E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

7 Things You Should Know About Backchannel Communication

Gran Canaria - Presa de Ayagaures & surroundingsI can’t remember the exact date when I first took part in a backchannel chat while participating in a virtual event; I guess it must have been a few years back when I first started making use of Lotus Sametime for group chats while at work, back in the early 2000s. The thing is that nowadays (Whether using IM tools, Twitter, Meeting Rooms, whatever) I just can’t live without those backchannel chats, whether I’m attending a team conference call, a virtual event (Seminars, webinars, workshops, presentations, conference events, lectures, etc. etc.) or whatever else. They have remained, over the course of time, an indispensable collaborative tool I just couldn’t do without.

Yes, I know, and I fully understand it, since I experienced it myself in the past, I realise that for plenty of folks out there, it may not work out all right altogether, more than anything because of that ever increasing sense of being overwhelmed by the event itself AND the backchannel. Where do you place your attention, right? Can you focus on both tasks at the same time? I mean, paying attention to the event and then the backchannel as well? Quite challenging, indeed!

It’s not easy, I agree with that, but in my experience that’s just at the beginning; just till you get the hang out of it; till you have attended a good number of them to make them feel second nature to you. It’s only then when you would be able to see how powerful such backchannel conversations can be to enhance the overall experience of what’s been shared across, and when you are soliciting input with a bunch of team / community members, that’s probably as good as it gets, too! Having everyone on the same page listening to that specific media and giving them an opportunity to expand that user experience by chatting with others is just priceless. And those who may have tried it out already could probably vouch for that last statement as well…

However, how do you get started? How do you overcome the initial hurdle(s) of starting to incorporate backchannel chats into both virtual and face to face events? Are there any good resources out there you could leverage to get things going? Yes, there are!

Here is one of my favourites: check out the short blog post from iLibrarian on this very same topic: "7 Things You Should Know About Backchannel Communication", which references a whitepaper put together by the good folks behind Educause that provides a very clear, insightful, very helpful and thorough overview of the main key benefits behind backchannels (Link to .PDF here)

In that specific article the folks at Educause start setting up the stage by putting together an scenario of how it could well work out for one of those virtual events I mentioned above: a lecture and using Twitter as the backchannel. From there onwards, there are seven different sections that cover, very nicely, the overall content of why these kinds of online events do matter, more and more by the day, in helping facilitate a much richer, endurable and engaging overall experience. And I can tell you, after having participated in hundreds, if not thousands!, of them over the course of the last few years, they have now become an indispensable and integral part of how I enjoy these kinds of events myself.

Here you have got the seven questions put together that the whitepaper covers, so you can have a glimpse of what you may expect on that two pager .PDF article:

  1. What is it?
  2. How does it work?
  3. Who’s doing it?
  4. Why is it significant?
  5. What are the downsides?
  6. Where is it going?
  7. What are the implications for teaching and learning?

I realise the article has got an embedded flavour for a learning / education background, but if you scratch that out and change it for business it still does make perfect sense, which makes a rather interesting resource for those folks out there interested in wanting to spice their (virtual) events even more and continue introducing some more of those 2.0 elements that everyone keeps talking about while attending those virtual events.

Then perhaps in a later blog post I will share with you folks my Top 10 reasons on why I do benefit the most from backchannels for events not just as a communication tool, but also as a powerful real-time collaboration environment that is, by far, superior to any other kind of collaborative tool. But for now, how are you benefiting from backchannels yourself? Do you still find them an overwhelming experience? Can you live with or without them? What do you think? Do they make sense in today’s interconnected world?

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0 votes


  1. My gut instinct is to argue with you, on the grounds that you cannot multitask. Your conscious attention can only be in one place at a time. However, you can rapidly task switch.

    This leads me to something I read in “Yes You Can” by Stacey Hanke and Mary Steinberg. You can speak at 125 words per minute and think at 500 words per minute. Chuck in a bit of fast typing and you have gained the capacity for backchannel participation.

    I think. Perhaps others have mulled this and have answers.

    My previous thinking was based on an abject fear of missing something important from the speaker and not being able to ask questions in case the answers had already been given while I was working the backchannel.

    Am I (was I) wrong?

  2. I think I was there for one of the early back channel chats Luis. Maybe even your first one. We didn’t have a name for them then. It would have been 5 years ago at the very least.

    David, In my experience back channel chats, for the most part, make tweets look long winded. They don’t take much time and you avoid them when the talk etc. is more important to you. I found them most useful during teleconferences where I was sitting in my cubicle. You could easily get clarification from other attendees on misheard things or get the exact spelling or a URL without interrupting the proceedings.

    There was one series of meetings we attended where one person kept minutes in the back channel. Corrections got made as pauses permitted and seconds after the meeting we all received our copy. No need to review and approve later.

    Back channels are a great place to hold questions for the speaker. Sometimes they are answered before the speaker has time to see them.

    The secret, for me, to handling back channels during meetings is to treat them as whispered asides. If your attention is on the meeting and not the back channel when something comes across it then treat it like it never happened. If you try to keep 100% up to date with both then you have trouble.

  3. Multi-tasking is certainly not for everyone, but for those who can pull it off successfully, participating in the backchannel can be very rewarding. A point to presenters though – never publicly show the backchannel while you are presenting. I was recently at an event, where a presenter had the backchannel via Twitter streaming behind him on the big screen. Of course he could not see it as he was facing the audience, but some people were criticising his presentation style, and this was creating a reaction from the audience that was very distracting to the presenter.

  4. I’m also drawn to your final paragraph about the use of the backchannel as a realtime collaboration environment.

    I was recently listening to an episode of the excellent “For Immediate Release” podcast – http://www.forimmediaterelease.biz/ – and there was a great example. With the recent bad weather in the Eastern US, many of the colleges and universities had to close down. One of the lecturers decided to run his/her classes that week via a blog. They posted a link to reading material, gave their analysis in the blog post, and concluded with a question, which the students then responded to via the comments.

    According to the lecturer and students it was a complete success.

  5. At least with the backchannel, I am ostensibly participating in the larger context of the meeting. It’s even worse when I find myself not engaged in the proceedings and jump over to other topics: news reader, Twitter, etc. One way I’ve found useful in getting my colleagues involved in it right away. It’s particularly useful in screen sharing: get people to draw on the screen and ask text questions.

  6. I think in the end its all about communication. I found this post personally interesting because backchannels although not new are still not comfortable for me. I am open to the archival nature of how to develop conversations, add to the cache of questions, and find new rules to make back channels constructive. One way is to have a designated facilitator to the back channel and use the edited information as a part of the innate and electronic community wisdom. I would like to share this article and upcoming esummit on collaboration:
    http://www.dynamicalsoftware.com/news/?p=85 and will recommend due to this post, a more intelligent approach to back channel contributions.

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