Robin2Note: This is a blogpost I wrote–and then sat on–after watching the destruction that was danah boyd’s keynote speech at Web 2.0 Expo on Nov 17, 2009. I was horrified to watch this happen to such an amazing speaker, because I truly felt it was devastatingly undeserved. I’m publishing it now because 1) enough time has passed that it is no longer has the kind of sting it did initially; 2) perhaps now that the brouhaha has died down, it can be heard and have some relevance; and 3) it actually feeds into a panel discussion I will be a part of at this year’s Web 2010 Conference, which I hope you attend. Not because I’m really that excited to be dancing in front of a big audience, but with the explosion of social media, I strongly feel we need to address the broader picture of the backchannel’s contribution to conferences and events. I will also tell you that until an hour ago, I had not read danah’s own analysis of what went wrong because I did not want it to color my own thoughts and observations. Having said that, I’ve now read her post, and I’m even more convinced that we need to understand how the crowd in the cloud and the sage on the stage can coexist to create an environment of engagement, respect, and conversation. It’s about the openness of the dialogue, folks, and we need to do it better than we do it now.
Today I was at the keynote series at Web 2.0, and I was really excited. There were several speakers I wanted to hear, not the least of which was danah boyd, whom I’ve previously had the pleasure of seeing her speak in person at our TLT Symposium at Penn State. danah boyd has recently made the move to Microsoft, where she is a Social Media Researcher. Obviously O’Reilly has a lot of pull in the tech community: they can command great speakers, great technology, include cutting edge toys, but in the end, no matter how much pull there is, things can go astray. When they do, it isn’t the technology, but basic human interactions that play out in standard default roles–on the playground, on the stage, in real life.
So what went wrong?
First, the day was long. They had already packed in three sessions before lunch. To make it worse, the keynotes–all fabulous speakers–were back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. They mixed up the style a bit–conversational interviews with extemporaneous speakers–but it was still six speakers in an hour and 45 minutes, with no breaks between them. And then they put the academic last. Dead. Last.
danah is a strong speaker. She puts a lot into her presentations–she speaks quickly, but she is a confident, intelligent presenter. Her slides are visually stimulating and enhance her talks well. Ironically, this was a new talk from danah. But, in the end, these things (including the newness of her presentation) worked against her:
The stage set up was awkward; out of three screens, two (one on either side of her) were her slides, projected towards the audience, but out of her line of sight. Instead of being hidden during her keynote, the real time (unmonitored) twitter stream was center stage, directly behind the speaker. The podium was set up squarely facing the audience, so danah could see neither her slides nor the twitter steam. So when the audience watched danah, they were actually distracted by the scrolling conversation behind her; but when danah watched the audience, she could see nothing but the fact that she had lost their focus.
And that made her lose her focus.
Now, nervous, she lost her pace and simply shut down, clearly reading her talk to the audience, devoid of emotion and energy. The audience in turn, tired, lost focus, and started playing around on the backchannel. They complained that danah spoke faster than they could think. She needed to stop and take a breath so the audience could catch up. A couple of giggles from the audience at a chance phrase. Emboldened, they tried getting snarkier. Now everyone’s attention was focused on the twitterstream and getting louder in their laughter. Clearly, danah couldn’t wait to bolt from the stage. Professional that she is, she finished the talk, although she took no joy in it and obviously had no idea that the audience reaction was not, initially, to her, but to a few bored idiots in the (unnecessary) twitterstream.