I've been doing some training lately and of course conference season is on the way, so I'm starting to think once again about the mechanics of talking to audiences. One relatively recent change in audience is the popularity of Twitter. It is starting to create a far more public backchannel, one that even the presenter (or the presenter's colleagues) can read and respond to during the talk.
Private, even secret, backchannels are nothing new. I've been on many a conference call where 5 or 6 of us are on Messenger discussing the call itself (and we probably wouldn't want the speaker to read what we were typing.) I've also been in physical meetings where a small group of people are privately discussing the meeting itself, whether co-ordinating who will say what when, or just aimless snarking and wondering when we can leave.
But a public backchannel, maybe even one you have an obligation to monitor, is a very different beast. Some folks, like Olivia Mitchell on Tamar Weinberg's blog, think it's all-good all-round: better for the audience, the presenter, the world as a whole. Presenters just have to learn new reflexes: when your audience suddenly starts typing and looking at their screens, it doesn't mean you've lost them, just that you're so interesting and the information is so important that they feel the need to share with the world immediately. Ira Basen is not so sure, especially if the tweets are negative and going out in public before the talk has even finished and without asking the presenter any questions.
Different conferences will probably lead to different conventions and habits. I can imagine a lot of tweeting from a keynote where things are being announced or demo'd for the first time. But if I'm doing an hour on C++ 0x features, I can't really see why "OMG Lambdas r AWESOME" can't wait until the talk is over. "Now showing capturing the whole stack by reference" doesn't seem like a likely tweet. I can tell you that I'm not going to have a window open on my screen where I'm following "my channel" and that if you want to ask me a question, it's going to involve speaking aloud, at least for now. That said, it's a good idea to think about the impact of wireless internet in every room and instantly-constructed channels on speaking, on conferences, and on the way we all share information. I think there will be more room-switching early in talks if people learn that someone else is really doing a great job, and attendees may demand more agility in scheduling repeats and extra sessions on topics that were well received. As always, we live in interesting times.