Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Backchannel: Unofficial Commentary on SXSW

Every SXSW panel features not one but two simultaneously occurring discussions. While one occurs out loud, with people in the room who can see one another and hear one another speak, the other occurs silently in that shadowy netherworld known as Twitter. While everyone appears to be listening attentively to panelists and speakers, many people behind the scenes are also Tweeting questions, commentary, and yes, snarky remarks, as the panel progresses.

This ongoing Twitter conversation has come to be known as the “backchannel” and all panelists deal with it in a combination of four ways:

1.) Prepare for it – All of the panels I attended were at least ready for the backchannel. They all had “official” hashtags (i.e. #theyelpeffect, #funemployed, etc.) so that people who Tweeted through the event could organize their thoughts and read the thoughts of others also Tweeting along in the room. But considering how brutal some Twitterers can be, I also suspect that creating a hashtag for your panel has become SXSW policy rather than the choice of the panelists themselves.

2.) Embrace it During the Presentation – To me, the most successful presenters assigned someone to follow the backchannel as the panel progressed. They then rolled with the flow and answered questions that came across, went back to address points that appeared to have been missed, and generally let the audience participate.

3.) Embrace it After the Fact – Other panels, especially the small ones with one or two presenters, might not have had the resources to monitor the backchannel as they talked, but did end up embracing it after the fact. Jennie Chin (@misohungry) of The Yelp Effect, for example, came back and commented on the back channel after the conversation ended.

4.) Ignore it – The least successful SXSW presenters ignored the backchannel forever and ever. I attended one panel that promised to be about viral marketing but mainly consisted of the marketing teams from two website aggregators promoting their own services. The backchannel quickly grew ugly, but the two presenters remained oblivious and continued with their obvious plugs. As a result, many people – me included – walked out and went to find a more agreeable panel.

How is the Backchannel Changing SXSW?

Imagine if you were sitting in school and instead of merely listening to the lecture, you were able to ask silent questions without interrupting the class or make snide remarks about the teacher’s pocket protector. That’s how the backchannel feels to me. It’s a way to turn a presentation given to you to a conversation with you. In other words, the backchannel epitomizes everything we’ve learned in class about social media. People are no longer content to sit back and have information spoon fed to them. For better or for worse, people want to participate.

The backchannel made SXSW panels participatory, democratic and fun for me. I felt, in many cases, like I was being heard instead of preached at. And what’s more Web 2.0 than that?


  1. Wow, Jennifer! What useful information you've shared--I feel like a social media insider! (Okay, not quite, but at least now I understand FourSquare, and I have a few sites of personal interest to check out.)

    Congratulations on a successful trip.

  2. Thanks, Montyne! You know, I'm a self-taught social media person. I've never read anything like Content Nation or the Social Media Bible, and feel like they both helped me immensely to get a handle on this thing we call "social media." I really think that you and the rest of the class (and now me, yay!) are really ahead of the game at this now. Good luck in your social media future! :)

  3. Jennifer, I think you are correct in your assertion that the only way to deal with the backchannel is to embrace it. Well, either that or place a taser on the podium and stare with malicious intent at anyone with a handheld device. As a matter of fact, I liked your suggestion for embracing the backchannel during the presentation most of all. In a way, that method actually turns a presentation into a dialog, which would almost certainly make it more effective.

  4. Just attended a symposium for writing teachers about the "multimodal world." One session was set up with a projector so that audience members could participate via Twitter.

    Major disappointment. There were very few tweets, tweets were hours old, the constant movement was distracting, and not one of the panelists ever mentioned anything that was being said!

    Nice idea, but these fish weren't just out of the water, they were in the frying pan!

  5. It's so true! A good backchannel relies on informed, smart and curious audience members. If the audience is full of non-social-media-experienced folks (or, well, just drips) then the backchannel is going to be a very valuable experience. One person can even hijack the backchannel and ruin it for everyone else. Of course, that reminds me of some undergrad classes I took here at KSU. So maybe the backchannel is just a version of the same old same old in a new, freer form.