The two best alternatives to Twitter as a presentation backchannel

Note: This post was updated on 30 October to reflect TodaysMeet introducing Twitter integration.

The advent of the backchannel is a tremendous opportunity for presenters. The backchannel is an online conversation that takes place at the same time as people are talking live. Audience participation didn’t use to scale easily beyond a small group. Now, the backchannel allows every audience member, whatever the size of the group, to be an active participant. However, if you plan to use a backchannel proactively in your presentation, it may be better to use a backchannel tool other than Twitter. This is because:

  1. Twitter users won’t have to be concerned about overwhelming their followers with a series of presentation-specific tweets.
  2. Anybody can access and contribute to the backchannel without having to register.

That makes the backchannel more inclusive – no Twitter-divide – and allows the backchannel to become a lot more intimate amongst conference attendees.

Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 has written a great account of using both Twitter and a no-registration backchannel tool, TodaysMeet, at the WebWise 2009 conference:

“Whereas Twitter provided the conference highlights to a wider audience, TodaysMeet allowed attendees to delve deeper into individual moments and questions.”

The other presentation-friendly backchannel tool I’m aware of is Backnoise (do tell me if you know of others). (You may have heard of Backnoise. It was used as a backchannel at the New Media Atlanta conference. There wasn’t a good fit between the speakers at the conference and the audience and the backchannel descended into snarky chaos.)

Review of TodaysMeet and Backnoise

Both TodaysMeet and Backnoise are ultra-easy to use. You go to the website, choose a name for your “room” and start chatting. That’s it.

There are other chatroom applications (Chatzy, Tinychat) but they have features which make them less presentation-friendly (eg: having to invite people to join by email) so I don’t recommend them.

Here’s a comparison of TodaysMeet and Backnoise:

TodaysMeet

Backnoise

Todaysmeet display Backnoise with text
Very easy to use Easy to use
Twitter integration (introduced on 30 October) Twitter integration
140 character limit 400 character limit
Has “Buzzkill” function*
Have to put in a name (but you could put in an alias) Can remain anonymous
Can mute specific people from your own screen (other people will still see them)
Has a fullscreen display function No display function but working on it
No archiving of content – but working on it No archiving of content

*Update: Backnoise and Buzzkill

Initially the Buzzkill function on Backnoise could be used by anyone at any time to delete all the conversation content up to that point (and it still says this on the website). I didn’t get the point of this, and certainly thought it would be a disadvantage in using Backnoise as a constructive participative backchannel. Keith McGregor, the developer of Backnoise, has changed the way it works:

“Buzzkill allows a segment of the conversation to fade away. Repeated buzzkills by others fades the text further and further, until it vanishes. Each viewer gets a limited number of times they can buzzkill a conversation. This limits abuse by an individual. Collectively, however, the community of the conversation can fully mute portions”

This is definitely an improvement, although I’m still not sure how I would want to use this functionality in a presentation context. How do you think it could be used?

Which is best?

Now that both TodaysMeet and Backnoise have Twitter integration, TodaysMeet is the slightly better tool because of its fullscreen display.

9th November update: Charlie Osmond of www.freshnetworks.com has just let me know about using Google wave as a backchannel. Check out his post Google Wave vs Twitter at conferences.

Note: This is an excerpt from my forthcoming free eBook “How to present with Twitter (and other backchannels)”. If you’d like to know as soon as it’s released sign up here:

I’ll let you know when it’s released, and then when I update it. I won’t send you any other information or use your email in any other way.

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9 Comments

  1. Olivia,
    I’ve used BackNoise and really like the anonymous feature. Twitter integration made it much more useful. By the way, Cliff Atkinson is coming out with a book, called (I think) The Back Channel. He told us about BackNoise at PPTLive and I used it during his session.

  2. Hi Ellen
    I’d love to hear more about how it worked. What was it about the anonymity that you liked?

    I’m very much looking forward to Cliff’s book coming out on 27 November – it’s at the top of my book list in the right sidebar :-).

    Olivia

  3. I tried both ways (anonymous and via Twitter). But anonymity gave me the option of making a more negative comment in another session. Among people you know, that’s helpful. Even then I was gentle — I’m not a flamer and like to be constructive — but I probably wouldn’t have made the comment without the anonymity. Of course, it can be misused, as we’ve seen at some recent conferences.

    • Hi Ellen
      Thank you for your willingness to be open. It’s interesting that we’re more willing to give negative feedback when it’s anonymous. And I can see why that would be helpful in the situation you describe.

      It does raise some questions about how we use these tools. A while back I suggested that we should only tweet what we would be willing to say face to face. But your comment suggests that it’s actually useful to have spaces where we can be anonymous to give feedback. I don’t have any answers to these conundrums – just asking the questions.
      Olivia

  4. To avoid overwhelm, set up a Twitter account that everyone writes to. That way only the followers of that account or the readers of the accumulated feed will see the conference tweets.

    • That’s a great idea – thank you.
      Olivia

  5. Olivia,
    Feedback is often anonymous. For example, at a conference, attendees fill out feedback forms after each session and they’re always anonymous. When a speaker hands out a feedback form, there’s always the option to keep it anonymous. And many people (like me) have difficulty giving any negative feedback to a person face to face.

  6. These seem like interesting and potentially useful tools. Your point about Twitter haves and have-nots is an important one, but I think it cuts both ways. I have seen far less snarkiness on Twitter “backchannels” in a conference setting than I used to see with relatively more anonymous tools such as IRC (where you can choose a different ‘nick’ every time you login). I suppose people could use different Twitter accounts for snarky and non-snarky tweets, but believe that the way that many tweeters identify with (and through) their Twitter accounts adds a level of accountability that may not be present in lighter-weight tools.

    The point about tweeting to / for other conference attendees vs. tweeting to a broader audience is a good one, too … but I do wonder whether those who have / care about a significant following would want to abandon their followers in the use of a tool in which their 140 (or 400) character insightful comments would only be available to a smaller, more local audience. I.e., audience cuts both ways …

    • Thank you Joe for your insights. The anonymity issue is a tricky one. I agree with you that Twitter does add a degree of accountability, and I think Ellen Finkelstein (in the comments above) also has some good points about how sometimes anonymity is useful.

      Regarding the conference audience versus broader audience, both TodaysMeet and BackNoise now have Twitter integration, so it’s not so much of an issue. People who want their wider following to see their tweets can use Twitter and those tweets will be pulled into the TodaysMeet or BackNoise channel.

      Olivia