Conversation is the New Attention

by Timothy Meaney, Christopher Fahey

14 Reader Comments

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  1. “Cole W. Camplese, director of education-technology services at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, prefers to teach in classrooms with two screens — one to project his slides, and another to project a Twitter stream of notes from students. He knows he is inviting distraction — after all, he’s essentially asking students to pass notes during class. But he argues that the additional layer of communication will make for richer class discussions.” http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/professor-encourages-students-to-pass-notes-during-class-via-twitter/4619 Why is this being presented as something new? It’s a cool app, unfortunately it is being presented as a revolutionary idea rather than an open source improvement.
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  2. When one of my favorite shows, Scrubs, came along, they kept messing with the theme song. What they didn’t realize was that they’d gotten it right the first time. Are conferences like that and this is just messing around with things that aren’t as good? I recently attended the excellent first ever Midwest UX conference. While there were many excellent presentations, I was frequently distracted by one or two people banging away endlessly at their laptops. I couldn’t figure out why they were even in the room if they had that much typing to do, let alone distracting the other participants. But I did learn one important thing about the iPad: they’re silent. So maybe it’s a personality issue? I prefer to become fully engaged in whatever is being presented, whether it’s a conference presenter or a movie. I want to immerse my mind in it and feel no need to tweet or converse with anyone about it during the event. I would find it distracting and would be reluctant to distract others. So what about the tweets? Between sessions I would read the tweets for the conference and, to be honest, found no value in them at all. Most of them were just regurgitations of what the speakers were saying. This is great for those who couldn’t attend, but not the most efficient way to provide a remote conference experience. However, I’m not saying there’s nothing of value here. I’m open to the concept. But maybe the solution is somewhere between the traditional and what this article offers. Yes, a presentation is a great way to start a conversation and it has greater value when the participants can engage the speaker and each other. I’m just skeptical that this is the right way to do it. Is there a reason conferences haven’t been conducted by people sitting in a circle with the presenter being primarily a facilitator for discussion?
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  3. @atrowbri - Thanks for pointing us to that article. I think that he’s hitting upon something important, something we also tried to convey in our article / talk, which is that learning is at times best done via a conversation. I’d venture a guess that the students in that class were more engaged, and more tuned-in to their Professor’s ideas, than in other classes. As for our idea for Donahue & the talk being “revolutionary”, I hope we didn’t convey that tone. We took inspiration from all sorts of trends and made an ever-so-slight tweak to reinforce our message that ‘media is evolving from broadcast to conversation’. The most important inspiration? The fact that audiences have been doing this on their own, for years!
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  4. @undecided: It’s true that for many speakers and many audience members—and for many types of content—the idea of doing anything else besides paying close attention to the talk might seem entirely inappropriate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with giving a speaker your undivided attention. But it does raise the question: if you’re just sitting there listening, how is a live presentation any different from reading an article by yourself in a quiet room? Of course part of the appeal of live conferences is the energy of the public space, and of course the speaker’s passion and emphasis (if they have this). And in a way conferences are designed to *eliminate* the kinds of distractions you might be tempted by sitting at your desk reading a blog post containing the exact same words. We’re still experimenting with this concept, too. Respecting the diversity of attention styles is going to be a challenge. Even among those who participated on Twitter and appreciated the value of it, for example, we found some people liked the volume of tweet chatter while others wanted a little more focus. But we strongly believe that there is a lot of opportunity to improve learning and the quality of the thinking that emerges from live presentations, specifically by letting audiences let their minds wander the way they want to. The devil may well be in the details: simple things like, as you mention, the difference between tapping on clicky keys versus tapping on a glass screen. Similarly, we gave Donahue a dark UI specifically to prevent lighting up people’s faces.
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  5. So many good points raised here. I definitely suffer from a bit of short term memory loss when it comes to thinking of something that I want to share, but by the time I can, i’ve forgotten what it was!
    I agree that being able to use social media to spread the word whilst at a conference or talk is a great leap forward and also directs the view of the lone speaker, to the thoughts and opinions of everyone. I think it adds diversity and a great new addition to how conferences work and will continue to develop in the future.
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  6. Some interesting ideas in this article, but I somewhat disagree with the following line: “we need to immediately tell someone else what we thought” That is, in my humble opinion, the real problem. Why would you need to do that? How could you possibly form an educated(!) thought about what has been said just two seconds ago and provide any real value at all in your e.g. tweets. What value do these “knee-jerk” thoughts have, other then being immediate, quick responses that are being replicated over and over again. Do you sit in a movie and constantly tweet on the movie’s progress every 2 minutes? Can we draw a real conclusion about the restaurant before having had desert? Do we need discussions for the sake of discussing? What’s the real value? My 5 cents :)
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  7. You might be interested in our recent paper. The context created as people interact (converse) with others through multiple social networking services we refer to as PolySocial Reality (PoSR). PoSR encompasses the complete set of multiplexed ‘mixed realities’ (grounded reality and virtual spaces) and larger social network formed by the people connected, but only experienced partially by each person. “A Cultural Perspective on Mixed, Dual, and Blended Reality” http://www.dfki.de/LAMDa/accepted/ACulturalPerspective.pdf
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  8. As someone who knows both Chris and Tim and was an excited participant in their Donahue experiment, I came to the party already a convinced devotee of conversation as a model interaction technology. And it is certainly true that much about the conference speaking experience, on all sides, is broken. The insight at the heart of the Donahue experiment, as I see it, is that a tool, in this case an app, could be used to intervene in the deteriorating state of public conversation. It is a complex problem, and I think it is a dangerous oversimplification to suggest that THE fix is “to empower the audience, not the speaker”. In fact, I think this runs in the opposite direction of what actually Donahue does (or could do) and risks reproducing the problems of presenter/audience dynamics that Tim & Chris give a useful diagnosis of. The key, I think Tim & Chris are right to say, lies in the idea or rather the technology of conversation. It is an oldie, but a goodie, and certainly has had a central place in nearly every enduring culture and system of knowledge that I can think of. From the ancient Chinese tradition of master and student represented in the teaching of Confucius and Lao Tzu, to the Greek dialogues of Plato and the Talmudic tradition the interpretation of God’s “law”, to mention a few, conversation has been a core technology in enlightenment and decision. The problem with conference talks isn’t simply that the warring impulses to participate make the relationship between speaker and audience potentially antagonistic. The problem is that they all too often fail to produce what must always be the goal of conversation, the thing conversation is uniquely designed to produce: namely, diversity. If all a group of people do together in a conference room do is sit and listen, then leave, the chances that diverse outputs will be created from the input is very slim. We know how this goes, either we have “heard it all before” or we acknowledge the truth of what’s been said, but find it trivial: “so what, BIG DEAL”. What I did and do find exciting about Donahue is its potential as a tool for the design of conversations. What we complain of in the tools of presentation, PowerPoint or any other “slideshow” tool, is how they constrain the design of conversation: too one-sided, too dumbed down. That’s why Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen, Nancy Duarte’s Slideology & Resonate and Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin have found such eager audiences and more than that, markets. The trouble with the “backchannel” is the same. Because it is not part of the intentional design of our interactions it can become distracted, unruly, rude and worse. Of course, one of the key challenges for the design of conversation is that it is “designing for emergence” and this is tricky business to do well. Donahue tries to accomplish something startlingly simple, to put us all on “the same page”. In this way, it is an information architectural equivalent of a Quaker meeting house, perhaps: by placing us on a common level it removes the more artificial props of authority and recognizes (respects) our equal potential as participants. I think that Chris & Tim’s most important prescriptions are good ones. They reinforce the importance we all place on the goal of conversations, to produce diversity from our interactions: diversity of ideas, of perspective, of insight and more. I agree that people who are on a “stage” or playing an instigating role in a conversation should be advancing a meme. I am not sure that we have to be starting one, but I do think that it is important that we have something to add and sometimes that can take powerful for in a question. I am excited and grateful for Chris & Tim’s works and that of their teams at Behavior and Arc90. Advancing the state of the art of the design of conversation is hugely important and valuable work. Thanks, all.
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  9. @Stephanie - thanks for the words, I’m glad it struck a chord with you. @Marco - great analogy to a film. I think there’s room for both instant reaction, quoting and live-tweeting a talk, and a more nuanced reaction to the ideas, perhaps later elaborated by a blog post from an audience member. Think of it like other media, where news reports are filed from the scene, eg. “this just happened”, and then a more thoughtful dissection and interpretation of meaning later. The audience at conferences, though, is already having a reactive conversation, apart from the presenter. The idea we explored was one where the presenter joins the fray, with the hopes of maximizing the reach of their ideas. So is it good that people ‘need’ to respond to points throughout a talk? We’re not making a value judgement there, just accepting reality. @saa - thanks for the link to the paper, I’ll check it out.
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  10. I was at your SXSW talk. Thanks for presenting these ideas. To me, the “traditional” public speaking model appeals to the speaker’s desire to control the experience. If the speaker is gifted and dynamic, that can work for audiences. Often, it doesn’t. Plus, as you say, it does leave out the audience’s reaction. I’ve had those moments of insight, when I’m hearing something new from a speaker and putting it together with an experience I’ve had, and the two create a new idea. Sometimes a very important idea. Sometimes one that changes how I think. Speakers should welcome more interactive technologies like this. What they lose in control over the audience’s experience, they’ll gain in new insights.
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  11. What I’ve seen work well in technical presentations is to have one or more additional people involved in the presentation that monitor the real-time feedback (whether it’s a chat room, twitter, or just people coming up to whisper questions). These “wranglers” can give answers directly if they know the material well enough, or direct the speaker to respond to particularly interesting questions that come up. Presentations where the speaker has to scan through real-time responses can devolve into watching someone read on stage.
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  12. You hit great points in this article! I was sitting in at a conference a few days ago and couldn’t help but feel detached. There was an emotional disconnect with me and the speaker’s ideas. I’m not one who is immersed in all the available social media outlets or have my phone permanently attached to my hand. Then, I had the opportunity to speak to a younger audience in their teens and there was a world of difference. The detachment was at a whole another level. Traditional methods is on its way out and this article has compelled me to think out of the box in engaging my audience. I always viewed conferences to cultivate a separate dynamic from everyday conversation, but because of the socially interconnected nature of our evolving species, conversation has to be the standard. The closer we get to this, using technology, the closer we will be in connecting to people from all walks of life.
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  13. I have no issue with participation but have to agree with Marco that ‘knee jerk’ reactions are far too common. You have only to see the initial reaction to Ken Clarke’s comments about rape and justice in the UK to see this. If I go to listen to a speaker I go to learn something. If I disagree then by the time a Q&A session comes around I have time to collect my thoughts and process them. This leads, I believe to better participation. So much of what I have seen on backchannels are the mentioned regurgitations (AKA: “OMG, I’m famous as I’m on the screen”) or pointless drivel. How this creates ‘a conversation’ I am afraid I fail to see.
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  14. I think people underestimate the power of conversation.  As a freelancer I sometimes find it difficult to collect my thoughts/ideas sitting at my desk, going to the pub and discussing things over with a friend usually helps me to make decisions on certain things, regardless of whether my friend has even offered an opinion!
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