Today left me wondering if conference backchannels are still a thing and whether organisers need to start organising/designing backchannels to make it useful (again).

I was at the FOSS4GNL conference today, the first large scale event I went to since the Dutch start of the Situation mid March 2020. Or largish event, because there were about 60% of the usual amount of people, with some staying away because they felt uncomfortable in groups, or because of not wanting to submit themselves to QR code scans to verify vaccination or testing status, and a presenter testing positive the day before.

In the run-up I added the conference # to my Tweetdeck columns and mobile Twitter app. Yesterday was a workshop day, and today a conference day, and the 101 participants posted all of 45 tweets during the event. That works out to about .4 tweets per participant and 2 to 3 tweets per tweeting participant. Back in the day ™, aka 2006, I remember how Twitter started replacing IRC as a conference backchannel of the more geeky conferences I went to. A decade later, when visiting the global conference of the Dutch local one I visited today, FOSS4G global in 2016, I was happily surprised to see IRC even used as backchannel.

This time around there’s wasn’t much of a backchannel, not publicly on Twitter, but also not in some other channel. The conference organisers had used a Telegram group for their preparatory work, and beforehand suggested participants to use that as well. That didn’t pan out I think. I don’t use Telegram and wouldn’t install it for a conference either. The organising membership organisations and the QGIS-NL user group themselves use a Matrix channel, which I think would have been a much better suggestion as at least community members are familiar with it, and it allows a variety of clients to tap into it.

To me backchannels, and I’m spoilt ’cause Reboot (again: back in the day ™), allow one to be in one track of the conference and follow along with the sessions in other tracks to get the salient bits or know when something out of the ordinary happens because one of the rooms ‘explodes’. This works very well, up to the point where I may well think I remember noteworthy conference sessions, while in reality I wasn’t in the room where myths originated but followed along from the next conference room on IRC.

I dislike conferences where members in the audience are just that, and don’t behave like participants. Backchannels allow you to build connections with others based on content or wit during sessions, not relegating it only to random encounters over coffee or lunch (which is also useful). In events like today where it is primarily a community meeting, that is even more true despite everyone being in a more known environment: I’m a lurker/boundary spanner in the Dutch FOSS4G community, have visited/spoken at their events, have organised related events, but am nowhere near the core of community members, yet I knew some 1 in 10 today and a similar number of ‘colleagues of’, including the international participants.

Twitter definitely isn’t the ‘great equalizer’ of backchannels as it has been for a decade or so any more. In the past few years I saw how the use of Twitter as backchannel diminished already, now at the first event I visit after All This it stands out once more. I don’t see something else naturally taking its place either.

In short I miss well-functioning backchannels. Do others miss them, or never knew to miss them?
If you (like I am at times) are an event organiser, is it necessary to plan ahead for a ‘back-channel experience‘ taking into account accessibility, avoiding silo’s and tracking, with which to add to what it is like to attend your event? Or will the idea of a back-channel be let go entirely, reducing all of us to more singular members of an audience?

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14 reactions on “The Demise (of Twitter as) Backchannel(s)?

  1. Speaking both as “back in the day™” organiser and audience member, I don’t recall organisers having much to do with backchannels, they mostly happened because audiences wanted them. There might have been some priming, some coordinated decision about a hashtag, but I think that the main difference is that audiences wanted to *connect*, and this was happening both off and on events.

    back in the day™ was a time of exploration, we would all download every single app and create accounts on every single server to try to find tools which would offer a new angle. The more accounts, the better.

    Today you are proud of cancelling subscriptions, removing apps, moving away from online tools.

    I have the feeling that there’s less interest in connecting these days, and this reflects in conferences.

    • Good points Paolo, w.r.t. audience interests/wants, and that there’s perhaps less interest in connecting. I do recognise of course that I’ve removed channels from my ‘palette’. At the same time I also still create lots of accounts to test things out like you describe. Case in point: yesterday I thought to create an account on a platform someone mentioned as relevant to the community and conference I was at, to find out I already did so three years ago when I also spoke at this conference.

      • Oh, I do still create accounts too, but there’s usually no one I know there. back in the day™ you would sign up, find all your friends and start building something.

        And it wasn’t just back channel conversations, I remember some amazing collaborative note taking sessions during conferences. And all the comments on blogs about people, ideas, thoughts. And the streams of photos…

        Different times… different people… different needs.

        We are certainly old farts® 😉

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