Saturday, November 21, 2009


Social media are triggering new forms of group behavior—for better or worse, and this past week's Web 2.0 Expo in Manhattan offered up a fresh example of the dark side. On Day Two of the conference, twittering audience members formed a digital swarm to heckle keynote speaker danah boyd while she was delivering her keynote. The Twitter pile-on was ironic: boyd was talking about how social media are having the effect of shortening audience attention spans and "motivating individuals to make their personal content more readily available."

While boyd spoke, a live, real-time Twitterstream was being projected on a large screen behind her back, pulling everything tagged #w2e. At first, the audience began sending tweets criticizing her delivery, and then they began ridiculing it. Boyd might have altered her presentation if she had seen what was happening behind her back, but she never got the chance. She was facing the audience and was only able to hear the audience laugh. [Read her response to it here.]

@billyger: danah boyd from microsoft is talking way too fast. It's hard to follow and I have no idea what she is talking about #w2e
@dandam: Danah Boyd loves coffee. #w2e
@andybudd: Wow, people are bleeding out of danah boyd's somewhat dry and academic lecture.

And so on. It got worse. Since boyd's talk Nov. 17, there has been some hand-wringing in the blogosphere over whether to ban live Twitterstreams at conferences, or have organizers moderate the live Twitter streams for rude remarks. Maggie Fox, CEO of, called the incident "an extremely uncomfortable experience" which "frankly ... pissed me off." Michelle Riggen-Ransom, a writer and cofounder of Batchblue Software, blogged that "this livestream Twitterbashing (tweckling?) seems a bit like the bully in my Spanish class who used to reflect a circle of sunlight glinting off his watch onto the teacher's bottom while she was writing on the chalkboard, just to make the class laugh." David Beaudouin, a communications strategist with DB+C, asked his blog readers: "Can civility and transparency co-exist within this social medium? Sure, there will always be trolls and flame wars, but behaving badly in public forums, as opposed to productive candor, simply lowers the collective level of useful discourse."

For their part, some of the people who participated in the Tweckling have since apologized to boyd, but their comments also provide insights into other ways social media are changing us. Web 2.0 conference-goer Daniel Damkoehler posted this on danah's Web site Saturday:

"...I was following along with what felt like a bit rushed, more scholarly-than-sales-oriented talk (unlike those that preceded you) until the person next to me gave me a nudge and pointed to the Twitter graffiti wall. I admit to laughing, quipping, and completely falling out of the flow of your presentation and I apologize for my lack of attention and decorum as well as my snarky comments. ...It seems that the more subtle the speaker's point, the more impatient and nasty the audience became. While it's easy enough to blame the new tech in the room for this shoddy behavior, I'm not sure we're seeing anything new here at all. It certainly didn't feel new to me from where I sat.

Consider the recent Town Hall meetings around health care—substantive discussions of important issues were subsumed in cat-calls and shouted rumors. That said, having participated in this bad behavior, I noticed something else about the way it felt to put something on that wall. The Twitterwall subverted Twitter's more symmetric conversation model of communication. Posting to the wall was like creating and sharing a public secret about the speaker (a little like political graffiti except it wasn't anonymous). The wall made a spectacle of the crowd's impatience and anxiety feeding on the speaker's inability to respond. That spectacle united us, not as a single group receiving challenging ideas from a thoughtful orator but as quite separate individuals struggling to listen, read, respond, and make sense of the event. We moved from Web conference to Twitter circus..."

The boyd Tweckling is just the latest example of the phenomenon. At the Shorty Awards in February, a group of panelists sat on stage dumbfounded while the audience used a projection of the live Twitterstream to make fun of them behind their backs. More famously, former BusinessWeek columnist Sarah Lacy, during a 2008 SxSW interview of Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, got pummeled "when the back channel on Twitter caused the crowd to turn against Lacy and made for a fairly hostile Q&A," Riggen-Ransom recalls. A more recent example, she says, occurred earlier this month at a HighEdWeb Keynote speech in Milwaukee, "where even non-attendees jumped on the bandwagon (possible now with live-streaming.)" [To read Riggen-Ransom's full post, go here.]

Sure, speakers who read their speeches or who don't seem comfortable addressing a crowd have never been popular with audiences who have paid hefty registration fees just to hear them speak. People attend keynotes to be enlightened and entertained. But does the advent of Twitter—and the existence of a digital back-channel—make it socially permissible to virtually boo people off stage?

Like Riggen-Ransom, I'm all for the back-channel. But I'm also for civic spaces. Way back in the '90s, people used to laugh at Beavis&Butthead, the original back-channel snark-mongers—often to the point of losing interest in the videos they were skewering. To be sure, the audience is the stage in this new era of social media. As social media continue to redefine our notions of public spaces, public behavior—what's considered acceptable—is evolving. Transparency changes things, and not gently.

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo of danah boyd at Web 2.0 Expo New York courtesy of O'Reilly Media)

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Blogger Shashi Bellamkonda said...

When conferences have the two feet rule i.e go to another session if the speaker or the session is not what is the best use of your time there is no need for heckling or tweckling.
I would recommend that lets you take trolls out of your live stream in real time


November 22, 2009 at 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Mike Mykel said...

I am curious to know what percentage of the hecklers were male. This sounds like an example of male anxiety when confronted by an attractive, very intelligent and successful woman.

If it matters, I am an elderly, non tech male with little interest in social media. However I intend to read some of Dr. Boyd's work.

This is sad. The barbarians are at the gates -- and they are us.

Mike Mykel

November 22, 2009 at 2:51 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Mike, for your comment. It seems to be pretty much evenly split between men and women, but you're not the first to ask the question. It's a good one.

The sense I get from researching the incidents I mention is that the heckling isn't as much about gender as it is about the behavior of the speaker. In this case, danah pretty much read her complex text to a crowd—a Web conference no-no. People who attend Internet sessions live largely in a culture of spontaneous interaction and strongly prefer that kind of style among those chosen to keynote.

Ironically, danah's rapid-fire talk focused precisely on the new group behaviors that social media are spawning; she was making the point about back-channel conversations precisely at the time when most of the back-channelers had stopped listening completely.

Some of those who were involved in the Tweckling, besides the person I quote in my post, said another reason they "got snarky" with their Tweets was because her flat and written delivery occurred to them as a form of disrespect for the audience. Said one, "Did she think she could just come out and read a research paper? I mean, didn't she prepare more for this conference?"

Indeed, to Web-wired audiences,interactivity is expected, not just as the point of the presentation but as a value to heed while delivering it.

What's most fascinating to me, however, is the rapidity with which small groups can form and then disperse using social media. I'm writing a book on the subject called Swarms. Watch this space for most posts on the subject as I work to complete the manuscript.

Thanks for your insights!


November 22, 2009 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger carlo said...

@Marcia I was in the audience and was tweeting normally during keynote session - i've tried to digest what happened and posted a comment on Danah's blog after some hours, trying to be fair and honest:
"I was there in the front row and I will try to tell you my balanced judgment on what happened.
I'm a CTO and evangelist and do very often public speaking. I spent a lot of time refining and learning how to present to an audience. So I want to share my empathy for what happened.
Being on a stage is a very powerful BUT fragile situation, hence there need to be a balance of respect between the two parties.
I think in this case it partially missed from both sides for different reasons.
1. reading without looking at the audience is a form a non-respect, each presentation is based on bidirectional communication
2. critics and jokes on twitter while you were obviously not able to read them is a form of non-respect (I was tweeting about how bad is reading in presentations and evoked nancy duarte too, so I am guilty of non-respect)
3. The presentation contains a LOT of interesting content
I'm sure there could be reasons and excuses from both sides BUT i hope you appreciate my openness and transparency in judging this.

What to do next:
1. moderate the twitter stream that goes on the stage - i don't see why not I'm sure they did it before when O'Reilly and digg were on stage
2. always have the twitter stream available to the presenter
3. don't read ever

I hope you appreaciate my effort here :) be good"

BTW the day after the tweets were moderated.

November 23, 2009 at 5:25 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Carlo - Thanks for your comments, and I really appreciate your coming forward to give your input. I think the incident and subsequent discussion has offered up some fascinating insights, and I thank you for yours!


November 23, 2009 at 5:37 PM  
Blogger Kyan said...

next time i do a presentation I'll be sure to have a few live tv streams playing behind me, and a marching band.


pretty insane to have a live stream running behind you.

November 23, 2009 at 6:56 PM  
Blogger Bert said...

For several reasons, a live back channel is a bad idea regardless of the quality of the presentation or the quality of the back channel comments:

- A back channel *will* divert human brains from the presentation, it's just biology. It's not a debatable topic, there really is no such thing as true multitasking.

- A back channel presumes that everyone in the audience, who has paid with their money and their time, is interested in the uninformed, ad-hoc 'reckons' of their peers.

Commentary and criticism are fine, but not if they're coincident with the presentation. We don't allow it at movies or plays or concerts, why is this form of public presentation any different?

If there is a subset of the population that really values realtime, ad-hoc commentary, conference organizers would be well advised to provide those folks with their own room... give them a live feed and a back channel and they can comment to their heart's content.

November 24, 2009 at 1:01 PM  
Blogger info said...

It's easy to be snarky, that's why it's so hard to build meaningful effective alliances in this society which so encourages, egotism, individualiam, and competitiveness. We all think we're the smartest and the best. It's like what was written in a recent biography of Ayn Rand: she convinced readers that they were part of the elite without in any way being particularly distinguished in their work, thinking, etc.

November 28, 2009 at 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Joe McCarthy said...

Thanks for sharing this very thoughtful commentary, both in the post and in the followup comments. Thanks, too, for including some of the actual tweets that were posted during danah's talk. I've been unable to find any examples when I search for #w2e on services such What the Hashtag?, which enables me to constrain the search by hashtag and date (e.g., for 2009-11-17 thru 2009-11-19). For example, none of the three tweets you shared in your blog post are found in that stream, and I wonder if some of the posters have gone back and deleted their tweets.

December 18, 2009 at 12:59 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks for your comment.

The tweets were taken from the tweetstream at the event. Pls make sure you're referencing the official and uncensored stream, but if you're having trouble, perhaps you might want to connect to the people who wrote them, directly.

December 18, 2009 at 1:45 PM  
Anonymous freshwebmedia said...

I am curious to know what percentage of the hecklers were male. This sounds like an example of male anxiety when confronted by an attractive, very intelligent and successful woman.

August 22, 2011 at 9:16 AM  

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