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Building a Better Backchannel (THATCamp Report)

Continuing with ProfHacker’s coverage of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—I want to report on a session I initiated at THATCamp CHNM in Fairfax, Virginia, on “building a better backchannel.” As I wrote in my initial proposal, it’s come to be expected at digital humanities-oriented conferences that there will be a vibrant backchannel—commentary, questions, dissent, and amplification, usually taking place in real-time (but not always real-place) on Twitter. Even scholarly conferences that are not strictly digital, such as the Modern Language Association, have begun to have ongoing and serious discussions on the conference backchannel.

ProfHacker guest contributor Derek Bruff has written extensively on encouraging conference backchannels and dealing with distraction and incivility on backchannels, and I wanted to take his ideas even further in this session, asking how can we build—literally build from the ground up—a better backchannel.

Continuing on with my original proposal, I suggested that:

The Better Backchannel might be a software solution built on top of Twitter, but I don’t want to assume that Twitter is the best or even default platform for the Better Backchannel. Perhaps the Better Backchannel is a disparate set of existing tools, assembled in a new way. Or maybe the Better Backchannel is not a tool at all, but a set of practices.

To begin, I see four broad questions to consider (there are more of course, and I hope you add them in the comments below):

  • What are the limitations of existing backchannels?
  • What do we want the Better Backchannel to do that existing backchannels don’t do or do badly?
  • What existing tools support these features, or can be hacked to support these features?
  • And how can we put the Better Backchannel into operation?

The participants of the Better Backchannel group had a wide-ranging discussion (documented in the group notes), and rather than running through the details here, I’ll synthesize a few of the dominant themes.

Most significantly, we distinguished between two technical and discursive realms we refer to when we say “backchannel.” On one hand, we talked about the backchannel as a platform. It’s a set of software and hardware tools, and any version of a “better” backchannel will build upon or reimagine these tools. On the other hand, we talked about the backchannel as a practice. It’s a social practice with its own ethos and community values. Furthermore, as a practice, the backchannel can—or at least should—accommodate varying degrees of investment, visibility, and participation.

Digging deeper into the finer points of our conversation, a shared concern was the management of the flow of information across the backchannel: how to make the most of hashtags (which we already put perhaps too much pressure on); how to track multiple sessions at the same conference; how to create “trending topics” for the backchannel; how to preserve not only the archive of the backchannel but also its broader academic and professional context; and many other questions.

Much of the discussion was devoted to the practice of the backchannel as well, particularly how to make it more inviting and more useful, especially to newcomers or silent participants. There’s always a danger that a few “vocal” participants will dominate the backchannel, but anecdotal evidence suggests that even those who are less vocal or not visible at all find backchannels valuable.

While the session focused mostly on backchannels in a professional context—at conferences, workshops, and seminars—we also touched upon the pedagogical use of backchannels. The two domains of platform and practice come into play in different ways when using a backchannel while teaching, and it’s likely that the ideal backchannel for an academic conference differs from the ideal backchannel for a classroom.

We left the session open-ended, with the conversation continuing, appropriately enough, on a backchannel. I’d like to continue the conversation here as well. ProfHacker readers: What would a better backchannel (platform or practice) look like to you?

[FlyTweetFly Collage courtesy of Flickr user The Daring Librarian / Creative Commons License]

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