Toward the end of last year, a somewhat extended discussion took place on one of the listservs I subscribe to. The post that started the discussion was titled “The Dark Side of the Backchannel,” and it referenced a number of recent articles and blog entries that deal with the way Twitter is affecting the conference presentation. These articles and blog entries were of interest to the list, and likely sparked the longish thread, because the group that populates the list – nominally, a Computers and Writing crowd – had seen their own Twitter/conference speaker event at the last Computers & Writing conference in Davis, which I touched on briefly in this post, turn into precisely the sort of audience revolt that these pieces describe. To be more specific than I was in that post, one of the keynote speeches at C&W touched off a fairly aggressive (and perhaps insulting) Twitter feed backchannel. Apparently, the paid speaker was thought to be condescending to the audience, in addition to performing some finger-wagging routine on points that everyone in the field has known for years. The feed itself is pretty brutal on this point, and the whole thing resulted in much rending of garments and/or self-justification, in a style only paid academics can summon up.
Over the next couple of days I want to address what happened in the listserv discussion, and, through that, the notion of a backchannel more generally. For now, I’ll just lay out a number of points. My primary concern here is the form of the critique that has tended to come up when backchannels are critically assessed at all. As I see it, what’s lacking from these discussions is any sustained attempt to situate the backchannel phenomenon. At best, those addressing the issue have discussed the way a Twitter feed shifts the rhetorical situation of the conference talk, with perhaps some cursory nod to the history of public address. McCarthy ends his blog post with a quote from Rob Cunningham, which at least draws parallels between what’s happening in public address (and really, we’re talking about a very specific genre of academic discourse) and what’s happening for newspapers and the recording industry. Fine. About forty minutes discussing contemporary social technologies would lead an undergraduate to that point, but it’s still well taken. The problem, of course, is that the ways even serious observers situate and discuss the linked phenomena are not terribly compelling. At worst, the discussions turn into rather naive anarchic sloganism (“Eliminate authority. Eliminate focus” says one poster on the listserv), or devolve into – and this is really the primary focus for many – concern for the personal feelings of the speaker – or arguments against such concern (“This might sound kinda bad, but I have a hard time trying to work up any sympathy for [insert speaker's name].”). Between these two species of points, you get all kinds of ideas about how to restructure the academic conference given the supposedly newly empowered audience, or you get various analogies to other forms of backchannels, and same-as-it-ever-was shoulder shrugging.
This is all fine, I guess, and I’m happy enough that people are talking about this stuff. What I want to suggest over the next couple of days, however, is that all this backchanelling has very little to do with the relationship between the speaker and the audience. Or rather, if the relationship between speaker and audience is changing, it is because both are being trained in novel subjective forms of contribution. In this sense, it doesn’t muych matter whether the backchannel turns into a nightmare of vicious snark, or cashes out as some paradise of collaborative knowledge building. It is the formal character of response that may hold the dangers. More on this in the coming days.