Backchannel Notes – Fullerton

Wednesday night we ran another backchannel experiment, during a talk in the Zemeckis Media Lab by Tracy Fullerton. After feedback on last week‘s distraction levels, we abandoned EtherPEG for sniffing people’s surfing. And, in order to introduce slightly more formality, we abandoned IRC for this week.

tracy gestures in front of my desktop pattern, repeated around the roomIn place of those two technologies, I wanted to use Flickr, a Flash-based online chat service that allows people to post photographs into chat. In addition, I wanted to use to SubEthaEdit to create a single shared document where people could take notes. It’s a Macintosh-only application, unfortunately, but I wanted to experiment with it as a group nonetheless; we have enough Mac users to make it worthwhile and I want to see what shared-single document editing does for groupthink.

set up

First important lesson of this experience: backchannel requires setup. If we want to have a publicly shared area for discussion during a lecture, we need to set aside time before the lecture begins to get people up and running. Especially if you are introducing new software. Even if we had elected for IRC again, each week a number of people show up with different computers and they need help getting into the shared chat environment. In addition, servers tend to reject or respond strangely to a dozen people all logging on at the same time from the same IP address.

So, more set up time.

In this case, I had about two minutes between student film screenings and the speaker starting. SubEthaEdit was quickly abandoned – I couldn’t get the other users up and running in time. And, I discovered, without more advanced setup, all the computers sharing a document must be on the same network. That meant that the public desktop terminals couldn’t share documents with wireless users. Hum! Something that needed time to work out.

Flickr went marginally better. Since it was a web site, I explained the URL and told people I would post the information about the service up on a screen. This is one workaround for the lack of setup time – type out the instructions for logging on to the group channel and post them where everybody can see them. This seems to work reasonably well as long as it’s not much more than three steps, like signing up on a web site.

Flickr required registering for a web site. And, it required finding the “FlickrLive” link on a sitemap page. Slightly a pain. Everyone logged into a public area, the shared “FlickrCentral” chat area. There, two strangers were suddenly surrounded by fans of Tracy Fullerton, typing out notes from her talk and debating the future of high-production value games. One of the strangers was happy to engage us, another felt put-upon by our takeover of the shared public space.

I created a public, invitation-only group for the USC IMD. Then I tried to invite everyone in. I was running the window that was publicly viewable, so all this administrativa was popping up and running over the chat scroll. Finally, we managed to migrate everyone into the private chat room, and things went well. Without training or encouragement, no one took advantage of Flickr’s photo posting capabilities.

Halfway through, I discovered that I couldn’t find a way to log the chat and I wasn’t able to cut and paste the chat out of my Camino web browser. This was a big disappointment to several people, myself included, because the ability to log the conversation is critical for creating a department archive and having a chance to revisit and study backchannel.

Even after all this setup mess and training gap, I’m still interested in switching software to see how different programs work in this environment. I think Flickr deserves another look, because it works simply through web browsers, and because it offers the potential for multimedia conversation. Hopefully I can figure out how to log chat sessions.

social setup

Besides technical setup, we had some social set up to work on. First of all, we have to do a better job informing the speaker and creating a non-threatening environment. As backchannel becomes an expected part of the evening, this will be less of an issues. But going forward with these early experiments, we have to work with the presenters to be sure they understand and appreciate the backchannel. So far both Bleecker and Fullerton were very patient, and we’re lucky for that. Hopefully, we will become more practiced with backchanneling and it will sparkle with the allure of new techniques of knowledge making.

Ultimately, tighter integration of backchannel practices should make lectures more permeable, more like the speaker leading a collaboration. The speaker function becomes more about seeding ideas and opening up discussion. We will work to make this transition slow and organic, as we are open to the shape a discussion takes when you have active participants in virtual space.

This time we had a number of people participating in the chat, maybe a dozen students and faculty members. Some strains emerged over the appropriate level of formality and focus.

In particular, one participant approached me afterwards and said she wanted to see the numbers of “hee hee” and “oh yeah” reduced. This is the casual sort of chat room filler that makes conversation flow when you’re in intimate, informal circumstances. “Oh that’s interesting” affirms someone’s place in the group, but doesn’t provide any new information. Up on a big screen, with a shared topic of conversation, and the goal of learning, too many non-specific affirmations or emotional expressions detracts from learned discourse.

That sounds formal, it is. I don’t want to restrict people’s speech, or attempt to force chat to serve as something it is not designed to handle. I believe that backchannel needs a spinal cord of formality to stand up. There is backchannel, and there is backchannel – you can get on IM to tell your friend “dude I’m tired” – that’s not the kind of conversation we’re hoping to promote.

Rather, we had a few examples of the type of conversation to be desired: students and faculty checking things she said with each other. People posting URLs of her projects. Supplementary information. For those folks who were chatting somewhat aimlessly, I asked them to practice stenocaptioning, to learn listening through their fingers.

At best the discussion was informative. At worst, it was derivative. There were times when even the best-seeded discussions on Fullerton’s topics took too long. It’s a problem of syncing; at what point should a particular thread in a backchannel be abandoned to return to discussion of the speaker’s work?

For example, Fullerton mentioned team dynamics and the production of video games. Several people in the chat channel started discussing that – how big a team was too big? What exactly “over-produced” might mean. These were good discussions. After some moments, Fullerton had moved on to new topics, and the discussion online lingered.

This is a potential issue with backchannel. Part of the promise is that people can focus in on what they’re interested in. But the backchannel can pull people in another intellectual direction and then participants are not so prepared to address questions to the speaker or follow the overall arc of the speaker’s remarks. Some participants suggested we have separate areas broken out by topic, so if Fullerton was going to touch on Interactive TV, Games, USC, people could go to discuss those various things. But I think our group is too small to permit that kind of fragmentation.

Jenova suggested we might use two publicly-projected chat rooms: one for comments, one for questions. People could post questions to the question forum, which would be something the speaker could read. Then the running commentary appears in the comments window only. It sounds like a good idea, especially as it might integrate speakers and backchannel better. You don’t want the speaker to wade through tons of chatter, or even stenocaptioning, to find the pending curiosities. Having questions separated for their reading could be useful for bringing issues out of backchannel into public space. We will try this, depending on the software we use, and how I can get this rigged up.

All that nitpicking aside, this week the group seemed to receive the backchannel better. More people participated in spite of the difficulties. Jessica pointed out that some of the social strains we see in backchannel, with chatter, and irrelevance, are issues that we have in voice-based class discussion as well. So perhaps the work we have to do learning good backchannel behavior will inform, and be informed by, learning to talk together in other forums. Anita pointed out that the presence of the backchannel cuts down on the amount of actual whispering in the back of the room so that makes it easier to concentrate.

screen placement

Fullerton requested that the backchannel be posted on screens where she could see it (so people wouldn’t be “talking behind her back”) – this seemed to make an important difference. If you were sitting in the back of the room, looking at her, you could see only her and her PowerPoint. If you wanted to look at the back channel, you had to turn your head. Last week, during Bleecker’s talk, we posted the backchannel behind him and so people were constantly having their eyes caught by information onscreen. Several of the participants this week said they liked having the choice between looking at the screen and looking at the speaker. Fullerton did not seem to have distraction problems. I think we’ll continue with that placement, unless we hear otherwise from the speakers.

moving forward

Vince expressed some interest in discovering a way to integrate the chat with interested visitors from outside the USC IMD. In addition, he will explore using a camera and audio recording to broadcast these evenings onto our web site.

Next week, I’m thinking we might try AOL Instant Messenger. AIM is familiar technology, which is why I wanted to wait with it – I don’t want people to immediately start in with habitual chat; rather I hope by now we’ve established the beginnings of a formal dialog. AIM was actually requested by Erik this week, because he doesn’t want to have to install any additional software to participate in the chats and AIM can be used through a web browser. Managing AIM habits could be challenging, but that could be offset by the familiarity people have with the software. That should make setup and participation relatively painless.

I’m still interesting in maintaining a multimedia presence on the screen – somewhere people can post images based on what the speaker says. Perhaps I will post Flickr as well as AIM. Or something like EtherPEG where people choose what they want to send to it. Any software suggestions in that area?

5 thoughts on “Backchannel Notes – Fullerton

  1. Wow. Interesting stuff. SOunds like an absolutely electric environement to work in – at best. At worst it’s a cacophony.

    Two thoughts: Forget the names, but some folks have done research about the time it takes people to absorb new technology and for social rules & etiquette to evolve. Just htink of cell phones in movie theaters, etc. People will learn that hte “hee hee”‘s dont contribute. It’ll happen by evolution.

    Regarding teh screen behind/in front of the speaker: Why not both? Do this with presentations all the time, that the presenter has their own monitor. Just duplicate display

    Which triggered another thought: I used to do some web-based trainings for ISVs (marketing called them “webinars” – ech!) in which we had people popping in questions/comments in real time. Sometimes these were jsut “submit the question”. Othertimes they were really a backchannel of sorts. One thing that helped was to have a moderator who could call out stuff from teh stream of chat that didn’t get missed. Think of your “separate question screen” idea, but with someone in charge of moving important points/questions from the “bulk chat” window to the other one. Similar to someone who keeps a bin-list during a meeting.

    Anyhoo. Looking forward to seeing how future experiments work out!


  2. Thanks for your comments Kim. The idea of a human moderator sitting between the chatroom and the speaker has definitely come up. So far, I’ve been one of the more vocal participants in both areas so I’ve been serving that function somewhat with comments like, “it’s come up in the chat room that we don’t understand how X,Y,Z…”

    My goal is to develop a system that can be portable without the need for a vocal human interlocutor. But perhaps I’m underestimating the social engineering required for a good backchannel experience.

    Regardless, these experiments continue. I like the idea of a “monitor” for backchannel in front of the speaker. You remind me immediately of musicians who have a monitor on stage to keep them in time with their bandmates. As we push collaboration in seminars between speaker and active backchannel, it’s good to emphasize technologies that spur communications across the virtual/physical divide, between the various participants.

    I’ve been somewhat reluctant to reach directly into the speaker’s train of thought with comments that they can readily read. But the backchannel will be immediately more valid for group discourse if it can tap the speaker with relevant questions and feedback. So that’s something to work with. The framework of “monitor” is a good one – thanks for that Kim.

  3. Hey Justin,

    I’ve been thinking a lot about your experiment since I experienced it first hand and one thing that keeps coming to mind is that had I known about it beforehand I could have created a presentation with more time and space for interacting with the backchannel.

    One of the main issues I felt we ran into is that I came in thinking I was giving a “presentation,” but in actuality, the culture of these presentations are really more like a layering of dialogues.

    There were at least three levels of dialogue that were being explored during the “presentation,” which is cool. First, there was me, giving an actual presentation, then there were people jumping in and re-routing what I was talking about to their own interests in real time and third, there was the backchannel, which I felt sort of excluded from because I never was able to respond.

    Personally, I think I would have been able to pull stuff out from the backchannel to respond to if I 1) had known to bring a less structured talk and 2) could READ it. Which brings me to what I’ve been thinking about.

    That chat software is easy to read if you’re concentrating on it, I’m sure, but when you’re talking, answering questions and otherwise on the spot, I couldn’t see a word of it. 🙁

    Is there any thought of exploring more typologically friendly chat software? Maybe one that could “float” words or phrases up in larger fonts for the speaker to catch out of the corner of their eye, and respond to? I’m thinking of words that are really BIG so you don’t stop what you’re doing and respond, but you just see them like a billboard and absorb them and they can influence your talk.

    Good luck with the experimentation!

  4. More on the Backchannel

    An entry in Smart Mobs (from Just inter active blog) on Backchannel (interestingly during a Julian Bleeker talk) “The ZML, where Bleecker was giving his remarks, has 16 projectors that can be used for wrap-around surround-o-stimulation. We had 5 of…

  5. Tracy, that’s an excellent point. Sorry for not notifying you sooner! This is just becoming formalizing and obviously we’ve got to introduce speakers to the concept earlier so they can participate wittingly. So thanks for making that clear. I’ll work to give people at least a few days to wrap their mind around the concept and decide how or if they want to engage the backchannel.

    Towards your second point, the floating words or phrases – that sounds like a great idea! There was something like that in conferences past – the “Hecklebot.” It was an LED screen that people could send remarks to from an IRC channel. So in a mellow group moderated format, people could fire questions or comments there for the speaker to absorb. Barring that technology, there’s surely something we could do with the projection screens in the ZML. So that’s for that prompting – I hadn’t realized what an exclusionary phenomenon it could be. But it makes sense! And ideally, we’d like to integrate the speaker. So I’ll work on getting them more legible for someone up at the front of the room!

    Thanks again Tracy, for helping out on this. Sorry you were an early test subject – it should get smoother with time! Thanks for the suggestions towards that end.

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