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High-tech Humanity

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High-tech HumanityI understand how intimidated many planners are by the preponderance of net surfers, live bloggers and avid tweeters attending events these days—attendees who don’t pause texting for long enough to look up at a stage no matter what you put on it. Their incessant key-tapping and refusals to engage make it hard for anyone around them to feel connected to a live event and convey the sense that the real action is occurring somewhere else.

But just because you can’t always beat these folks doesn’t mean you have to join them.

In the rush to meet the net generation, too many planners have incorporated networking technologies into their events without coming to grips with the way those technologies act and act on us. In turn, they end up with unpredictable or counterproductive results.

Last month, for example, I was slated to keynote the Web 2.0 Expo at the Javits Center in New York. I like live events because they give me a way to test ideas, see how they land and refine them before I incorporate them into books or more formal talks. This event was a chance to get in front of a few thousand leading Internet thinkers and businesses.

When I arrived in the green room, there was already a hubbub in progress. Danah Boyd, a brilliant young net theorist, was talking about how she had “recovered” from the harrowing keynote she gave the day before. Everyone was consoling her, reassuring her that what happened wasn’t really “so bad.” Before I could find out what she was talking about, I was escorted on stage.

When I saw for myself what the planner had done, I didn’t even want to get up there. The clever organizers had devoted a giant screen behind the speaker—bigger than any PowerPoint screen—to the live tweets of people attending the conference and beyond.

Now why would I be opposed to such a thing? For the very reasons that Boyd encountered the day before: People used the giant comments screen to tell jokes to one another and make disparaging remarks. None of which could she see. Instead, for reasons she couldn’t surmise, the crowd before her suddenly broke into laughter at inappropriate moments during her talk. She was standing there live, before a live audience, which was mostly looking at something else.

By the time I got behind the podium I realized the situation was even worse. The first row was a good 40 feet from the stage, I was under blindingly bright lights and the entire audience was in darkness. All of this was, presumably, to help make the Webcasts look better, but all it accomplished, in the short run, was make me feel utterly alone, disconnected, and—for all intents—a “virtual” presence. I could have as easily delivered my talk from home using my laptop’s iChat software (at least then I could have kept an eye on the scrolling Twitter feed).

In retrospect, the fiasco’s lesson seems easy. Don’t spend time and energy making a live event work well on the Internet at the expense of the live event. But the deeper lesson is that by understanding the embedded tendencies—the biases, if you will—of the technologies and media you incorporate into your events, you will be in a position to use them effectively when you choose to and to dispense with them without any guilt or misgivings when you judge them to be superfluous.

A live Twitter feed is terrific for broadcasting details of your event beyond the event itself. The medium is biased toward distance; it is biased toward the remote. You should certainly let it happen. If you’ve got a decent event going on, your attendees are going to want to tell the world where they are and what they’re doing. They may even want a back channel through which to converse with other delegates, either about something they are watching together or to let each other know where the action is. Yes, this biases participants away from the live action, but it is also just the way a lot of people operate in their real worlds these days—and we might as well use them for the promotional work they’re volunteering.

But to put a Twitter feed behind the speaker is biased toward humiliating the speaker. This, after all, is the only real potential payoff of running commentary that she can’t see. (That’s why the comments scrolling behind Boyd eventually turned into bathroom humor on her female attributes.) It’s the kind of nod to net-enabled audience participation that may sound good on paper but only kills events and goodwill in the real world.

And we are in the real world business, after all. Live contact is the one true competitive advantage of your events over mediated networking and the best reason to bring people together into a real space to begin with.

That’s why I’m beginning a new column in One+: to look at the biases of the techniques and technologies we bring into our events and develop a simple set of guidelines through which live event organizers can distinguish between those that will bring attendees closer together—and those that will needlessly separate them.

In the meantime, if you want to share an experience, thought or question about something you’ve seen or are considering employing, e-mail me. One+

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is the author, most recently, of Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back. He teaches media studies at The New School in New York. Contact him at rushkoff@rushkoff.com.
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