danah boyd (she digs the lowercase) tells a harrowing tale of technology wrecking communication. Speaking at Web 2.0 Expo last week, boyd was already facing some circumstances that had her off her speaking game. She was debuting a new presentation, significantly different from her usual “stump speech.” She was uncomfortable with her script for more reason than newness: for some reason, the organizers told her she couldn’t use her laptop during the speech. She feels more comfortable with a computer available during her speeches, but for Web 2.0 Expo, she had to revert to a paper script. When she took the stage, she found the lights were so bright she couldn’t see most of the audience members.

And then, launching her speech into that faceless glare, this happened:

Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn’t even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn’t know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone’s attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare [danah boyd, “spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective,” apophenia, 2009.11.24].

What had happened? The conference organizers were posting Twitter feeds on a big screen behind her, as they did for every speaker. boyd had learned about this technological addition shortly before the speech, but she hadn’t been able to monitor the feed during her speech. She had no computer on the podium. She couldn’t spend more than half of her speech turning away from the audience to read the big screen behind her.

During her first couple nervous minutes on stage, the Twitter stream displayed some complaints that she was going too fast. The criticism, fueled by her disconnection from it, reinforced itself and devolved into harsher insults, sexual comments, and swearing. Responding to the ugly turn, the conference organizers shut off the stream midway through the speech, but that only drew more hostility from the crowd. Restoring the stream placated no one. As boyd says, technology wrecked communication: “The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker.”

boyd has spoken positively about using Twitter and other online tools as a “backchannel” through which to connect with other audience members and seek additional information during presentations. In this case, though, boyd responds (rightfully) sharply and personally to backchannel chatter that became an uncivil frontchannel. The Internet is great for making more voices heard; it should not become a tool for the mob to insult and silence others.

boyd’s live public Twitter bludgeoning shows what happens when speaker and audience lose their sense of connection with each other. boyd couldn’t connect with her audience the way she usually does. Her script and the lights prevented her from focusing on the full humanity of her audience. The audience, in turn, commited an even greater violation of the speaker’s humanity, stealing the stage from her, objectifying her, heckling at a level of magnitude unmatched by any single, fleeting insult shouted from the back of the hall.

Twitter asks us “what’s happening?” Maybe we don’t really need to know. Or maybe we just need to agree that sometimes “what’s happening” is that a fellow human being is stepping out on a stage, hoping to share some knowledge and spark some thought and conversation, and that our role is to close our computers and listen.

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I’m clearing out the bookmarks from returns to the library… gotta write this stuff down again! Not gospel, just brainstorming…

  1. Nash says (on page 9 of… I think it’s Spirituality, Ethics…) that he sought to become a philsopher of education. Do we have a philosopher of information systems? Is that what I’m trying to become? And does anyone hire philosophers any more?
  2. Where’s the IT artifact? That’s the positivists’ question. I ask, Where’s the IT agent, the postmodern quantum observer to give meaning?
  3. Facebook and Twitter tap something… but not this narrative knowledge SPN digs up. They build awareness, but not knowledge, definitely not wisdom. They transmit information and connection, but they are not permanent. They live in the moment and build no past or future. In Facebook and Twitter, we do not (can not?) build stories that transform us (authors or readers).