05/17/2005 01:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Giving Sex to Children"? A Taste of the Future

Before it fades into legend, I just want to give a shout out to Arianna who yesterday helped close the second annual Personal Democracy Forum on a panel on the future of political media (with Tucker Eskew, Jeff Jarvis, Chuck Defeo, Jennifer 8. Lee, and Jay Rosen), and who with all her other panelists valiantly braved the new world of tech-enhanced audience participation.

You see, at PDF, as with many other tech-driven conferences these days, we give the audience a robust opportunity to join the conversation by giving them free wifi, creating a live chat room online and posting it all on a giant screen up on stage.

We do this partly on the theory that collectively, any audience is smarter than the 4-5 panelists on stage and thus worth listening to. (The same way that any audience of readers is collectively smarter than the pundit they're reading--which is why smart blogs open themselves up to comments.) We also believe that you can enhance a live conference by letting the audience "speak" to each other simultaneuously in reaction to what's going on up on stage, to allow greater lateral connections to form. (I've had it with having to listen passively to talking heads, haven't you?) And partly because once you give people free wifi at an event, there's going to be a backchannel group chat happening somewhere whether you like it or not, so you might as well get it out in the open.

The fun thing about the closing plenary was how we saw a new form of political media right there in action, as the backchat frequently overwhelmed what you might call the frontchat. Some of the comments were juvenile, yes (such as silly references to some of the panelists' resemblances to characters from the Star Wars movies). Jennifer 8 seemed to take the jokes about her middle numeric in stride (it's Chinese for prosperity, I believe). But lots of value was added by the audience, which frequently chimed in with helpful pointers to urls related to what the speakers were addressing.

Unfortunately for Arianna, the audience was merciless on faux pas. (Is that fauxes pas for the plural? or faux pases?) At one point, she said that offering the new technology to the old media was a little bit like "giving sex to children...they don't know what to do with it."

Hmmm. Too much Michael Jackson on the brain?

Within seconds, an audience-storm of comments started, highlighted by someone's joke that Arianna's quote was already up on the Drudge Report. OUCH! The panel ground to a temporary halt as everyone leaned back to enjoy the wits and half-wits in the room as they had a field day.

To Arianna's credit, she quickly recovered and was soon happily keeping up with both conversations--the one among her fellow panelists and the one being created by the audience--when after I handed her my PowerBook. Later, she told me she had meant to say, "exposing children to sex," not giving them sex.

I think most people understood that, obviously. But I think we all got a taste of what's coming yesterday. In the future, which is already here but, as sci-fi writer William Gibson said, "It's just not very evenly distributed," we're going to participate much more in what used to be top-down forms of communication. The relationship between "stars" and "audience" is radically changing. That may lead to some uncomfortable moments for some, to be sure. But the promise of greater participation by all of us in the act of creating culture is one of the most exciting aspects of the new empowerment age.