active before the panel started. Here’s how I curated the discussion my pre-post engendered. This pre-tweet told me to underline a key distinction between informative and informable.

5. Create a dedicated site for the panel. Invite your crowd to it. See, which Matt Thompson pulled together. Anyone can write a post for it or comment. And it says to the audience: welcome, we’ve set a place for you.

6. The title you pick should be “write once, run anywhere.” (Why that phrase?) Thus: the future of context is simultaneously the name of the SXSW panel, the domain name of the site, the hashtag on twitter and the search term we wanted to claim.

7. Watch the backchannel like a hawk during the event. This chart shows that hashtagged tweets were coming in at a rate of almost 300 an hour. It’s your moderator’s job to monitor that flow, sense where it’s going and react when necessary by talking directly to the backchannel and letting the crowd know it’s being watched. This takes someone who can scan posts, type quickly and think across multiple streams. Staci Kramer did all that. After the five phone calls and the three blog posts and the dinner the night before to go over the plan, she already knew what we were going to say, which allowed her to focus on the incoming. (Umair Haque, who interviewed Ev Williams at SXSW, said he should have done what Staci did.)

8. Adjust on the fly. We didn’t have time for our third section, float possible fixes, so we skipped it in order to…

9. Leave at least 40 percent of the time for Q and A. Anything less than that and people start resenting you for hogging the mic. It’s amazing to me how many panels cannot manage this simple feat of timing.

10.Arrange a meet-up directly after for those who want to continue the discussion and interact with the participants face-to-face. This was something I wish we had thought of. (It was suggested to me by Jeremy Zilar of the New York Times, who attended.) That way no one walks away wishing there was more time.

Now if you’re thinking that none of these ideas is particularly original or ingenious— well, I agree. My point is you need a complete approach to avoid getting killed in the backchannel and give demanding conference-goers what they have come to expect.

Of course there’s another alternative: the unconference, where the room is the panel.