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May 20, 2010

Audiences and chairing events in a 'social media' world

This is the first of two blog posts about the recent Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University, which took place last Thursday at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

My next post will take a look at the content of the day, including my take on what it all meant. For this post I want to think more about mechanics - not of the "did the streaming and wifi work?" kind (actually, we did have some problems with the streaming early on in the day but Switch New Media, our streaming partner, and the venue's networking staff acted swiftly to resolve them by and large, for which I am very grateful) but thinking about my role as chair of the event.

Before doing so, let's think a little bit about the nature of conferences, and conference audiences, in the new 'social media' world (I'm using social media here as a shorthand for the use of those technologies that allow people to collaborate online in a real-time, relatively open, and social way with their peers, colleagues and friends - I'm including both the live-streaming of the event and tools like Twitter).

Let's start by partitioning delegates at conferences into three broad groups:

  • Firstly, there is the local physical audience - the people who are in the venue, watching and listening live to all the talks, asking questions, collaring speakers after their talks, and drinking the coffee at the breaks but who are, critically, not taking part in any digital activity during the event. This is what you might call the 'traditional' audience I guess.
  • Secondly, there is the local virtual audience - those people who, like the first group, are physically in the venue but who are also using their mobile devices and social networking services (such as Twitter) to discuss what is going on in the room. This discussion is typically refered to as the 'conference back-channel' though it is worth noting that it might start well before the event ("I'm on the train") and continue well after it ("presentation slides are now available"). In my experience, this group is usually smaller than the first group (often much smaller) and is often mis-understood or unrecognised by the people in the first group. It is perhaps also worth noting that this group tend to create a disproportionately large amount of the wider online buzz around an event.
  • Finally, there is the remote virtual audience - the people watching the live video stream from their office or home and who are typically also an active part of the event's back-channel.

This is not a perfect partitioning of the audience, and the names aren't quite right, but bear with me for a moment...

Increasingly, I think that event organisers need to strive to bring these three groups together, i.e. to maximise the interaction that takes place in the middle of the diagram above. That responsibility can be shared of course. For example, at the symposium this year, my colleague Mike Ellis had primary responsibility for encouraging the two virtual groups to gel effectively. However, I also think that the chair of the event increasingly has to be fully engaged with all three groups in order to properly do his or her job... and that, in my experience at least, is not an easy thing to do well. In short, it's not enough just to 'chair' what is going on in the room.

It is interesting that we use the term 'back-channel' for the virtual groups above (the right-hand side of the diagram), which implies there is also a 'front-channel' (the left-hand side). The labels 'front' and 'back' seem to me to be somewhat pejorative of what I'm labelling 'virtual' and I tend to think that, for all sorts of reasons, we need to get over this. I also think there are some barriers that currently get in the way of maximising the interaction between the three groups and it is perhaps worth outlining these briefly.

For those people physically in the room there are some very practical issues around the growth of 'virtual' activity - ownership of appropriate mobile devices, availability of power outlets (still a regular issue at events), good 3G coverage, and confidence that the wifi will be good enough spring immediately to mind. There are also problems of 'attitude' to the virtual activity. How many events still ask people to turn off their mobile devices at the start of the day? At this year's symposium we offered a quiet area for those delegates who did not want to sit next to someone who was using their laptop and, as reported previously, this was reasonably popular. My suspicion is that those people who don't use mobile devices and social networks at events see them only as a distraction, as being somewhat trivial ("oh, they're just reading email"), or perhaps even as being rude to the speakers on the day. Clearly, these views would not be shared by those people who see great value in a vibrant back-channel. There is a cultural shift going on here... and such shifts take time and happen at different rates across different parts of the population and I think we are still in the relatively early stages of this particular one.

For those people in the back-channel (both local and remote) I think there is generally a good 'coming together' of the two groups and Mike's work on the day helped this to happen at this event. Clearly though, those people who are actually in the room are able to engage directly with the speakers (they can put up their hand or interrupt or whatever) in a way that remote delegates can not. Remote delegates can usually only engage with speakers via an intermediary. Admittedly, there are some speakers who do appear to be able to stay on Twitter even as they speak but these are still few and far between and so, for the most-part, the lack of direct engagement by remote participants remains. For our symposia, we channel questions from remote delegates thru a designated person in the room (Mike Ellis in this case) but for this to work properly the chair has to give that person special attention and I think that, by and large, I failed to do so on the day this time round. Even where such attention is given, it still feels like something of a second-class experience for those delegates that choose to make use of it.

There is also the cognitive barrier of doing two things at once (perhaps it's just me?) - i.e. listening to the speaker and engaging in the back channel. This is partly device dependant I think. I can live-blog an event without difficulty using my laptop - indeed I strongly suspect that doing so actually improves the way I listen to the speaker - but I can't do the same on my iPhone (largely because the soft keyboard is too fiddly for me to use without thinking).

Finally then, there's the intersection between the local physical audience (who are not using the back-channel) and the remote virtual audience (who are). It seems to me that these two groups are least engaged in any real sense. For those people who are remote, there is some sense of shared presence with those in the room by virtue of the shots of the physical audience being shown as part of the live stream. (Incidentally, this is the main reason why I actually quite like having such shots included in the stream, though this is not a view shared by some of my colleagues here, nor by part of the audience.) On the other hand, for those people in the room, it is probably quite hard to remember that there even is a remote audience (let alone the fact that such an audience might actually be bigger than the one in the room - this year, 691 visitors from 7 countries, in 93 cities, in 153 organisations watched the live stream).

The result is something of a disconnect between the two groups.

Interestingly, I think this might currently leave the local virtual group in the role of bridging the two other groups. I don't think this is done in an explicit or intentioned way but it is interesting to note it nonetheless. Of course, it is also part of the event organiser's and chair's roles to bring these two groups together in some way.

Thinking back to our 3D virtual world symposium a few years ago, we overcame the 'local audience not being aware of the remote audience' problem to a certain extent by actually showing the virtual audience to the real audience during the day. (As an aside, one of the advantages of hybrid real and virtual world events is the greater sence of presence that is generated for delegates in the virtual world.)

For this year's (non-3D virtual world) symposium, one way of highlighting the remote virtual delegates would have been to show the Twitter stream live during the talks. We took the decision (I think rightly) not to do so because of the distraction this might cause to the in-room audience. We did however try to achieve some of the same effect by displaying the event Twitter stream in the lunch/coffee/tea room. My suspicion is that this didn't work - the single screen which we used was probably too small and people were busy doing other things to notice.

So... a couple of recommendations (essentially in the form of notes to self for next year!):

Event chairs should engage as much as possible with all three groups above (preferably actively - i.e. by tweeting or whatever - but at least passively). At my age, this means having a screen in front of me for most of the day, showing me what is happening in the back-channel. This doesn't have to be projected for everyone else but trying to do it on an iPhone screen is too difficult with anything less than 20:20 eyesight!

Event chairs should speak directly to the remote audience as often as possible and should explicitly acknowledge the back-channel in their communication with speakers and audience. Oddly, I felt that I've done this better in previous years than I did this year. I'm not sure why, though the time that I gave myself to introduce the day at the start of this year's event, coupled with the fact that we had some early teething problems with the streaming, meant that I wasn't properly able to introduce the remote audience and back-channel as I would have liked.

To sum up then, a chair's role in this new 'social media' world is to actively engage with the whole audience, not just with those sitting in the room in front of him or her. This is not easy to do and I suspect it requires a slight change of mindset. The chair's role is quite complex, at least that is my experience, at the best of times, a situation made worse by the new environment. For this reason, I'm not convinced that it can easily be combined with other tasks (like keeping one eye on other mechanics of the event or preparing a final summing up). Such tasks are better handled by other people.

To a certain extent, the chair's role becomes rather like that of David Dimleby hosting BBC's Question Time. The bulk of his time is spent focusing on the local audience and speakers but the remote audience watching the TV is the real reason why the programme is being made at all and every so often he will speak explicitly to camera to address that audience.

Note that this post is not intended to be negative in any sense. I think this symposium was our best yet and I'm really pleased with the way it went both in terms of the coherence of the overall theme and individual speakers and in terms of the mechanics of the day itself. I also think that our decision to limit the back-channel to Twitter-only was the right one and actually resulted in less confusion about what should be discussed where - though there is a proviso that 140 characters is probably too short for asking serious questions (so this is something we will have to think about for next year). But one can always do things better and that only starts by acknowledging where there were areas of weakness. When I woke up the morning after the event I was concerned that I could, and possibly should, have done a much better job of embracing the true 'hybrid' nature of the symposium in my role as chair for the day.

And a final thought... I've written this post with a particular focus on the chair's role within an event. The reality is that embracing the hybrid nature of events is incumbent on us all. We are going thru a cultural shift that requires the development of new social norms, not just in the digital space but in the hybrid space where physical meets digital. My suspicion is that the groups above will remain for some time to come (probably for ever) and that we will all have to work to bring these groups together as best we can - chairs, speakers and delegates - even if that just means remembering that the other groups exist!


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A quick comment on my own post... just to note that in tweeting a link about this post Lorcan Dempsey used the phrase 'amplified event' - http://twitter.com/lorcanD/status/14382247715 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amplified_conference for an explanation of 'amplified').

This is a phrase that I should probably have used in the post itself. What is interesting about it though is that, like the 'back' in 'back-channel', it tends to imply that the digital activity around an event is somehow extra, perhaps even secondary or subsidiary, to what is happening in the room.

While this is undoubtedly still the case for many amplified conferences, my real point here is that we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of event, requiring a new kind of approach (and chairing technique), one in which I hope we will see a levelling of the playing field between 'real' and 'virtual'.

The implication in my post is that these might be termed 'hybrid conferences' or 'hybrid events' - though I don't particularly like that phrase so I'm not particularly pushing it - I just haven't thought of anything better.

For web conferences you should try http://www.showdocument.com ,
Great for online teaching and collaborating. I use it for working on my designs with other in my field.
Its free and pretty simple - you just upload your file and invite others to view it together.
- Laura W.

Yes .. I have thought the same about 'amplify'. Indeed, one might imagine talking about an 'embodied' element in a few years as an amplification of a 'virtual' event.

I agree also about hybrid. We struggle with words spanning 'real' and 'virtual'. 'Real' itself seems particularly misplaced as the network is no less 'real'.

I was very struck a few years ago when reading Manuel Castells when he said that now 'the virtual is the real' given the importance to all aspects of life of network flows.

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