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September 27, 2009


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Carol Flammer


This is certainly a discussion that will go on for days. It IS interesting to note that many of the most vocal and snarky comments made on BackNoise during New Media Atlanta were from "participants" not even at the conference! They were viewing the live feed from the cheap seats and really had no investment in the conference. (You can look up IP addresses on BackNoise to confirm this.)

There is certainly much to be learned from what happened in Atlanta last week. We will all learn from the BackNoise and make improvements based on the constructive criticism offered.

Thanks for continuing the conversation. See you on Twitter.

Carol Flammer

Daria Steigman

I have a big problem with anonymous commentary. If you aren't willing to stand by your words, you shouldn't say them out loud.

More importantly, however, I think that just because there is a back channel doesn't mean you must respond to it--or respond immediately. What's wrong with just posting a reply, such as, "sorry some of you don't like this session; hopefully you'll find more value in the next one..."

You need to (1) have confidence in what you're doing; and (2) filter out what's a reasonable concern versus bullying behavior. And you can't do that reactively. It sounds like the organizers of New Media Atlanta lost control when they reacted rather than taking a deep breath and strategizing what to do. As long as people give prominence to snarkiness, then snarkiness will have far too much prominence.


My first reaction is that anonymous commenters are cowards. What ever happened to constructive criticism to help people improve? Why does it have to be malicious? I would love for some of those ill-intended commenters to understand that there are families and lives that are affected by their ignorant and unfounded remarks. I find them absolutely tasteless.

And you know me well Paul, I like controversy, so it's not about that - it's about the way that the comments are left and the fact that there is not even room for a rebuttal. Brad and Matt may have done some things that were not quite to the standards that many of us have gotten used to, but they are open minded individuals willing to discuss and improve IMHO.

Michael Mealling

I've spoken at two events where Backnoise was being used. In both cases I got honest and useful feedback from Backnoise that I wouldn't have gotten via any other mechanism. Its a tool like any other. Sometimes you smash your thumb with it...

Paul Chaney

It's not my aim to kill the messenger. Every tool can be used for good or ill. However, the tagline and default to anonymous is just asking for trouble. I'd hate to see a perfectly good application become stigmatized as something only associated with snark (and that's the danger for its creators...unless that is their intent of course).

Melissa Galt

Since on rare occasion, I follow directions (don't get used to this), I am answering each question.

1. Is the backchannel here to stay? (I think so, and I don't think that is a bad thing necessarily, despite incidents like those referenced above.)

Yes, the backchannel is here to stay and on a level it is a good thing.

2. Is there a place for anonymity? If so, when? Was it appropriate for a conference designed to appeal to marketing professionals?

Yes, I think that anonymity allows for constructive comments to be made that an individual/audience member may be hesitant to make otherwise. Not all comments were snarky.

3. Does anonymity only serve to leave room for things to get ugly? At conferences, should identification of the person commenting be required?

Not at all, for example, I will now run the risk of being non-anonymous and share that despite the expertise of the presenters I do think that some would benefit from professional speaker training. Just knowing a subject doesn't mean you can convey or deliver it effectively.

4. Is civility a thing of the past? Should rudeness, inane commentary and personal attacks be tolerated?

I'm not sure we have a choice on this, what does intolerance look like and being in the land of free speech how can you rightfully suggest it shouldn't be tolerated. I agree it is grossly unprofessional, immature and a waste of time, but that won't stop those who want to indulge and I bet they'll fight for that right.

5. Who is responsible for controlling the conversation, or is control even possible? Is self-governance via the wisdom of crowds sufficient to do so?

This is what Social Media is all about, the line is now blurred between audience and presenter, newsmaker and reader. Robert Scoble has a terrific article on this that defines the differences between new media and old media.

6. Is there room for "should" and "ought" in social media, or is it truly a wild west where anything and everything goes?

Right now it is a Wild West and may or may not get tamed, my bet is that the novelty of something like Backnoise will wear off and be replaced by something else.

7. What does this imply for conference organizers and speakers?

As a professional speaker, I'd use it as a tool to improve, adapt, and flex my presentation when possible. It would require an organizer to monitor the backnoise, cue into what is real commentary and what is junk, and signal me to adjust (this is a big vision!)

8. How can conference organizers and speakers/presenters/panelists prepare themselves for what might come?

Just like comment cards, speakers/presenters/panelists
don't have to read the back channel and in many instances would be advised not to. My guess is that there will be training done of organizers in the best ways to monitor or ignore it all together. There are speakers who read their comments and take each to heart and others who don't read any. The reality is that the back channel is just another person's opinion, often unpleasant, sometimes valuable.

9. Should we even pay attention to the backchannel or get on with business as usual?

I'd pay some attention but not nearly as much as has been given by the number of posts, tweets and more regarding this. I also think that Chris Brogan made it more important rather than less when he put it on the big screen and I'm saying that as a fan of his expertise and writing, and I'm not anonymous!

10. What does the future hold? Will this type of behavior continue and even grow? How will this effect the development of future conferences?

I don't have a crystal ball and can't help with this one.

I have my own opinions but I really want to hear yours. Please respond with a comment

Paul Chaney

Melissa, I agree with pretty much everything you said. For instance, I pride myself on my ability to effectively convey a message and have worked to improve my presentation skills. However, are you suggesting that every person who presents at conferences should, by default, have speaker training?

Having said that, I've seen a plenty who could benefit from it, but asking whether it should be mandated. Further, do you think the backchannel will serve to incite presenters to improve their skills?

On the question of civility I am only speaking within the context of professional conferences. I think there should be some disclaimer in place to encourage it. I mean, after all, this is not the local townhall meeting, but a conference people have paid good money to attend. The backchannel does not need to become the story, as it did in this case.


Speaker training is an interesting topic of conversation based on the fact that a lot of these conventions don't even pay their speakers (I know from my own experience). I also know that I would certainly benefit from speaker training and would welcome criticism since it's the only way to improve.

Don't want my message above to be misconstrued, I saw a lot of the backnoise comments during the actual presentation and they were far from useful or valuable (although there were a few worthwhile ones).

Melissa Galt

I am not suggesting every presenter have training, there are those with natural organization, charisma, and presence who don't need it, others do. This may also be something to do with the type, style, and level of speaker events I have attended.

I don't know how you'd police civility since this is anonymous. I do think that some of it has to do with the level of professionalism and maturity of the audience. I'm not suggesting that those present weren't experts in their fields but I'm guessing that the trail of comments could be tracked back to selected individuals who rarely if ever present, are perhaps less senior in their experience and therefore less caring in their sharing. I like to think (may be naive) that with wisdom comes a knowing when to share and when it is irrelevant and even cruel.

Paul Chaney

I agree Melissa. Frankly, all this reminds me of the inane comments you see on YouTube videos, even business-oriented ones. It seems that there are people who thrive on foolish expression. What's the old adage? Keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool; open it and remove all doubt. It's one reason I don't routinely turn on comments on YouTube videos.

Paul Chaney

There are thoughtful, knowledgeable people who are also professional speakers, or trained at least. Then there are thoughtful, knowledgeable people who are not professional, trained speakers. Should we criticize them for not having a more polished presence? Or, should we take them at face value and learn as much as we can regardless. I think the later.

I recently attended the 140 Twitter conference in San Jose. Most of the speakers there lacked any real stage presence, yet I was able to gain great value from hearing them speak. Then, Jeremiah Owyang got up and wowed pretty much the entire crowd. He was knowledgeable and had presence. That was better, but didn't serve to offset the many presenters and panelists who preceded him.

Of course, I wasn't at New Media Atlanta, so I may be mischaracterizing what went on. If so, I apologize.

Jeff Turner

Paul, I brought the BackNoise conversation to the front, so I think there is certainly a place for it. Even with some of the ridiculous stuff that was going on, it serves a valuable role for those who would wish to express an unpopular opinion, but fear the potential backlash.

Like some of the respondents here, I'm not a fan of anonymous commentary, but I do see a place for BackNoise. I'd like to see a few tweaks to it.

For example, I'd like to be able to hide an ip address from my view if I find that one person is just trying to dominate the channel. I don't want to cut them off from others, but I'd like to be able to focus on the larger commentary.

I'd like to be able to quickly see how many different people were involved in the conversation. It's not easy to tell if 5 or 50 are commenting. Anonymous or not, If 50 people are saying roughly the same thing, I might want to pay attention as a conference organizer. If 1 person is, perhaps not.

I used this quote from Margaret Wheatley in my presentation, "Life seeks order, but uses messes to get there." I'm ok if it has to get messy to improve.

Paul Chaney

As always Jeff, you added context to the issue and provided some wise advice. I particularly appreciate the quote. One question, what was the backnoise about you? :-)

Another question. How pervasive do you anticipate this becoming? Will real estate conventions, for example, begin to experience the same phenomena? Do we need to emulate the midnight ride of Paul Revere and sound the warning, "The anonymous posters are coming!"

Jeff Turner

Paul, I didn't see any of my Backnoise. I'm told I got some nasty stuff thrown at me during my main presentation but that the positive comments about the moderated panel caused Brad and Matt to allow it to go longer than planned. If anyone has a record of them, I'd love to see them.

I think it will be hot for a bit. Maybe even more than a bit. And I think some RE conferences will get hit and hit hard.

And I think it's a good thing. Why? Because even in the snark there is are kernels of truth. The wise will listen with an ear toward pattern recognition. That's a skill that will become very important to those charged with making good decisions about how to handle the anonymous crowds.

Paul Chaney

Personally, I think it's going to freak a lot of people out. Seems we need to be good stewards and make them aware of what may be coming. Speakers especially need to be prepared. Can you imagine what a lot of the more established real estate speakers will make of this? I'm concerned they would never see it coming.

Jay Thompson

I'd never heard of BackNoise prior to NMATL. I wasn't at the conference but did join in the live stream chat "from the cheap seats".

I popped into and out of BackNoise a couple of times. It reminded me greatly of the anonymous comments I get on my blog -- 95% inane rambling and 5% substance.

As a person who speaks publicly from time to time, I'd actually like to see some "backnoise" on one of my speaking engagements. I *know* I have room for improvement -- lots of it -- but getting solid constructive criticism from friends is difficult. I've spoken before and had friends tell me "that was great!" when we both know damn well it sucked. Perhaps, if one were able to filter out the inane backnoise, getting that anonymous feedback would be a tool to make one a better speaker.

There are however, many people that might take this kind of backnoise too personally. Hurt feelings are likely in that case. Being able to apply a heavy filter and get to the viable comments, snarky or not, would be the key.


I had the opportunity to sit in the back of the room at New Media Atlanta and watched the monitors of the audience. There were only a few with the Bright Orange Back channel screen, yes it is that obvious, and fewer still typing like crazy.

Chris Brogan had the right idea. Put it front and center and then watch the absurdity of the comments. What truly intrigued me is that the twitter comments with the #NMATL hashtag were genuinely positive. They had a name. The BackNoise was anonymous and much more snarky.

Would I change it, no. But I would not speak expecting accolades from everyone. If no one is disagreeing with me, I know I am messing up. Whether it is speaking, writing blog posts, or driving my car. I live by this motto:

10% are gonna LOVE me!
80% are going to enjoy or put up with me.
10% are gonna HATE me...

Those ain't bad odds if you think about it.

James Malanowski

I was watching the backnoise and, maybe it's just me, I wasn't shocked or offended, or anything. As others have said, anonymity makes people more comfortable saying something they otherwise wouldn't. Now, that's not to say one should take advantage of that power and say evil things, but for people to get all bent over dumb comments is a bit ridiculous. Have they never been to a cocktail party? Does their mommy still tuck them in? Sack up people!

To answer your questions ...

1) Definitely. It will probably be even more popular after this. I hadn't heard about it until that day.

2) Of course. Any time. If it bothers you, close the window. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the organizers did not set this up? If I were an organizer, I would create a chat room for an even like this but I would not make it anonymous only because it wouldn't serve MY purpose of future contacts with participants. If others want to set up something on their own, more power to 'em.

3) Things can get ugly no matter what. Sure, people will feel more free, but no one is going to be something that they're not just because they can (in a setting such as this). Either you're an a-hole or you're not.

4) Civility has been deteriorating for YEARS. Backnoise isn't going to speed it up. Tolerated by who? Again, turn it off if it disturbs you so much. Does Backnoise have a Disney Channel? :)

5) There is no control of that particular platform. If you want control, set up something that can be controlled. On the other hand, if you want to see a raw commentary and just watch and learn, Backnoise was a perfect experiment.

6) Who writes the laws and who enforces them? Again, if you're an a-hole, it is what it is. If people like listening/reading to an a-hole you may get a loyal following. If you're a company or an individual that wants to control your brand or your online reputation, it's your responsibility to track down any and all conversations about you ... If you don't like what you hear/read, either you need to re-evaluate yourself, or get out there and defend yourself.

7) They'd better know who they're hiring to speak at their functions. If they're total idiots or are poor presenters, they may want to make a different choice. If you're a speaker, you'd better be good! :)

8) Again, sack up. People are so worried about bad press nowadays it's insane. Put on your show. There are always going to be those that don't like what you do. Get over it.

9) Didn't I answer this one already? The only difference between backnoise and the bar down the street is that the things being said in backnoise were real-time during the presentation. People would have been (and most likely were) saying the same stuff after the show while drinking beers with their buddies.

10) Of course it will grow. It may evolve, but it will grow. It shouldn't have any effect on the conferences ... Were they worried about the conversations going on at the bar after the show before?

BTW, I have to say, I loved how Brogan had the backnoise up on the screen. It seemed like he was enjoying the conversation as much as the folks in the chat room ... And having him interact with it live was just awesome!

Kathy Drewien

The ants didn't seem to go over very well. And, there were comments about PowerPoint being a dated visual - a point not unique to your presentation.

Interestingly enough, the most critical remarks during your presentation were made via the live stream chat.

My feedback: You seemed a little off your game. Was this a new presentation? I got lost along the way.

Paul Chaney

Is PPT a dated visual? I can't imagine anyone who does a better job with it than Jeff. Very creative, very artsy, nary a bullet point do you find. If it is a dated visual, then what do we use to replace it? This is a multi-media age in which we live. To have someone lecture for 45 minutes with no visual aids seems like a throwback to another era.

Sara Bonert

As a speaker, I was horrified watching Backnoise last week! I haven't actually spoken to anyone who went, so I don't know if it was a fair assessment or not? What confused me was that people were saying nasty things, but they didn't seem to actually be at the event? So seemed a little like sabotage.

1. Oh yes. As a speaker it is hard to present and actually monitor online conversations, so a few times when I know people will be using some type of chat functionality, I'll actually have someone on hand to monitor this, while I am speaking. This way both audiences are getting solid attention.

2/3. I don't agree with the anonymity, or I at least wouldn't take it as serious feedback. Yes, it leaves too much room for things to get ugly or unhonest (ex a competitor spreading lies) or personal (ex an ex trying to get even).

4. Civility should be upheld if we don't let anonymity slip into the picture. No rudeness should not be tolerated. I don't think it should be deleted either. Rude people are making their own beds and from my pov, it kills their reputation.

5. Good question, and it varies too much to answer in a sentence.

6. Wild West! But I think this is ok and the crowds sort it out better than a single moderator could.

7. Speakers/Organizers have no choice but to put more thought into 2.0 communication. How can they incorporate it/manage it/ integrate it - could be some cool ways.

8. Planning.

9. Paying attention could very well make for better conferences. People pay a lot of money for feedback channels post-conference to be conducted, here is open feedback for the taking.

10. Million dollar question! Figure this out and you have yourself a conference organizing/consulting business! I do think this media will become integrated, in some industries more than others. Overall, I think it is exciting. It will help other audience members feel more connected. It could help the speaker and audience connect. Both helping all get more out of events.

Sara Bonert

In case someone doesn't read my long answer - I think it boils down to keeping things not anonymous. People will act much more constructive if they know their reputation in on the line.

Sara Bonert

When have you spoke and it sucked?? :) I highly doubt it, although you are right that we all have room for improvement.

Hurt feelings would be something that would be hard for me to personally deal with, I know. But I guess, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

Jimmy Gilmore

Jeff, This issue really gets right to the heart of your presentation. Crowds aren't always right, but there sure is a lot we can learn from them. Maybe it would be a good idea in the future to even dedicate a screen on the stage to it.

Paul, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that NMATL wasn't a victim. Sure there were some unfortunate comments made (and rightly hurt feeling) but there was also an hour or advertising on the stage and a Realtor bent to the conference that wasn't expected by many of us. Also, some of the comments probably made the afternoon session better. So people victims. NMATL hopefully helped.

Paul Chaney

You might consider wearing shoes the next time you speak. :-) J/K!!! Loved your preso at HAR Jay.

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