Session Proposal: Building a Better Backchannel

It’s come to be expected at digital humanities-oriented conferences that there will be a vibrant backchannel—commentary, questions, dissent, and amplification, usually taking place in real-time (but not always real-place) on Twitter. Even scholarly conferences that are not strictly digital, such as the Modern Language Association, have begun to have ongoing and serious discussions on the conference backchannel.

Derek Bruff has written extensively on encouraging conference backchannels and dealing with distraction and incivility on backchannels, and I want to take his ideas even further in this session, asking how can we build—literally build from the ground up—a better backchannel?

That’s right, I want to hack the way we yack.

The Better Backchannel might be a software solution built on top of Twitter, but I don’t want to assume that Twitter is the best or even default platform for the Better Backchannel. Perhaps the Better Backchannel is a disparate set of existing tools, assembled in a new way. Or maybe the Better Backchannel is not a tool at all, but a set of practices.

To begin, I see four broad questions to consider (there are more of course, and I hope you add them in the comments below):

  • What are the limitations of existing backchannels?
  • What do we want the Better Backchannel to do that existing backchannels don’t do or do badly?
  • What existing tools support these features, or can be hacked to support these features?
  • And how can we put the Better Backchannel into operation?

In the ideal world, we answer these questions in the session and actually build the thing on-the-spot. That’s not going to happen, of course (the building, that is), but we may end up with a blueprint that some sort of future One Week | One Tool team might act on. And in the meantime, we might learn something that will enrich our current use of backchannels.


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  1. cybernetickinkwell.com

    Great idea, Mark. One bit of functionality that I’d love to see in a Better Backchannel is the ability to somehow differentiate backchannels that are happening for separate, concurrent sessions.

    In other words, I’d love the option to visually and intellectually make a distinction between the backchannel discussion for the session I’m attending and the one for the session that’s happening in the room next to ours and the one that’s going on downstairs in the ballroom at the same time. Usually I want to be able to see them all–I just want to be able to keep straight which session is being discussed.

    So . . . make that happen. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. lcc.gatech.edu/~rwhitson3/wordpress

    Very interesting proposal, Mark. I’ve been experimenting with backchannels in my classes, and I wonder if a better backchannel at a conference would have different needs than a better backchannel in teaching.

  3. Patrick Murray-John

    Way cool indeed. And +1 to Eric’s thought about differentiating between concurrent sessions.

    I think it would be hard to move away from Twitter being the core, since that’s so well-established. But, it does also need to be mediated/augmented in some way to bring in the functionality Eric describes, and that we’ll discover we want at the session.

    I imagine Twitter + Gowalla : you check in your Twitterstream to the conference and session — the mental space — you are at. In Twitter, To avoid hashtag fatigue, that’d ideally be something that could be included once in a tweet and whatever is doing the processing/augmenting would remember that until there’s a new checkin.

    One option, bring the hash-bang #! into twitter to check-in a twitterstream, e.g. “@samplereality starting #!backchannel at #THATCamp” and an app already knows about #!backchannel and checks my twitterstream into it until I checkin somewhere else. Just a starting idea

    On a more yacky angle, I’m wondering if “backchannel” is still the best word. I’m seeing it as more and more as another mediation of the sessions, on par with a slideshow at a session being one mediation of it. I’m wondering if reframing/blowing up what that backchannel really is will help us identify more of what we do and do not want it to do.

  4. Matthew K. Gold

    Love this idea, Mark.

  5. Amanda French

    Personally, I’m still fond of Twitter as the “backchannel” tool — EXCEPT (and it’s a big except) for the difficulty of archiving it now that Twapperkeeper downloads have been disabled. I suspect there must be other solutions, but I haven’t found them yet (we’re looking at installing Twapperkeeper server-side but haven’t yet). But I agree with Patrick that “backchannel” might not be the right word, since part of what I love is the ability for non-present people to participate. But what the hell, I can’t think of a better one, and I know what you mean.

  6. Brian Croxall

    Like Matt, I love this idea. And like Amanda, my first thought is that we need a better way to archive this backchannel. Personal servers running Twapperkeeper are one thing, but they aren’t enough, I think.

    Like Eric, I would also like there to be ways to better sort the different conversations that happen under one hashtag. It honestly gets unwieldy to use multiple hashtags after a while. But I would also like to see there be a way to easily tell what a hash tag is for. It’s not unusual for me to see hashes in my tweetstream but to have a very hard time pinning down what event is being referred to. In some ways, then, I want my perfect backchannel to allow me to click a hash that redirects not simply to a page of all the posts grouped under the hash but instead to a page with all the posts and some basic information about the event and who has been posting/tweeting about it to this point. Better on-the-fly analysis tools would be great.

    And while we’re on the fly, how about trending topics within the hash tag itself?

    As far as what you need in a conference vs what you need in the classroom, I think one issue is scale. When I’ve used backchannels in classes, things do not fly as fast and furious as they do at a #thatcamp or #mla. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think that it ends up making the participants miss the excitement of the real-time medium. I don’t know really how to fix this–inserting a delay breaks the real time.

    One more thing that the current backchannel doesn’t support well is longer posts. But I suppose there is always Deck.ly

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