The conference backchannel and the ‘right on’

Thinking about how discourse has changed on social media as the result of a few design decisions, and how that's changed the musetech conference backchannel. April 18, 2018

Ando Hiroshige, Passengers Travelling by way of the Scenic View from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Hey, kids! I decided to finally give my blog a little love and actually commit to writing a bit more. I’ll write more about that later, but for now, I’m heading to the Museums and the Web 2018 conference in Vancouver, and that has me thinking about conference backchannels.

The conference backchannel (the steady stream of comments, discussions, jokes, disagreements, and such that runs throughout a conference, usually on Twitter) has always been, for me, one of the best parts of any #musetech conference. This sector’s conferences are less about presenters dispensing wisdom from on high to the masses, and more about throwing out ideas for other (equally brilliant) attendees to respond to. I often find that the backchannel at #musetech conferences is the most interesting part of them.

The deteriorating backchannel

Which is why I’ve been sad to see that backchannel gradually but steadily fade away over the last few years. I should qualify this. The stream of posts and comments making up the backchannel is still strong, but the nature of that stream has changed significantly. Where there were once lots of actual back-and-forth discussions and disagreements, more often than not one now encounters lots of short “broadcast” posts followed by gushers of likes and retweets.

This change has been underway for a few years now, but I really noticed it at MCN2017 in Pittsburgh. At that conference, the Twitter backchannel was still as active as ever, with attendees posting almost nonstop, but it was hard for me not to notice that there was very little, if any, actual conversation happening there. I found myself thirsty for the “yes, and” and “no, but” posts of conference backchannels of yore.

I guess that’s fine, and it probably makes the conference backchannel easier for those at home to follow (since it effectively turns the backchannel into a series of short recaps of what’s been said), but I found this recasting of the backchannel just sucked the life out of the conference for me. I found that my active participation in the conference had been replaced by passive reading of recaps and hot takes. There wasn’t much (public) discussion or disagreement at all, and it felt like even the in-person discourse at the conference suffered as a result.

The ‘right on’

I think we can trace this deterioration of discourse right to the “like” button. Right from the start, I always felt like the #musetech community used Twitter (both at conferences and elsewhere) in a less passive, more discursive way than it seems like others did. Over the years, though, as Twitter’s design has changed to encourage more passive consumption, our discourse has changed as well. We’ve started talking the way Twitter wants us to, instead of the way we need to be talking. We “like” instead of discuss.

I’ve grown to despise the “like” button.

Over the years, Twitter and (especially) Facebook have trained us to use the ”like” button as the preferred method of “engagement”, since likes are easier than discussion to quantify and monetize. And even though I despise it, I’m as guilty of using that “like” button as anyone else. It’s so easy! I see a post I agree with, and all I have to do to show the poster that I’m a part of her/his tribe is to hit that button. But the “like” doesn’t ask much of me. It doesn’t ask me to put real thought into my response; all it wants is for me to say “right on!” and then go on consuming more content.

Perfect and wonderful

Worse, the “like” button encourages me to simply ignore that which I don’t agree with. In a general sense, this isn’t terrible (it’s probably fine for me to ignore posts from Ted Cruz), but in the specific sense of our discussions around museum practice, it’s not good. It means a lot of things fester and aren’t addressed, or are addressed via tweetstorms and hot takes instead of the back-and-forth that’s necessary to make something better. #musetech has always worked best as a community, and I feel like our approach to social and the backchannel has turned us back into a bunch of individuals howling in the wind.

I don’t think that #musetech should be about the “right on.” It should be about us all working together to make the stuff we work on better. The “right on” doesn’t help us do that. The ”right on” encourages us to all come together in an anesthetized agreement in which every idea put forth from behind a podium is perfect and wonderful. And every idea is not perfect and wonderful. Some ideas are terrible. Some just need to be re-thought. Some need some tweaking.

Because Twitter (and even more egregiously, Facebook), wants us merely to applaud, to give the “right on” to each other, we’re less likely to speak up when a point warrants more thought, more refinement, or even outright disagreement. We’ve learned that behavior, and now it’s become the default behavior, even in situations (like the conference backchannel) where that once wasn’t the case.

Take us somewhere

If #musetech is indeed a distinct field, then we should take charge of how it works and operates, and let’s start with the backchannel. Just because Twitter wants us to behave a certain way doesn’t mean we actually have to do that. Let’s have the backchannel take us somewhere again.

Let’s not use the backchannel just to reinforce the conventional wisdom. Let’s make it an open-ended place where ideas can start, be refined, or be nourished. Let’s make it a place where we press each other to be better. I’m going to start with MW2017. My plan for this conference is to not “right on” anything. If something warrants response, I’ll respond to it. I’ll try to make it better. I encourage you to do the same.

Of possible further interest: