HighEdWeb superstar Shelley Keith retweeted an inquiry today from Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins, asking:
Given recent “tweckling” (twitter heckling) during talks, what do you think the new geek rules of audience etiquette ought to be?
One incident this question most definitely references it the Great Keynote Meltdown of 2009. In short, the second keynoter (#notjared) at this year’s HighEdWeb conference in Milwaukee, David Galper of Ruckus Networks, took to the stage with an outdated message, an outmoded presentation and an outstandingly poor understanding of his audience. Thus, the conference back-channel (#) took over (read from 11:59PM on), skewering Galpert mercilessly. I wasn’t there this year, but you can read a good recap (which links to other good recaps) over at .eduGuru.
I totally agree with people like Fienen over at .eduGuru, who wrote, “[Higher ed web professionals’] tolerance is high, and our expectations are such that not meeting them really means you’ve failed completely. … It’s refreshing being able to be truthful with people that understand you, because we were all pretty equally disappointed.” I have no qualms with how HighEdWeb attendees felt about David Galper’s keynote. Following along via Twitter, I was sympathetic (and highly amused). If I had been there, I would have been joining right in.
But Shelley’s question made me think about conferences and keynotes and the whole deal. This summer, I attended Podcamp Boston 4, which bills itself as unconference. Of the six main rules for a PodCamp, one is the Law of 2 Feet:
All sessions must obey the Law of 2 Feet – if you’re not getting what you want out of the session, you can and should walk out and do something else. It’s not like you have to get your money’s worth!
The Law of 2 Feet was one of the things I really enjoyed about Podcamp Boston. The other was the fact that anyone could propose — and receive — a presentation slot. And that doesn’t even take into account the open slots where several people organized discussions on the fly. The resultant program was diverse, engaging and informative, with few duds. Not to mention a heck of a bargain. (Yes, PodCamps have the advantage of being free or otherwise very, very affordable — PodCamp Boston was just $50 for two full days — and probably regional, as well.)
Podcamps offer a nice alternative — not a replacement for traditional conferences, but a complement — that allow the attendees to really run the show, both in terms of which sessions are held and which are actually populated. At an organized conference, you probably feel a greater obligation to stick to the script and not rock the boat, which is understandable. You (or your institution) are paying hundreds of dollars to register, send, house and feed you for the duration of the conference. And while anyone can submit a proposal for a conference session, it is still subject to approval.
Let’s go back to the #heweb09 back-channel. In retrospect, was there any way to turn that into a “front-channel,” to mobilize wide-scale dissatisfaction into something productive? If someone had tweeted, “Hey guys, I’m going to do a presentation about _______ in the lobby for the next half hour, starting in 5 mins. Join me if you want,” would anyone have followed? Or what about interrupting the keynoter, raising a hand in the middle and interjecting with a couple of well-meaning observations? Would that have been construed as rude? And if so, by whom? Where does rudeness begin, really — with a presenter who obviously did no homework about his audience and thus disrespected their intellect, or with the subsequent “tweckling” of the presenter on a forum where he could not defend himself?
Also worth noting: apparently, no one asked questions. No one Kanye’d. There was no mass exodus. No one gave this presenter any cues — aside from fervent attention paid to the iPhone or perhaps some stifled chuckles — that he was missing the mark, or any opportunities to make a desperate U-turn away from the cliff he quickly threw himself over. (Of course, many folks on the scene called the keynote a fantastic social experiment. Maybe that in itself makes it worthwhile. It’s sparking this conversation and others, after all, right?)
Why was this the case? Were people caught up in (or paralyzed by) conference etiquette, safely venting their frustrations on Twitter while the train wreck carried on before them? If HighEdWeb had an expressed Law of 2 Feet, would things have been different?
I don’t say any of this to judge or criticize HighEdWeb attendees (generally awesome people) or organizers (awesome AND hardworking people) — it’s an amazing conference, and I hope to heck I’ll be there in Cincinnati next year. But this whole episode just made me think about conference etiquette — and I definitely have more questions than answers about it. What are the rules of engagement in that context? Can conferences learn a thing or two from unconferences? Does higher ed need an unconference? We fault the speaker for failing at his responsibility to us, the knowledgeable audience, but what is our responsibility to him? How can we rescue wasted time, or turn something crappy into something marginally useful?
Speaking of the speaker, I can’t help but wonder if David Galper has any idea what havoc he wreaked on the higher ed web community. Probably not, since he’s not on Twitter. Will he learn the error of his ways? Hard to say. It looks like the windows of opportunity for that to happen are few.