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The Risk of Chaos

Another widely covered backchannel blowup happened in front of a large audience at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2008, where Business Week columnist Sarah Lacy was on stage interviewing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

During the interview, audience members grew increasingly upset with the manner in which Lacy was conducting the interview. They used the backchannel to express their feelings.

In his article entitled "Welcome to Conference 2.0: Social media is putting an end to the passive role attendees traditionally play at business conferences," writer Dan Fost described the scene:

  • Lacy... drew the crowd's wrath by asking Zuckerberg too many questions about his age and his company's outrageous $15 billion valuation and not enough questions about issues more fundamental to how Facebook operates—things like trust, privacy, and accessibility to software developers. On top of that, Lacy interrupted Zuckerberg, seemed to flirt with him, and then grew hostile as the crowd turned against her...

Once again, the blowup didn't end when the session ended. Additional mainstream media covered the fallout and thousands of people viewed online videos of the interview and commented online about the incident. In an effort to better understand what happened, one blogger went so far as to create a minute-by-minute log of the session's Twitter posts and synchronize them with video of the exchange (Figure 4-3).

Figure 4-3

Figure 4-3 In a widely-watched video from the SXSW Interactive Festival in 2008, the backchannel turned against Sarah Lacy during her interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The negative taking on a life of its own

As easy as it is to post negative tweets during a live presentation, and to re-tweet them to others, the negativity can quickly snowball in the room. It can reach a point at which it takes on a life of its own, as writer Steven Berlin Johnson describes in his blog:

  • When enough audience members connect with each other, a consensus room tone can quickly form, with each member's personal outrage amplified silently by his or her neighbors'. Onstage, of course, you see and hear none of this. All you know is that the crowd is quiet until something tips, and they start vocalizing as a group, having been empowered by the backchannel consensus.

Twitter-jacking refers to situations when someone posts a provocative, controversial tweet to get the attention of a room that would otherwise be focused on constructive topics. In these cases, emotion rules over reason—negativity and drama win; positivity and calmness lose.

No one wins with a blowup

Although you can learn something from any situation, when a backchannel blowup happens, nobody wins. The host loses when the audience remembers the bad instead of the good. Presenters lose when the original purpose of a presentation is derailed. And audiences lose when they end up remembering the emotional conflict instead of the information they were there to share.

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