Source: xkcd

An idealized image of a backchannel imagines it as “augmenting” a primary channel in ways that do not mock, reject or impolitely critique what is happening on the main stage. This, of course, is not how backchannels tend to work in practice, and in fact, one of the perceived benefits of backchannel mechanisms is their ability to reveal and amplify concerns that might otherwise be muted or silent among the community using these channels. For example, one of the earliest reports on the impact of a digital backchannel I’ve found (via Wikipedia’s article on backchannels) describes a particular backchannel mechanism (liveblogging! remember liveblogging?) as “high-tech heckling.”  Specifically, at a March 2002 PC Forum meeting, two journalists liveblogging an interview with Qwest Telecommunications CEO Joe Nacchio contextualized their coverage of Nacchio’s complaints about a lack of capital with information (received via email from readers of the liveblogs) about Nacchio’s recent stock sales, painting the CEO in an unflattering light with an immediacy that transformed the interview’s networked audience at PC Forum into a visibly “hostile” one after it read the blog. The language used to describe the implementation of backchannels in this article is at times condescending (the references to “heckling” and the presence of a “peanut gallery”) but it is also optimistic regarding their impact (“It should also raise the quality of the questions, allowing the shy to express themselves clearly, the slow to upload a coherent comment with one click and the self-promoters and hand-wavers to expose themselves”).

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