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On the backchannel, and civility

GoRuCo 2010 was this past Saturday, and it seemed to go well. Obviously I’m a little biased on the subject, but if the Twitter traffic is any indication, people enjoyed themselves.

This year, I was just one more organizer, and I was the Master of Ceremonies too. With Josh Knowles doing all the hard work as lead organizer, I was free to keep one eye on the backchannel we had running in #nyc.rb, and I was reminded of what I do and don’t like about the backchannel:

In general, I think the backchannel’s a good thing. I know that some conference speakers dislike having to compete with all that online chatter (or with laptops and wireless in general), but when I get a speaking gig I always tell myself it’s my job to be way more engaging than whatever else people could be doing with their laptops. If somebody spends money on conference registration, hotel, and transportation, it’s my job to be as interesting and entertaining as I can manage. Otherwise I could just write it down on my blog and everybody else could stay home, right?

(And yes, I know that some people are just naturally worse than others at public speaking. For some freakish reason I have little to no fear about talking in front of crowds—might have something to do with that healthy ego of mine. What can I say? Life isn’t always fair. If you have something important to say at conferences and you’re really bad at public speaking, you might be well served by joining Toastmasters or an improv class or something.)

But I do have one big gripe with backchannels: People aren’t on their best behavior. At pretty much every tech conference I’ve been to, the backchannel blurs the line between healthy dissent and excessive meanness. I’m not going to name names or quote what I read this weekend, but too often I felt that the online comments weren’t so much about constructively criticizing an opinion as much as dismissively trying to prove intellectual superiority.

One of the strange things about the backchannel is that the person who is under discussion is the one person who’s least able to participate in the discussion. So it all feels a bit … I don’t know, gossipy? The closest analogy I can think of is if you come to a party, and before you get there the other 20 people in the party are all talking shit about you, and then when you get there people act as if nobody said anything.

It’s also worth noting that not every conference speaker is some empty shirt who’s trying to build a career as a tech guru. Lots of people who speak at conferences are genuinely passionate about their craft, and genuinely animated by a desire to share that passion and to talk about interesting ideas. Yes, there are snake oil salesmen in the world of tech. But if a conference is any good, then the vast majority of people at that conference—including the speakers—are there to share a common excitement about their craft. It would be nice if everyone’s backchannel comments reflected that commonality.

Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t criticize what’s being said: Dissent is important, and one of the great things about tech communities is our frankness. But I do think it’s substantively different to say something to someone’s face (during the Q&A, or over a drink) than to say it behind someone else’s back.

And I’m not such an idealist to believe that nobody would ever talk shit about anybody else. But doing it in the backchannel, which isn’t just a few trusted friends but is in fact a bunch of friends & strangers blended together, just doesn’t seem right. Some people seem to act is if those words aren’t going to get back to the speaker or her/his friends, but they often do.

For the record, I don’t this is a GoRuCo problem: I think this is a tech conference problem. If I had to rank, I’d say that GoRuCo is probably a little better in this respect than many of the other tech conferences I’ve been to. I dare say that we still bring together techies who are smart and nice, but that’s no reason for us to get complacent about it.

I’m not really sure what there is to do about it, but it seems worth bringing up. My first thought would be a request: When you’re talking on a conference backchannel, imagine you’re talking directly to the speaker, or to a friend of the speaker. Would you say it in exactly the same way? If not, maybe you should take the time and energy to speak with a bit more empathy and consideration.

Because, when all is said and done, people almost never look back on the things they said and think to themselves “I wish I had spent less time trying to understand where that person was coming from.”

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Tagged: tech, ruby

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