BackChannel Conferencing: How to bring interactivity to the ‘sage on the stage’

Media | Access/Network
After a conference where one of the major themes is deliberation technologies, it’s not surprising to hear a few people reflect about the use of such technologies at said conference. For example, here’s Susan Crawford’s observation at the Votes, Bits, & Bytes conference:


It may be, however, that this crowd is impatient with anyone talking at the front of the room. We’re willing to listen for, oh, maybe 10 minutes — at the most. But after that we want to hear from other people in the room. We’re enjoying the IRC back-channel, we’re reading email — we’re all over the place.

Susan’s discussing the "sage on the stage" problem endemic to the academic. In many learning settings– whether it’s a conference, a workshop, a lecture, a call-in show, a press conference— there tends to be one or a few experts doing the talking, and a wide audience doing the listening and the occasional asking. That’s how the world works, top-down as it is sometimes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better.

The bottleneck, of course, is in the number of useful questions to be asked. Unless it’s a crowd where the moderator has a fairly good rapport with the participants, it’s rare that the best questions will always be asked. To solve this we need to fully enhance the "back-channel."

Assume you’re sitting in the audience. You have a question. Write it down. And keep it short. It will be submitted, via whatever transmission handy, to a dedicated forum for the session. I call it a Question Scoreboard, which all the participants would be able to see, and furthermore, add a supportive score. Other participants may even be able to answer some of the obvious questions. A moderator should pick the best questions, and then call on the asker to stand up and ask them.

The end result is that the questions that get asked are the ones that most people agree should be asked, and the ones that can’t be answered by anybody else. The best questions will be the most succinct and to the point.

This will take a little bit more brain power to handle a few more multi-tasking for the typical "snore on the floor"– listening to speaker, writing a question, voting on others– and perhaps over time our heads will get even larger, and thus requiring more Caeasarian sections. As a member of Y-chromosome specimen of the homo sapiens, I will unhesitantly offer this technology to humankind.

It’s completely unnecessary for groups smaller than thirty. But it ought to scale to large numbers. Furthermore it can truly engage a remote audience, who will have just an equal chance to submit intelligent questions. Along with Distributed Media Monitoring, television can be an interactive medium at long last, and it will make live television worth watching.

I actually thought this idea up ten years ago, when Krumholz or somebody would needle Professor Uwe Reinhardt in McCosh 50 about some esoterica, but maybe we have the technology in place now. I now own a 5-year old Palm IIIe, which may get me halfway there, though it, to my knowledge, lacks a networking interface.


Update, November 20th 2005: The PDF conference in May experimenting with projecting the backchatter behind the presenters. Michael Cornfield ended up posting to PDF three months laters that Mrs. Manners didn’t approve. The ensuing discussion brought forth some other ideas as to how to "fine-tune" the concept.