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”).

My first experience with an academic backchannel was at the Futures of American Studies Institute in the summer of 2012. The Institute’s hashtag, #fasi12, ended up with (according to a head count tweeted by Dartmouth professor James Dobson) “1,196 total tweets from 64 unique users.” I read this hashtag but didn’t use it much, in part because at the time it was a social network I mainly used for “unprofessional” activities. I joined Twitter in June of 2007 (I should put that on a t-shirt and wear that t-shirt to DH conferences), in large part because most of my friends who were blogging about comics had migrated over there (though they hadn’t yet fully committed to leaving blogging behind for Twitter’s “microblogging.” That came later). It was weird to see academics gravitating towards a space that I essentially regarded as a kind of backchannel outside the purview of my life as a graduate student. Most of the tweets focused on liveblogging remarks from the Institute’s various speakers: there aren’t as many hyperlinks augmenting / commenting on those remarks, or photos of slides, or blogged presentation notes (i.e. some of the content you’d be likely to find on a 2017 conference hashtag’s activity). I think this hashtag documents the community at Futures more than it’s a snapshot of Academic Twitter in 2012: Futures clearly was invested enough in backchannels to have an “official” conference hashtag, but I wonder how many users, like me, were reading or writing with one in mind for the first time. In fact, rather than a backchannel, this particular stream of conference tweets seems more invested in amplifying and archiving the remarks of speakers and participants, in documenting their presence to peers in academic circles, in leaving a record of what was said.

How many of us view Twitter as a kind of backchannel, a space removed from but also in conversation with a primary channel we also reside in? My initial (and continued) reluctance to fully embrace a “professional” presence on the social network could in one light be viewed as a desire for a backchannel for my interests, thoughts, and activities that I wasn’t interested in situating within a “professional” identity. On the other hand, the notion that my life off-campus is a “backchannel” to my academic identity is completely depressing and horrifying. But Twitter has also been ruined by its commodification and by its users’ desires, particularly in academic circles, for a social media platform that is an extension of one’s professional identity. Twitter seems less a backchannel and more a central publication outlet to academics using it in more recent years, though there are certainly scholars who only seem to jump on the network to document stray observations when they’re at a conference.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about conference backchannels. On the one hand, I have made a number of great friends and professional contacts from conference hashtag activity, especially when the backchannel has been used to set up IRL meetings at or slightly removed from conference proceedings. I’ve also taken solace when tweets about my work have been read or acknowledged by peers, especially when I’ve presented at sessions for small or nonexistent audiences. I’ve found it useful to bookmark new projects or writing, and doing so on a more public forum like Twitter is also a way to flag exciting work that peers may be interested in. It can feel nice to tell someone they are doing awesome things, especially in a professional space where compliments aren’t always readily available and the work can be lonely and frustrating. And it’s been helpful to think about the afterlife of conference labor, whether it circulates immediately via a conference hashtag (in the form of a link to a blog post or presentation slides) or in some form later on down the road.

On the other hand, I have also gotten too wrapped up in the attention economies of conference hashtag activities, no matter how small the potatoes. I remember attending one workshop early in my career as a DH person and dominating the hashtag with every stray observation I could fit into 140 characters. It was embarrassing. Academic hierarchies and “cool kids” can seem more pronounced and annoying on a conference backchannel, depending on the conference. Interesting work and its attendant nuances can be made dull with sententious recollections. I’ve rarely gone back and looked at a conference hashtag’s activity, though I appreciate the people who do and share what they’ve observed. I wonder what this activity is and isn’t telling us about the kind of work we value. I don’t think a handful of retweets will compensate for the money I’ve paid to get to the conference. I worry when I see a conference hashtag flare up on Twitter and it’s something I didn’t even know was a thing in the first place. The jokes are never as funny as the people telling them think they are.

Is Twitter even a backchannel? It’s been rigged up as one by conferences and scholars, and I can totally see why: it’s a relatively inexpensive way to exist and be slightly more visible than academic conferences (which were a complete mystery to me in the pre-Twitter days) have been in the past. Conversely, are the claims for public engagement on Twitter inevitably muted by the size of Twitter’s active user base when compared to the rest of the world? As irritating as it might be when an academic starts tweeting stray, contextless thoughts on a conference paper might be, so too is it annoying when a scholar from an Ivy League starts bragging about half-a-dozen favorites on a tweet about how digital scholarship is “problematic.” What’s interesting about the adoption of Twitter as a kind of backchannel for academic conferences is the way it imagines a particular set of users and audiences and modes of behavior, and then those aims run right into the rest of Twitter and its audience’s various interests and activities. Then again, have conference backchannels ever really disrupted or been disrupted by the rest of Twitter? I know that a popular hashtag can attract bots, and that authors and artists and scholars under consideration might occasionally drop by.

Maybe DMs are the future. Then again, some of the DM backchannels I’ve participated in have inevitably become dominated by dull gossip and weird in-fighting between participants, which is a huge bummer. The dull gossip often materializes as a kind of inevitable consequence of the backchannel’s very existence. If you have a backchannel with notification settings tied to your mobile device, then it might be likely that the backchannel welcomes your constant attention and craves new content, new drama. Sometimes the backchannels generate more backchannels, at which point it’s usually time to walk away. I should also note that I am a fan of gossip when it is not dull. I have enjoyed backchannels when members are united against a common enemy or directed towards a particular issue or shared interest, and I think there are definitely moments when communities, friendships, and professional relationships can benefit from spaces where self-selected coteries can speak frankly, address concerns, vent, and talk shit. Do these backchannels need to be archived for posterity? Probably not? One reservation I have regarding backchannels in the wake of the professionalization of everything is the way they inevitably create new incriminating evidence of professional crimes you didn’t realize you would eventually commit. It’s often useful to set some loose guidelines to backchannel decorum online and offline, with the understanding that these rules will likely be broken, most likely by you. Most important for me is some kind of disclaimer that gives participants the right to change their mind about something.

How we choose to utilize backchannels and why we might view certain digital spaces as backchannels might help us think about our various investments in professional identities and forms of communication, online and offline. If a backchannel, professional or otherwise, seems necessary, then what does its existence tell us about the other spaces we use for communication? If the word “backchannel” fails to accurately resonate with our experiences in more private or removed message networks, then what language might help us here? What happens when content works its way from a backchannel to another forum or audience, as it inevitably seems to do? How do backchannels shape, critique, augment, and resist other spaces online and offline? Where is there potential for productive, fun, or weird backchannels, professional or otherwise?