Backchannel.

Crowd

This post is a guide for social media novices (like me) on a structured way to record and reflect upon contributions of others.

What is backchannelling?

It is the practice of live blogging on social media. For instance, backchannelling is common at conventions where people will use a platform like twitter to share key takeaways from presentations.

Who is responsible for the name?

No idea, and probably no-one would own up to it (I sometimes wonder whether anyone sniggers when backchannelling is mentioned at Proctologist conventions). Surely there is a better name for something that is so inherently useful (personally I’d love to see ‘eavesdropping’ repurposed as a term for this). The name makes it tough to explain to people why they should try it, actually… so let’s look beyond the name.

Why should I do it?

  1.  It creates an archive.  When I was at the LearnX conference in Melbourne a month ago, I bumped into Con Sotidis (@learnkotch).  Con shared with me how he likes to backchannel during a conference and then that night he will look back over his tweets and make sense of the day’s interactions.
  2. It is social.  Back-channelling connects you with other people.  When I backchannelled at the LearnX conference, I got another 20-ish followers on Twitter, so more people to interact with over the long-term.  When you connect with people around a subject, you are part of a community.
  3. It is part of a value exchange.  The more people who backchannel, the more people will backchannel.  When you think about the conventions you can’t go to versus the ones you can, it shows how precious the insights are if people backchannel from them.

What do I need to backchannel?

  1.  A device that connects to social media, preferably one that allows you to take a picture and type easily.  I backchannel with a combination of a smartphone with apps and a small tablet PC with proper keyboard.
  2. Wifi.  When you go to a convention, always ask about the free wifi on offer.
  3. Chargers.  Sitting in a back corner of a conference room next to the mains power is as good a place as any to backchannel from.
  4. A social media presence. Twitter is the preferred method.  When I was at LearnX, I sat next to someone frantically looking for the speaker’s profile on twitter.  They weren’t on there, and the resulting remark made was disparaging.  Having a professional twitter account is a must-do for any professional person.

How do I backchannel?

  1. Have your social media open.
  2. Listen to the speaker intently and try to find the key message in what they are saying.
  3. If you can directly quote them, use quotation marks in your tweet. If not, condense their words as succinctly and accurately as possible.  Try to cap this to 100 characters.
  4. Find the handle of the speaker on Twitter and add it to your tweet (e.g. mine would be @freefacilitator) to attribute the message to them. If they are not on Twitter, type their full name.
  5. Put in a hashtag or two. Typically this would be one for the conference (e.g.#learnx or #learnx14) and one for the topic at hand (e.g. #facilitation).  This helps people find and use your backchannel later.
  6. Put your personal reaction to it.  This helps the reader gain meaning.  This can be done by placing the ‘ > ‘ symbol directly after the quote.
  7. Re-read you draft tweet quickly for typos and to re-assess if it is a fair representation of the speaker.
  8. Post it.

So a finalised tweet might look something like this:

backchannel eg

You can also add photos of slides into your tweet.

If you are in a 30 minute presentation and you actively backchannel, you may find yourself tweeting 10 times. Because you are looking for the key outcomes, you actively listen and stay highly engaged, even if the speaker is boring.

What are the barriers?

  1. The biggest is that it feels – and maybe looks – rude.  No-one else necessarily knows if you are backchannelling or surfing facebook.  It’s a good idea to start a conversation with those around you and casually mention what you will be doing.  If they are cool with it, they might backchannel too, and at worst you feel less embarrassed.  Also, show you are being attentive with actively listening techniques like nodding.  Be the person who asks the first question at the end of the presentation too.  Attitudinally, remember you are paying massive respect to the speaker by backchannelling them.  Their audience has just increased because of you.
  2. It is a pressure to be an interpreter.  You are essentially taking on the role of the speaker’s PR agent, pro-bono.  You are playing with their reputation, which they are already putting out there by being a speaker at a conference.  Be aware of that responsibility.  If you question something, remember to do so respectfully and question the notion rather than the person.
  3. You might start a conversation.  If you are new to social media, or you don’t have a lot of time to invest in it, you may find all of a sudden you have a lot more activity going on!  This is mostly a good problem to have though.

What else can be done with the backchannel?

  1. You can see how your tweets stacked up against others afterwards.
  2. You can create a storified recollection of your (and others’) backchannel.
  3. You can use them to help create a blog post.

Where else can you backchannel?

Backchannelling is now an automatic behaviour for me. I’ve extended it to where I work (a company of 40,000 staff) for any big meeting, conference or social learning event, with the backchannel taking place on Yammer. It helps extend the reach of the collective learning. I’m an advocate, and I encourage you to give backchannelling a go too.

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