Clickety-Clack, Move On Back

Published 12 years, 8 months ago

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.


  1. I am just as guilty as the next person of being consumed by the temptation of free wifi to check my e-mail, chat with friends, upload photos, read RSS, etc.

    I like the idea you have proposed here Eric. It definitely makes sense. Although at SXSW, I would think the access points would be up near the stage somewhere (as the signal seemed to get weaker in hallways).

  2. I’ve never understaood the point of paying hundreds of dollars to listen to people speak and have the chance to ask them questions and get feedback from them (in realtime!), and instead be nerding it up when you can do that anywhere anytime.

  3. Now that sounds like quite the social experiment. I wonder if you would get all the people at the front and no one at the back in some sort of social guilt fuled response…

  4. I really have to agree with Casey. I am paying quite a bit to get to Sydney to hear you and others speak at WE05 and do not see the point in using this time to check email etc. Although I feel it would be very useful to have wifi in a practical type session allowing the audience to follow along with the speaker.

  5. Your suggested behaviour is standard practice at most of the lectures I attend at my university.

  6. Eric,

    its interesting that Doug you and Jeff are all talking about this, as we at Web Essentials have been mulling this over for more than a year. And you guys are all speaking there :-)
    Last year, it wasn’t possible to get wifi for the conference, which we felt was no big deal, as its rare at Aussie conferences, and we felt that having people connected could be too distracting. After being at SxSW (where for the panel I organised we used a live blog for questions) I came to feel that it is de rigeur to have wifi, but we still worried about the effect discussed by you, Jeff and Doug. This year we will be having wifi, but not in the venue. This is partly because we are using the Uni network, and they exclude lecture theatres from the wifi network (as a teacher, I found years ago network access in classrooms really distracting for students, and at times this infuriated me).

    Yes, we exclude the prospect of innovative uses of the network as mentioned by you, Doug and many commenters, but I think its a compromise that might work for now.

    We’ll see :-)

    john

  7. […] 7;s debatable weather or not IRC chats and other meta conversations are of as much value. Eric Meyer has a good solution and it’s that good and idea since […]

  8. […] WiFi access within the actual speaker presentations raised by Jeff Veen, Doug Bowman, and Eric Meyer. I’ve noticed the […]

  9. It’s difficult to impossible to determine beforehand whether a speaker is interesting enough to hold your attention, though, and moving about would be far more disruptive. What’s more, part of a talk may interest you, and the rest may not. Your proposal would tend to push toward the back those who are there for reasons other than interest in the topic, but they probably stay towards the back anyhow so they can slip out less obtrusively.

    Isaac Asimov used to say that he never looked at his audience, but he always listened to them, and the thing he always hoped to get (and sometimes actually did get) was absolute silence: no coughing or whispering (this ways before the laptop/wifi era). Then he knew he had them.

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