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Lonely in a packed room

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2005

I’m sitting in a huge room filled with ~2,000 people at the opening remarks of the AIGA Design Conference and there’s no single other person on Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous) in iChat:

Lonely Bonjour

I may be the only person in the entire room with his laptop open. Instead, everyone is listening to the speakers. Like Jeff, I’m torn: is this lack of a back channel a good thing or does the presence of an online component of a conference make the experience more rewarding?

Reader comments

BenSep 15, 2005 at 5:37PM

Maybe this is somehow disabled at the network level …

GregSep 15, 2005 at 5:47PM

…is this lack of a back channel a good thing or does the presence of an online component of a conference make the experience more rewarding?

Why not answer your own question as you’re there, experiencing this first hand.

jkottkeSep 15, 2005 at 5:58PM

Why not answer your own question as you’re there, experiencing this first hand.

‘Cause I’m trying to listen to the speakers, dammit! ;) (I’ll answer it in a bit, when there’s a bit of a lull.)

BrittSep 15, 2005 at 5:59PM

I’m surprised when I’m at a conference having to do with technology and there isn’t a back channel. It is odd how that makes you feel alone. To me, it adds to the experience but I’ve noticed this is more a phenomena with Mac users due to Bonjour.

Jake of 8bitjoystick.comSep 15, 2005 at 6:06PM

I don’t have Bonjour enabled so the other people in my Apartment can’t tell that I am surfing on their unsecured Wifi.

Daniel NicolasSep 15, 2005 at 6:18PM

1 of 2000 is not very good - maybe Ben is onto something. Is it possible to disable ad-hoc networking (and chatting Bonjour)? You’d think there’d be more people trying stuff out.

IrvSep 15, 2005 at 6:23PM

very few laptops open here in the Living Room - lots of sketching though.

sacSep 15, 2005 at 6:30PM

Back channels are like kids passing notes in class. Distracting, in my limited experience.

CorySep 15, 2005 at 6:39PM

I think it would be more beneficial for conference goers to soak in information during a session, and then discuss, blog, and surf afterwards/in between.

Or does this digital backbone allow a greater flow of ideas, providing a real-time discussion between attendees that overlays what’s being presented on stage?

Jake of 8bitjoystick.comSep 15, 2005 at 6:47PM

Yeah but Wifi during a presentation is nice so you can look stuff up. I use VoodooPad for most of my meetings and presentation note taking needs.

The Wifi at Siggraph was great but there were so many nerds in the convention center that the outbound internet pipe was clogged.

Once I noticed that there were 14 people sharing iTunes music via Wifi. It got a bit crazy.

JenniferSep 15, 2005 at 6:48PM

Disengagement of the back channel focuses the attention of the attendees, as you noted. However, undisputedly, back channels will add to the experience, forcing you to interact with the information on multiple sensory levels.

Perhaps later, if the back-channel is truly lacking by pure intentions and not by inept attendees, they will allow access. Specified “chat-time”, or something of that ilk. Much like teachers allow students - lecture time, and then discussion afterward. Someone less important or noteworthy will come up, and they’ll open it up to the masses.

yiSep 15, 2005 at 9:19PM

it’s not good or bad. print-only designers (most aiga members) that are on tiger are still double clicking links and using internet explorer. i don’t think its intentional that there is not this parallel online dialogue during the panels. the benefits of the technology are just not realized yet by most attendees.

Matt JSep 15, 2005 at 9:55PM

Love the images that have made it into the blog so far this week. I demand more! Also, your Bonjour avatar is great.

jkottkeSep 15, 2005 at 10:36PM

Why not answer your own question as you’re there, experiencing this first hand.

Like I said, I’m torn. I prefer a moderate amount of back channel action…it can be quite helpful. But too much is not so good. But that’s just my personal preference. Not sure what the solution is… I don’t like the idea of killing wifi during sessions; like Jake says, it’s great to look stuff up in the moment to get context, etc.

Part of the problem is the speakers themselves because people really do pay attention when speakers are engaging whether there’s an active back channel or not. If you’ve got a conference where most people aren’t paying attention to most speakers, you’ve got bad speakers (or at least speakers that are inappropriate for the audience).

Stefan HaydenSep 15, 2005 at 10:48PM

if only I had a laptop. Back there are about 7 laptops to run the show and we were watching Red vs Blue. it was good times.

christiSep 15, 2005 at 11:09PM

i can say for a fact that you were the only person (in my viewing range anyhow) with a laptop open…which is why I noticed you (four rows in front of me) and sleuthed out who you were (cause you were looking at kottke + bonjour)

I’ve no strong opinion or bias either way, but AIGA will likely post transcripts of these lectures, so why not enjoy all the nuances, on-stage and off, in real-time?

Michael HeilemannSep 16, 2005 at 1:40AM

I personally think backchannels are great. And as for bonjour, you’re definitely missing out (from reboot 7 in Copenhagen earlier this year) :)

Michael HeilemannSep 16, 2005 at 1:43AM

Forgot, I wrote a quick entry about it while I was at reboot.

Marco RaaphorstSep 16, 2005 at 2:15AM

this could be cool indeed to chat while listening. it’s not relaxed, but a new way to attent these events.

my friend is a sport journalist. all journalist are writing those stories on laptops while watching the games. when someone needs to go for a piss, sometime the other journalists will edit his story. most of the time the don’t notice this. I heard stories about journalists who gotten drunk and the others wrote ‘their’ story by taking his laptop :)

MaaikeSep 16, 2005 at 8:22AM

In my opinion having a back channel between sessions is great, a good way to meet people, discuss stuff etc. But not during sessions.
I don’t think it’s very polite for people to be busy chatting on their laptops while somebody is talking to them.

Tom DolanSep 16, 2005 at 10:22AM

The AIGA isn’t really a high-tech group, despite that fact that designers use computers every day. The back-channel action will pick up I’m sure, as more people bring their laptops to the convention center. I’ve already hit up JK via IM in the main hall this morning.

mickey mcmanusSep 16, 2005 at 11:37AM

At a recent conference that we presented at called “where2.0” in SF, they had a full IRC chat going in the audience while the presenters were talking. We had a person from our organization (a geek) handling comments and questions while our speaker was presenting and soon after. We identified ourselves as sitting in the crowd and part of the company but it was a pretty exciting and dynamic feedback loop. We could communicate about misconceptions we could apologize for goofy statements by our speaker, etc. After the conference the organizers gave us the full transcript and we used it to share with the rest of the organization (very blunt feecback but great stuff without the filter).

DarrelSep 16, 2005 at 1:03PM

I think Yi nailed it. This is an AIGA conference, not a Web conference.

RobSep 16, 2005 at 1:52PM

Hey, maybe you will have started a new trend. I can certainly say there more laptops in use at the AIGA Leadership Reteat (about 300 attendees). Not that that means anything. Glad you are enjoying the conference.

KenSep 16, 2005 at 10:25PM

Perhaps it’s the realization of how rude it is to the presenter for you to be sitting in there, laptop open, head down, typing away while someone is trying to make a point. As someone who gives a lot of presentations, I know that I don’t enjoy giving presentations to people who so obviously don’t care about what I’m saying.

And before anyone starts…sure, you are that oh-so-special one tenth of one percent that can actually really listen to a presenter and at the same time pan him on IRC. I’m talking about the 99.9% that can’t. And suddenly that backchannel commentary becomes rubbish because the participants are too busy typing to pay attention. Why exactly is this good?

If you want to engage in backchannel dialog, catch the presentation on the webcast. Otherwise, try to show the presenter some respect.

AdrianSep 17, 2005 at 11:34AM

When I blogged for the HOW Conference earlier this year, there wasn’t a wireless network to be found in any of the conference rooms. Wish I was in Boston with my laptop right now…

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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