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29 September 2009 • 1:58 pm

BackNoise – Cool or Scary?

Chris Brogan

Chris Brogan

A couple of months ago, a friend clued me into Chris Brogan’s blog. Brogan is an author and social media guru (of whom I hadn’t heard before) that my friend had seen give a great speech. It was otherwise hard for my friend to tell me exactly why I should pay attention to Brogan, but he told me that I needed to. So I subscribed to his blog, and have occasionally been engaged, and sometimes even fascinated with his postings.

One such fascinating moment was today, when Brogan posted a (sorta) amateur video of his entire keynote speech at a recent new media conference in Atlanta. The video is over an hour long (caution: it contains some coarse language) and worthwhile if you want to get a fresh and expert perspective on using social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) effectively in marketing. But even if you don’t watch more than a few minutes of it, you’ll see a new, cool, elegant (in the sense of simplicity), and prospectively scary new idea called BackNoise.

According to it’s home page tagline BackNoise is a web site that enables “adhoc conversations anywhere, anytime” (sic). It appears quick and easy to join or start a chat-room style conversation (but the site seems to be broken as I am writing this). By default, participants are anonymous. 

Real-time web-enabled conversations aren’t exactly a new idea, but the application here was. According to another blogger’s reflection of the event, everyone in the auditorium (at Georgia Tech Research Institute) had access to an electrical outlet and free Wi-Fi. Although we don’t see the audience in the video, it’s clear that many in the room had laptops open and running during Brogan’s speech.

Fascinating was the fact that while the conference promoters had encouraged the use of BackNoise during the entire event (according to the blogger), Brogan upped the ante by having the image of the BackNoise conversation from the conference projected behind him while he was speaking. This had the effect of enabling anyone in the room to comment anonymously on what Brogan was saying, in real time for everyone to see.

Brogan is a good speaker, and he proved with not only engaging content (without a PowerPoint!), but through his effective interaction with the BackNoise image on the screen. In some ways, it was like there was another speaker on the stage competing for the audience’s attention. In other ways, it was much more efficient audience participation that the typical Q&A at the end of a presentation(which Brogan did also). But, as the blogger reported, BackNoise was a distraction for some in the audience (even when not projected on the screen), and an invitation to incivility. She wrote, “…most of the conversation deteriorated to personal attacks on the presenters.  Nothing was off limits.  There were comments about presenters’ ages and weights….” Hmmm.

As an experienced public speaker, I am attracted to the idea of real-time feedback (but would I have the skill to read and speak at the same time?), and imagine it as a powerful tool for leveling the playing field when corporate executive speak to their workforce. And although I don’t like it, I’ve gotten used to clients and audience members using their Blackberrys and laptops while I am presenting, especially since I’ve had no success in asking that they be shut off. But would audiences and speakers be able to arrive at a new standard for civility that would enable productive feedback while maintaining the level of decorum expected in face-to-face interaction? These days, I doubt it.

This BackNoise thing may go nowhere, or may be the next big thing. Are you ready to speak or be spoken to with BackNoise in the background?

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