Monday, May 30, 2011

The Sirens' call

We should stop complaining that teenagers can't pay attention to lessons and are forever distracted by digital devices. We adults are just as bad, if not worse. Just look around at meetings, conferences, coffee breaks and social occasions - we simply can't resist the digital sirens' alluring call. Every slight vibration or beep makes us check our mobiles just to see who has contacted us. How much of our attention is actually focused on the meeting we're physically present at?

I'm guilty too I freely admit. My constant stream of updates and comments is just too interesting to turn off sometimes and at the slightest sign of boredom in a meeting I'm in there checking the latest. However I am beginning to force myself to switch off the distractors more often to be able to get things done. It's easy to create the illusion of being really busy reading updates, retweeting, chatting and so on whilst the activity you really need to concentrate on lies underneath all other applications open on your desktop.

Despite being a devoted Twitter user I'm beginning to have doubts about having it on screen as a public back channel during conferences. As a speaker it's good to get some visual feedback from your audience that you're making some kind of impact - smiles, nods, puzzled expressions all help. Speakers have always been encouraged to make eye contact with the audience but what do you do when noone is watching you? Now you only see the tops of people's heads as they stare into their laptops and tablets and the only feedback is on the screen behind you. Some are even watching you via the webstream on their screen! Without that contact it gets pretty lonely on stage.

Of course we could abandon lectures altogether and in many cases it would be fully justified but I've seen excellent and highly entertaining and informative lectures where many in the audience were more interested in playing games or chatting with friends. I'm not sure they even give the speaker a chance. The tweet-flow on the big screen can certainly add to a presentation if it is done properly; moderated and the questions are forwarded to the presenter. However mostly the speaker is unaware of what's going on and participants enjoy the chance to show off their wit/irony on the big screen. At a recent conference for teachers that I attended, one presentation featured pupils from a school showing how they worked online with assignments. One pupil had been following the back channel and bravely commented on the audience's comment feed as "childish". Et tu Brute!

As additional reading on this theme have a look at an article in Big Think called Backchannel backlash. Thoughts along similar lines can be read on two Swedish blogs that I follow (see posts in Swedish at Lilla Gumman and Digital Kultur).

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