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Tweeting Behind Your Back: What You Can't See Might Hurt You

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Every speaker's nightmare is an audience full of hecklers who feel free to shout out comments the way sports fans shout at their TVs ("You call that a triple axel?!?") and bloodthirsty ancient Romans shouted at gladiators ("You call yourself a Thracian?!?) Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening, all too frequently, when cutting edge conferences include a Twitter "backchannel" -- a real-time electronic screen behind the speaker that displays a rolling stream of the audience's tweeted comments.

That particular interactive feature is designed to create an impromptu online "community" around the event and to encourage conversation and interaction. But it can also backfire with results that range from mildly distracting to downright disastrous.

Even the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, is not immune to being heckled via his own invention. When he shared the stage, recently, with a Jungian analyst at New York's Rubin Museum, someone mistakenly tweeted that Dorsey "will answer questions in real-time" instead of "will answer questions about Carl Jung that an analyst is tweeting in real-time." While Dorsey was having an interesting conversation about one of Jung's "mandala paintings" (which reminded him of a street grid with a public commons,) giant tweets were rolling past on the screen behind him with questions like "What do you think about the tweeter who got arrested?" and "You better do something about spam!" The real-time tweets effectively "spammed" the more interesting conversation about what real-time communication reveals about the collective unconscious.

But while that Twitterstream was off-topic and distracting -- the way a television is during dinner -- those pesky tweets were nothing compared to the damage that can be done when Twitter backchannel heckling turns personal.

That's what happened at Web 2.0 Expo, a recent three day conference in New York that brought together some of the best minds in digital media. One of the more interesting speakers, Danah Boyd, was being "tweet-slapped" so mercilessly during her talk, "Streams of Content," that the conference organizers, wisely -- and ironically - decided to pull the plug on the "stream of content" that was being projected behind her as she spoke.

Boyd is a brilliant and complex theoretician - a Microsoft researcher and a Harvard fellow for starters -- and miscalculated by trying to deliver too dense a talk in too short a time without a laptop "teleprompter." As a result, she read quickly from her stack of written notes while audience members who were "live tweeting" about her talk struggled to understand and to keep up.

The first salvo from the Twittersphere was fairly mild: a tweet that admonished her to "take a breath." But when that tweet rolled down the giant screen behind her, a portion of the audience laughed. Boyd - who couldn't see the tweet or the audience -- got rattled by the laughter and started reading even faster. Increasingly snarky tweets followed, then tweets protesting the snark, and soon the audience was paying more attention to the "tweet-off" on the screen than to the stream of Boyd's ideas.

Reflecting on that public pillorying in her own blog, Boyd wrote that, generally, if an audience "doesn't want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over." And that is exactly what some members of the audience did: criticizing her, joking about her, on the big screen behind her back while she soldiered on, unaware that she was being dissed.

While public "conversation" and the creation of online community around a presentation can add value (particularly in a less formal setting where a speaker can take questions from the stream), many people feel that projecting a Twitterstream behind a speaker is distracting and just downright rude.

To their credit, as soon as it was clear that the tone had deteriorated, the Web 2.0 Expo organizers came to Ms. Boyd's defense and turned off the stream (and were heckled, both verbally and via Twitter, for having done so), later replacing the unfiltered stream with a moderated one.

The problem isn't a new one. The old user-group flame wars have simply evolved with the internet into real-time streaming flame wars (and geo-located flame wars could be coming soon). But the digital community evolves organically as well in response to new formats and challenges and a great deal of constructive conversation has centered around what happened to Boyd. Her own no-holds-barred blog post about the incident has attracted 180 comments to date, which nearly unanimously sympathize with what happened to her (at an otherwise excellent conference) and applaud her courage in writing about it so frankly.

So what's the solution?

Moderating the backchannel clearly helps, but the fundamental question is: should any speaker have to share the stage with an audience's tweets, particularly when those tweets turn insulting, trivial or attention-grabbing?

While many digital events don't display the Twitterstream, some recent events have taken an even more radical approach by declaring themselves "Twitter-free zones," asking attendees not to tweet at all, instead to simply listen. Those are the exception, however, and most Twitter users expect - and enjoy - being able to interact freely on the social web, and most of the content tweeted from conferences is informative, interesting and respectful.

One intriguing possibility could be to moderate the backchannel by using Twitter Lists -- a new function that allows users to create a list of Twitter accounts that can be followed as a group. Conference attendees could be automatically included in a list that anyone interested in news from the conference is free to follow. That would prevent spammers from joining the stream, but would prevent virtual participation and would still require moderation to remove hecklers.

Gentry Underwood, who also spoke at Web 2.0 Expo, took another interesting approach: he added his own prerecorded tweets to the tweetstream, so that they functioned as bullet-points for his talk and kept the audience focused on him and his key ideas.

And comedian Baratunde Thurston took the bull by the horns at the beginning of his Web 2.0 Expo keynote, joking, "if there are ugly nasty offensive tweets about me going on behind that I can't see, I will find you with my hashtag army, we will hunt you down and we will destroy you."

"Twitiquette" is an evolving set of conventions, too new to be fully worked out yet, taking shape as a result of events in the real-time stream. Perhaps the simplest solution of all, as we're working out technical ways to handle some of the questions posed by real-time interaction, would be the adoption of Good Manners 2.0 (a free upgrade from Manners 1.0).

Perhaps all conferences should begin with a talk on that.

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