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Last year DJ Adams enthusiastically prepared for the SAP TechEd event in Basel, Switzerland. He even SAP TechEd: Collaborative notes channel for the event and was disappointed to find that Wifi wasn’t available anywhere.

If everything works out, this year we will have a Wifi area where you can check e-mail with your laptop, but probably not in the session rooms themselves. Therefore DJ’s vision will still not be possible:

” There you can log on and discuss aspects of SAP technology as presented and discussed during the sessions and presentations.”

In addition to some technology obstacles, we are also having discussions about whether enabling a backchannel would be a positive for SAP TechEd or not.

Just before a recent trip to Walldorf I was part of the FOO Fest at O’Reilly where Wiki, Wifi and Self Organization was the modus operandi.

I probably still had the glaze in my eyes when I talked to the people in Walldorf about how Wifi throughout would enhance the experience at SAP TechEd too. How quickly you can be brought back to earth. Here some comments I got:

The speakers won’t like it. They want the full attention of the audience.
Hasso Plattner even once left the stage half way through, because he felt that the audience wasn’t listening.
That would totally annoy me when someone would hack on a keyboard next to me.
The participants paid a lot of money for the conference, the last thing we want is to annoy them.
It’s like cellphones in a restaurant.
The SAP TechEd audience is a different one than the techies at O’Reilly.

One colleague stopped in the middle of the sentence looked me up and down and asked: “How long have you lived in the US?” Wow, cultural outlaw to my own home country, who would have thought?

Truth is I am also not totally sold on it. As you can see by Configuring scenario specific E-mail alerts in XI-CCMS: Part 3 or Too much On at the AlwaysOn?:

Maybe I was still jet lagged, having just returned from Germany, or other things were on my mind, but after the Webcast was in full swing I had problems taking notes while following the panels, the chat and voting in the polls.

Lately there has been quite some controversy going on in the blogosphere regarding conference backchannels: Chat session where people in the audience can comment on what is going on in the session at conferences. At AlwaysOn and at a couple of the Future Salons these chat session were even projected to side monitors for everyone in the audience and even the speakers to follow. Here some pointers to interesting posts around this topic:

Liz Lawley first on her own blog then on M2M.

In addition to providing real-time collaborative information related to the speaker’s topic, the links provided in the channel throughout the day were available later to anyone who chose to archive the discussion.

Danyel Fisher Plugging into the backchannel: “Continuous Partial Inattention?”

The channel was an interesting place. It was filled with an awful lot of noise, random insults, weird proto-in-jokes, and silly name memes. But it was also filled with in-line questions and clarifications, links to researchers’ work, discussions of how the work might be expanded, refined, or applied to other topics, discussion of how the theories might be used, and similar.

Dennis E. Hamilton Backchannels: Is that a dagger I feel behind me?

…the back-channel can be seen and experienced as fundamentally a hostile act, and how it undermines the social space of a meeting.
And, I realize, my inattentiveness impacted the space and the experience of others and the speakers. I indulged myself, and undermined the space. Because my body was there, and I feigned some marginal level of attention, I was committing silent sabotage.

Clay Shirky’s answer Orcmid on the Backchannel

First, the back-channel is a fact, not a choice. Every conference with Wifi will get a back-channel, and every conference will have Wifi in the next couple of years. So for me, any question of whether to have a back-channel is already barking up the wrong tree — all conference organizers will have to deal with it in some way or other. Even formally asking people to do part or all of the conference ‘lids down’ is a strategy that assumes the back-channel, rather than ignoring it.

A talk is an incredibly lousy way to transmit facts — if someone had invited me to the MSFT conference with the promise that I would walk away with all of the facts presented at that conference, but none of the social interaction, I wouldn’t have gotten in a taxi to go there, much less a plane. We went for each other, and while talks have a way of shaping the conversation, they are less important now than they were pre-Web, when the pure information in the talk was harder to come by. …

But I don’t believe evidence of harm necessarily leads to the conclusion that the back-channel should be banned, both for practical reasons (it is basically unbannable) and philosophical ones (increasing value for lateral communications may well outweigh harm to older conference styles).

So far at an SAP TechEd there hasn’t been a backchannel, but I agree with Clay, ubiquitous connectivity is in the future: Wifi and also better cell phone coverage in combination with PCMCIA cards and Smartphones will create a backchannel. Question is, how can we all channel it into the best outcome for all TechEd participants.

Some of you will be attending the ASUG conference next week in Atlanta, I don’t know whether they have Wifi, even less if there will be a backchannel. While you are there, think about what difference it would make if there is a backchannel. What could be done to improve the experience?

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  1. Walter Schnell
    Hello Mark,

    the SAP way would be to have an internal-use-phase, then a restricted-audience rampup phase, then use in production environments, right ?

    I personally like a well-prepared speech about new aspects (or facts) by a person who is able to answer questions afterwards, thereby proving that she is the one who knows the field. Note that there is a quality control before someone is asked to speak. As long as there is no quality control of the backchannel, I see no way to appreciate it.



    1. Mark Finnern Post author
      Hi Walter,

      You are right, good preparation and an exceptional speaker are the key to a successful session. 

      One of the great things at the Future Salon is the diverse background of the people in the audience. The expert of a field presents his or her findings and people look at it from their perspective and come up with totally new connections, which are discussed right there. 

      I strongly encourage these interaction during the session and we go out afterwards and continue to talk about it sometimes until late in the night.  

      At a conference, the possibilities to do that are very limited.

      The question is, how do we bring forward these additional pointers these epiphanies that people in the audience have.

      An admittedly messy way is to enabling a backchannel.

      Liz Lawley again from her M2M
      post: At least three people have asked me to send them transcripts from the
      open chat channel, specifically so that they can see what people were saying during
      their talks.
      They saw value in these transcripts.

      How can we make it better, focused, with less noise?

      Let us know,  Mark.

  2. Jim Spath

    Mark Finnern – Normally it’s verboten to comment on very old threads on SCN, but I’ll break the rule for this post, which was written “BT” – Before Twitter.  It’s now commonplace for a back channel to exist, and even celebrated by many (though certainly not all) presenters to display audience (local or extended) commentary in real time. And, I think, it’s expected that presenters need to talk through an audience that certainly is not paying 100% attention to the content in front of them.


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