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.