Everything old is new again: Jeff and Doug have been contemplating conference crowd behaviors in the presence of wifi. It’s been a year or so since the last time this came up, so I guess we were about due. I’ve certainly noticed the sorts of things they’re describing, and it’s particularly acute at SXSW.
In an unsurprising case of adapting to fit the times, there are those speakers who make use of the available network, opening IRC channels for parallel commentary or inviting instantly messaged questions, as Jeff does. From the audience side, I’ve made use of the wifi to IM other people at the same conference in order to coordinate later meetings, or even to comment on the presentation in progress to friends in the room. Typing strikes me as being marginally more polite than whispering, in such a case, though it’s probably rude either way.
There are potential speaker costs from this behavior, as Doug points out. If the audience is unresponsive due to being absorbed in their work (or for any other reason), it can seriously sap the spaker’s energy, which leads to more audience apathy, thus starting a vicious downward spiral. On the flip side, an engaged audience can charge up a speaker, creating a powerful positive feedback cycle. It’s also the case that at some conferences, the only pay the speaker receives is the audience’s response. Take away that response, and you’re taking away their payment.
Now, I will say that as a speaker, I don’t find wifi junkies terribly disturbing. From the podium, there’s only a minor difference between people sending e-mail and people taking notes on the talk. The difference is that the note-takers look up more often, and focus on me when they do. The wifiheads only look up every now and again, and only do so out of a vague sense of social expectation. You can read it in their body language: “Uh-oh, it’s been ten minutes since I acted like I was paying attention, so I’ll gaze in the vague direction of the stage while I mentally compose my next e-mail message.”
But this isn’t just about the speaker, as most of the real cost is borne by audience members. While it’s certainly easier to ignore tapping keyboards than whispers, the fact remains that being surrounded by furious typing is distracting to those who really do want to pay attention to the presentation. It’s not so much rude to the speaker as it is to other attendees. When I’m up there on stage, I always focus in on the people who are really paying attention, but they’re often scattered throughout a sea of hunched typers.
So here’s my (hopefully modest) proposal. Let’s collectively adopt a social convention where the people who want to actually pay attention to the speaker sit near the front of the room, closer to the stage; and those who are more interested in the wifi sit toward the back of the room, which is probably closer to the wireless access point anyway. So you’ll get a stronger signal, and the folks up front won’t have to deal with the constant clatter of keys. The speaker can focus on the people who are really interested, and if he’s smart, he’ll also open side channels for the wifiers to use as well so that they become more engaged. Everyone wins!
I may well put up signs at the door of my next presentation suggesting this to people as they enter the room. It would be very interesting to see if people followed the suggestion, and how it changed the room dynamic as a result.