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Social anxiety, meet social networking

  • Story Highlights
  • "Backchannels" are real-time electronic chats about presentations as they occur
  • Presenters are monitoring backchannel chats to better serve their audience
  • "Student response system" gives instant feedback and boosts enthusiasm
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By Steve Mollman
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As many surveys have suggested, fear of public speaking is one of our strongest anxieties, often ranking above the fear of dying.

The following won't help: These days, the audience could be skewering you on blog sites -- not after your presentation, but during. And just about everyone in attendance could know about it, except you.

A journalist fell victim to something like this at a recent tech conference in Texas. Her chatty, overly familiar style of interviewing a prominent young CEO grated the audience so much that they unleashed a tirade of complaints and sarcasm against her on Twitter.

Twitter is a social networking and micro-blogging site to which users can post short comments that are viewable to anyone anywhere (including in the auditorium, in this case). They can send posts via SMS, instant messaging, or the Twitter site itself, using their cell phones or laptops and cellular, wi-fi or other connections.

"Never, ever have I seen such a train wreck of an interview," read one "tweet," as a post on Twitter is called.

The heckling soon migrated from the online space to the real world. Audience members started yelling out comments that reflected the online chatter. When the CEO suggested the interviewer might want to ask some questions, the audience erupted into cheers vigorous enough to surprise those not following the tweets.

When the audience got their turn to ask questions, they were, one tweet opined, better than the interviewer's.

The event in question was the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference, and the CEO was Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. So far, it's at tech-oriented conferences like this where people are most aware of the "backchannel," or the real-time electronic chit-chat going on about presentations as they occur.

A few tech events have for years featured screens behind the speakers projecting the online chats of audience members with laptops. But it's becoming increasingly commonplace, especially at tech-savvy conferences. (And not necessarily on a big screen visible to all.)

As micro-blogging sites such as Twitter become more mainstream (similar offerings include Pownce and Google's Jaiku), the practice will likely spread more widely.

From the point of view of event organizers, there's little that can be done to control this phenomenon. Even if they provide no wi-fi or other online access at the event, the "Twitterati" can still share comments via their own phones and cellular or other connections.

At South by Southwest, attendees could simply add "#sxsw" to their Twitter posts to indicate they were talking about the conference. Then they could enter "track #sxsw" to follow the tweets of others.

During the interview with Zuckerberg, most but not all of the "#sksw" tweets were related to how bad the interview was. Not everyone at the festival attended that interview, so other tweets focused on different things. You can read some of the tweets here.

Backchannel chatter is happening in the broader context of audiences in general expecting and receiving greater interactivity. In TV land, viewers of the megahit U.S. show "American Idol" vote with their phones, shaping its future along the way. Some book authors now post rough drafts online to collect reader feedback. And on sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube, audiences create and interact with the content.

But there's something rather intense about online comments pertaining to speakers seated directly in front of an audience. Gone is the physical distance that reduces the tension surrounding nasty attacks in other online forums, for instance in multiplayer games, chat rooms, or in the reader comments sections below news articles or blog posts.

Some presenters and panelists are starting to monitor the backchannel during their presentations in hopes of better serving the audience, and to check how they're being perceived. Not everyone thinks this is such a good idea. Why physically congregate if everyone is glued to their screen and multitasking? And who says a few angry tweets represent what most of the audience is thinking?

But backchannel savvy can pay off.

During a panel about online community building at the Web 2.0 expo in San Francisco in April, for instance, one panelist monitoring the tweets noticed this comment: "I agree with building panel is a snooze."

The panelist, Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang, took action, as he recounts on his blog: "I acknowledged them in Twitter, and let everyone know we would quickly shift to questions, so the audience could drive the agenda."

Positive tweets soon followed.

Tool for the classroom

Panelists at conferences are not the only ones who can benefit from knowing what the audience is thinking. Teachers and instructors can benefit, as well.

A 5-year-old tech start-up called Smartroom Learning Solutions, based in Georgia, offers an interactive classroom system called Beyond Question.

With it, students get wireless remote controls that let them answer multiple-choice questions. Once they've all answered a question by pressing their buttons, the teacher uses another remote to flash the correct answer on the screen and show, with automatically generated graphs, how many of the students got it right.

Kathleen Schofield, an instructor at Argyle Elementary School in Florida, has been using the system for about a year to teach science. With it, she assesses her class to figure out what they know, so she can plan her lessons. During lessons, she poses questions to make sure everyone has grasped concepts before she moves on. She sometimes uses it for official quizzes -- quizzes that offer instant feedback to students, instead of coming back in a few days.

For students, "it has a real-life connection," she notes. "It also builds community in the learning environment, as they love it when everyone is successful."

Perhaps most important, the SRS, or "student response system," boosts classroom enthusiasm.

"On the days that they saw 'SRS' on the list," she observes of when they walked in the room, "I always heard them go 'yessss ...'

Those kids sound like Twitterati in the making.

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