At modern high-tech conferences, many in the audience go online, and stay online during the presentations. To facilitate this, conference organizers often provide wireless networking, and extension cords for laptop power. There is strong disagreement as to whether this A Good Thing or Appalling Discourtesy. I have observations both from in the audience and on the stage.

At many technology conferences, there is an IRC channel for discussion of the conference and the sessions. At particularly bleeding-edge events, there will be two screens behind the speaker; one displaying the visual aids, the other the IRC channel. I found this particularly weird when I was speaking at last summer’s RubyKaigi in Tokyo and the IRC screen was in Japanese, so I couldn’t tell what they were saying about me.

History · The single greatest influence on my technical career was Gaston Gonnet, who was one of the Directors of the New Oxford English Dictionary Project at the University of Waterloo, where I was on research staff. To the extent that I have any depth of understanding about how computer programs work and how they should be built, I owe it to him. We had regular project meetings; at about half of them, he’d show up with some jottings in a notebook and say “I have an idea” and lots of times it’d be wild and weird and wonderful.

We used to host the odd conference and attend others, and one time Gaston said something like this to me: “You know, I get some of my best ideas at conferences, sitting in the audience. You have to be quiet and think about the subject, and your brain goes off in useful directions.”

I think this anecdote could be introduced as evidence by both sides of the argument.

In the Audience · When I’m in the audience, I’m 100% in favor of connectivity. At the very best conferences I go to, there are a very small proportion of speakers who saturate my ability to listen and think. It’s a fine thing when it happens, but it doesn’t happen that often. I know this is true, and here’s how. First, there are a few speakers who make me just shut the computer and listen (most don’t).

For the ones who don’t, quite a few of them are still worth listening to, only I want to check for hot emails at the same time, or run some test-cases on misbehaving code, or do a little photo-editing of yesterday’s snaps. And then I find myself disagreeing or puzzled and raising my hand (for the kind of event where you can do that) and getting into dialogue with the speaker.

Then there’s the kind of talk where I suddenly realize that I’ve missed the last ten minutes because the Internet was more interesting than the speaker.

How many of these are good outcomes, do you think?

From the Stage · It’s painfully obvious that there are quite a few speakers who don’t really pay attention to what’s happening in the audience, which to me says don’t really care how good their performance is. I’m not one. When I give a speech and the crowd is responsive and engaged, I walk away on top of the world, especially when they push back; when they tune out, I’m crushed. I have no trouble at all telling which of the two is happening, and in what proportion of the people facing me. I don’t think anyone who actually looks at the individual people in the audience could avoid knowing how they’re doing.

And I love having the IRC channel on display. It helps me learn what’s working and what’s not, and it gives you lots of chances to crack a first-rate joke based on something in the chat-room.

In my experience, how well I do is a function of how much I care, and of how well I’ve prepared. Not how much, how well; I struck out on a couple in the last year because I worked up passionate, erudite, and exhaustive talks on issues they just didn’t care about.

I haven’t noticed any correlation between how well I do and whether the laptops are open when I start.

Entitlement · The people who think that their audience being Internet-enabled is a bad thing tend to say things like “Being online while someone’s speaking is appallingly rude and arrogant. They’ve gone to the trouble of submitting a talk and getting it accepted and they’re entitled to your attention.”

It’s Over · I’m sorry; the traditional conference mode of discourse, where you sit in rows in the dark and shut up and listen, it’s just over. Did I mention that every respectable geek conference now has wireless and extension cords? That’s because the audience demands it. The Audience, near as I can tell, by and large doesn’t believe that because someone got a talk accepted, they’re entitled to anyone’s undivided attention.

And let’s be brutal: at most conferences, there are two ways to get a talk accepted: submit an interesting talk, or bribe the conference organizer. Oops, sorry: I meant “be a platinum sponsor”. The conference business is in many cases deeply corrupt and thus willing to put an airhead droid in front of paying attendees assuming the airhead’s employer will front up the cash.

Well, these days, fuck the airhead droid. I got a laptop and a connection, I’m gonna tune out unless what’s coming off the stage is relevant to my experience, and I am the only competent judge of that.

Thought Experiment · You’ve got several hundred mostly really smart people in a room. What’s the best use of their time? Passive listening or active discussion? Seems obvious to me. Unconferences, Open-space meetings, once you’ve been to one or two you’ve just had it with this crap about sitting in the dark facing forward and shutting up. Participation is good. Being spoon-fed isn’t participation. 3½ minutes of questions from someone else after a 45-minute pitch isn’t participation. Silencing all the parts of your mind that aren’t being engaged by the speaker isn’t participation.

Conclusion · In the audience, I ain’t closing my laptop. When I’m on the stage, it’s my job to send ’em away happy. If my mojo’s working, the Internet won’t get in the way. If it’s not, banning laptops won’t save me.


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From: Mark (Dec 22 2007, at 01:31)

You somehow managed to get through this really long post without addressing the original question, "Is it appallingly rude?"

Of course it's rude.

All you end up saying is that you don't care. You have justified being rude to your own satisfaction. That's a perfectly reasonable position that intelligent people might take.

But it's still rude.


From: Dirk (Dec 22 2007, at 02:13)

Good summary, thanks. Having been in both roles myself I can certainly relate.

However, there's a third point of view: That of the person in the audience who's interested in the talk but who happens to sit next to someone who isn't and who's hacking away on their laptop instead. Now that's distracting. Not sure what a good solution to that situation is. Disapproving glances don't usually work.


From: Paul Downey (Dec 22 2007, at 02:46)

I need my external brain at a conference:


From: david (Dec 22 2007, at 05:50)

The audience can do whatever it wants as long as it does it quietly.

Being up on stage, however, has different obligations. I hope everyone agrees that it's both rude and clueless for anyone on stage to be checking e-mail while someone else is speaking. I see that way too often, and wonder if some of the stereotypes about tech people and social dysfunction might have a basis in fact after all.


From: Long Mont (Dec 22 2007, at 07:52)

Your stance taken but please consider those in the audience that don't want to be surrounded by active keyboards.

Perhaps quarantine us away to a corner?


From: Niall Kennedy (Dec 22 2007, at 11:13)

I have played the role of conference organizer, speaker, and audience member.

Attendees demand reliable Internet and power. If the conference does not provide these tools the laptop-toting audience might crowd around the few power outlets in the room, or only attend the conference sessions as battery life permits.

As an attendee I like taking notes in a digital and easily shared format. If you mentioned a project of interest I will likely pull it up on my screen right away, add the URL to my notes for further follow-up, and possibly give the project website a quick scan for further context.

As a speaker I realize the audience is of varied backgrounds and experience levels. I rather deliver a more advanced and engaging talk and at least provide references and further reading for beginners. I know my audience will be able to query my concepts and references right away and therefore ask better questions during or after my talk.


From: jim (Dec 22 2007, at 11:58)

I think using a laptop during a presentation is a bit rude.

However, I think the elephant in the room is the cellphone. It seems to have reached the point that you cannot go 30 minutes without someone's cellphone going off.

A cellphone going off seems far more disruptive and disrespectful, especially now that some individuals sit in the room and take the call.


From: John Cowan (Dec 22 2007, at 12:10)

Another thing that's happening is that the audience is graying, and older folks notoriously fall asleep when they have to do nothing but sit quiet and listen. For medical reasons, this has been happening to me at a younger age than other people -- I have had to get a medical exemption from jury duty because I simply can't sit totally still for half the day with absolutely nothing to do, and stay awake any more. Going to the theatre is difficult enough, and I've noticed over the years that falling asleep has little or nothing to do with how interested or bored I am by the play.

What's more, most talks nowadays have bullet-point slides that contain most of the meat (mine certainly do; I prepare slides and then improvise my talk around them), and I can read a slide, even the most complex slide, a lot faster than anyone can retell it. Being able to access the Internet, or even play Solitaire (the only computer game I play; how retro is that?) during a talk makes all the difference between head down and alert and head down and snoring. Which would speakers prefer?


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Dec 22 2007, at 17:22)

William Safire has created a fine expression to describe the boredom of being at a high tech conference in which the speaker reads what's up on his or her Powerpoint. Safire calls this "death by Powerpoint". While I suffered a bit of stage fright when I faced an audience once (most with white Macs) I realized this is the 21st century version of the Roman Emperor's thumbs up, thumb down sign of approval or the contrary. That you have all the latest methods, digital projectors, etc is not enough. The presentation has to be interesting. Those who are paying to listen to you must have an option besides the much more rude one of walking out or snoring. On the other hand I have seen atendees check out words that the speaker might have used that they did not understand or webpages cited by the speaker that connect to the lecture.

If one can quietly doodle while listening at a conference one should be able to use one's computer. Are all these white Mac's quiet?

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


From: Brad Neuberg (Dec 22 2007, at 17:25)

Cool, I just noticed that you have Purple Numbers on your blog (and I've been following your blog for years). Quick question: do you have a feel for how many folks have used these Purple Numbers to comment on specific sections of blog postings? I'd love to know what kind of usage you think you get.


Brad Neuberg


From: Francis Hwang (Dec 22 2007, at 22:51)

As someone who's spoken at conferences, organized conferences, and of course, been in the audience, two points stand out for me:

1. It's very hard as a conference organizer to know if somebody is a good speaker. Somebody may or may not have an impressive resume, and may or may not have written a decent talk proposal, but if you've never seen her talk, she could still get up and reads bullet points off of slides in a monotone for 45 minutes. Short of only having a "greatest-hits" style program filled with speakers that everybody has already seen, there's no way for an organizer to guarantee all the talks will be great. So it seems to me that having power & WiFi make a good backup.

2. As a corollary to 1, I think when you're giving a talk, your public speaking ability is massively important. Of course, people seem to think I'm pretty good at it, so maybe I'm a little prejudiced in this matter. But if I could get everything you're saying by just reading your slides online, why the hell did I get on a plane and reserve a hotel room? I do think that if you're going to give a speech, you owe it to the audience to worry about them getting bored, and to practice your talk a bit to make sure you'll be comfortable enough with the topic. If you're absolutely terrible at public speaking, you really should consider taking a class or joining Toastmasters or whatever. (Obviously well in advance of actually giving said talk.) I know that's probably a minority opinion--computer programmers hate having to think about such matters, and don't even get me started on academics who read off papers at the podium--but that's what I think. Presentation matters, damn it. Anybody who wants to think otherwise isn't going to go far trying to influence other people's opinions with a talk or anything else.


From: Mark (Dec 26 2007, at 04:10)

"I think the elephant in the room is the cellphone."

So true. The laptop issue is only in doubt as being rude in the very narrow niche of computer-related tech conferences and meetings. Anyone whose professional life extends into other fields knows that you in general you don't take out a laptop during a presentation. But cell phones have crossed over and are used everywhere, for better or worse.

A corollary to this whole discussion is that I believe few of the laptop-out supporters could be higher level tech managers, of the sort that are sent by their companies to non-tech general management training and seminar, such as those relating to accounting, HR, sales, and the like. I think the "adults" should at least be making the hard-core techies aware that their behavior may not always be appropriate, and may be impeding the further development of their careers if practiced outside their tech bubble.


From: Eric Meyer (Dec 26 2007, at 09:59)

When I last wrote about this, my concern was more with the audience members than the speakers. In that post, I half-jokingly proposed a segregative social convention which I of course have never had the guts to actually do.

I still wonder if it would work out. Probably not: so many people are typing that you'd end up with 10% of the audience in a corner glaring at the other 90%, who would miss the glares entirely because all their attention is on their IM and e-mail. Um, I mean their session notes.


From: Paul Boddie (Jan 09 2008, at 04:29)

I still can't understand why people would pay to travel to and attend a conference, which they may well be taking time off for, to sit in a talk and surf the Internet instead of listening to the speaker and looking at their materials. At least that's what most of the people seem to be doing when I've sat on the row behind observing them from time to time; other pastimes include chatting with other people on various networks (reading the IRC logs of such conversations typically exposes the level of banality involved) or finishing one's own presentation to be given later in the conference (which perhaps says something about the quality of the presenters in some cases).

Sure, some presenters/speakers may not be able to engage an audience with either their style or their material, but it's surely not helped in the former case by being confronted with a bunch of people pretending they're at mission control. Laptops sometimes encourage people to try stuff out and interact with the presenter in a beneficial manner, but the guy in the next seat banging out "I'm in Europe" e-mails could do with being elsewhere in Europe.


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