If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I spent the week attending the HighEdWeb conference. I’ve been a presenter and a member of the programming committee for the last few years. I adore this conference because the quality of the presentations is outstanding, the attendees are delightful people, and the focus is exclusively on higher ed. Networking with 450 people who share your professional frustrations is amazing.
HighEdWeb has an active backchannel. This year, things got interesting.
We had excellent presenters. Everyone was very positive, using Twitter to share brief insights or links to notes and slides. Our first keynote speaker, Jared Spool, did a great job. Not everyone agreed with him on all points, but his presentation was polished, his delivery was engaging, and he gave us lots to think about.
Tuesday’s keynote was a different story. Our speaker was David Galper, of the defunct Ruckus Network. He was perhaps an odd choice for a keynote speaker. My committee wasn’t part of that decision, so I can’t really speak to it, but I know the general idea was that he would offer some insights from the market research he’d done on tons and tons of college students.
The problem is, he did that research about five years ago and hasn’t updated anything since. His video interviews with students included discussions of “new” technologies like MySpace and Kazaa. (Last year, one of our presentations included data on MySpace’s declining number of users under the age of 25.) His insights included the earth-shattering revelation that students connect with one another online. You can listen to part of his presentation on Ustream, although you can’t make out the slides. They were a mess, very difficult to read from the back of the room.
What do 450 web nerds do when they’re trapped in a hotel ballroom listening to someone who’s insulting their intelligence? They get out their laptops and smartphones and start tweeting.
Jeremiah Owyang wrote How Speakers Should Integrate Social Into Their Presentation in response to what he saw on the #heweb09 Twitter stream during our Tuesday keynote. He is an expert on social media, but he wasn’t there, and he got a few things wrong.
I felt horrible for that speaker who likely didn’t even know what was happening till someone posted his phone number on Twitter and people were texting him how horrible he had done.
Did anyone actually text Galper? Several people joked about it when his phone number appeared on the screen, but doing so would have crossed the line between professional criticism and personal harassment. I haven’t heard that anyone texted the poor guy, and I sincerely hope no one did. As far as I know, the backlash was confined to Twitter. In the room, everyone was polite and discreet.
I felt horrible for him, too. Not because people were mean to him, but because he was so woefully unprepared. It hurts to watch someone faceplant like that. I’m sure that’s why so many people were checking Twitter in the first place: they wanted to look away, anywhere but at the guy displaying his ignorance onstage.
While the first audience revolt was at SXSW, a new media tech conference, where adoption of new communication tools is likely. The Higher Education conference wasn’t focused solely on technology, so this revolt has moved out of the technology scene.
Say what? It’s the HighEdWeb conference. It’s squarely in the technology scene. It’s focused exclusively on web technology. In fact, this is where the speaker screwed up: he clearly thought we were a bunch of clueless administrators who could be placated with a five-year-old, low-tech presentation. Not so. In terms of the expertise on display, this conference is frequently on par with SXSW and An Event Apart.
Did the speaker check out the conference beforehand? Did he notice that we had an entire programming track devoted to social media, and another called “Technical: Propeller Hats Required”? If he’d stopped and said to himself, “Hey, I bet people who are talking about viral videos and explaining Twitter to the boss probably know about MySpace and Kazaa and ICQ already,” he could have avoided the train wreck.
Monitor the Backchannel While Speaking.
Here I just disagree completely. Speakers should absolutely watch the listeners’ body language for signs of trouble. I also think it’s a good idea to pause periodically for feedback during the presentation rather than hurtling all the way to the end before taking questions. But checking Twitter while speaking strikes me as a terrible idea. If the speaker takes a break to read off her phone, the audience has time to lose interest. And what if she did see terrible comments? She’d have to possess superhuman poise to not only absorb the feedback but deal with it constructively while still on the stage. Pausing to ask for questions instead keeps the audience engaged and gives them the opportunity to challenge the speaker — but makes them do so in front of everyone else, where they’re less likely to get snarky.
The overwhelming backchannel response to the keynote led outside observers to conclude that HighEdWeb attendees are a terrible group of people. I really wish I could find a good Twitter transcript of the whole conference. The one at What the Hashtag picks up after the first day of presentations. Here are a few tweets from a 10-minute period on Tuesday afternoon:
“TNT10 presenter is like that relative you are glad to see at family dinners cus you know he’ll kick things up a notch” — @LucidLilith
“@kyledbowen proves great slideshow graphics aren’t a pipe dream.” – @secretrobot
“Awesome job by @kprentiss with his pechu kucha presentation.” – @markgr
“oohs and aahs in @Frommelt presentation” – @shellylbrown
I saw a lot of that throughout the conference: attendees getting excited about our regular session presenters, telling their friends about it, and congratulating the speakers on jobs well done. The worst thing I saw about a regular session? “I’m not feeling this one.”
Are HighEdWeb attendees a bunch of jackasses? I don’t think so. I think they’re smart people who don’t appreciate having their time wasted, who know what it takes to put together strong presentations and expect paid speakers to do at least as much as the volunteers, who demand excellence but are open and generous about showing their appreciation when they get it.
I love being a part of the community, and I really hope I can be there again next year.
Other responses to the keynote disaster: