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When a Conference Audience Gets Ugly in Live Time

Traditionally, conference attendees fill out conference evaluations after a session or conference is over, but the SXSW conference for tech and entertainment folks is anything but traditional. Some attendees heckled in real time at the  “pandering” and/or “self-promoting” style of Business Week’s “Valley Girl” columnist Sarah Lacey during her interview of Facebook CEO, Mark Zukerberg.A “trainwreck.”(Advice: know your audience.) A surge of audience members started criticizing her via their blogs and twittering micro-blogging. It got vicious.The opposite could also happen, of course, if an audience raved in real time about an interview, speaker or panel. Then the conference organizer could extend the session. The era of the passive attendee is fast-passing. Live blogging just started recently, mainly at tech-centered conferences or unconferences. Audience twittering just started within the past 14 months or so. Yet the trend will spread quickly to more kinds of meetings. Parents are learning text messaging to keep in touch with their children. Young meeting attendees expect to make their views heard, in the moment. As more meeting attendees adopt these social media tools, they’ll use them the conferences they attend. Thus more and more attendees won’t wait to vote on the questions the speaker or panel wants to ask. They’ll be commenting, asking the questions and trading opinions as the program unfolds. They’ll take photos from their seat, then try streaming video.That means that savvy meeting planners will eventually “have” to find a way to track the unfolding comment stream of the audience and choose a way to respond to them, either during or right after the session. Speakers, panelists, meeting planners and sponsors face a whole new attendee-centered meeting future, just as companies are experimenting with how to operate in a customercentered world. Now that’s a fast-unfolding future full of ugly and uplifting mob scenarios.

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  1. Posted March 21, 2008 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Hi Kare, I didn’t see this session, but I understand the interviewer made it more about her than about the interviewee — a big no-no. So I don’t want to come off as an apologist for poor interviewing technique.

    But I must say that I think the audience behavior was boorish and rude.

    In my career I’ve sat through many a session where the interview or panel discussion was handled poorly. But as an audience member what would bother me much more than a poor interviewer or poor speakers, is audience members heckling and interjecting THEMSELVES into the fray by being rude. And making THEMSELVES the center of attention by doing so.

    That, in my opinion, is just as grievous as being a boring panel member who doesn’t know when to shut up, or tries to monopolize the discussion by constantly interrupting everyone else, or bores you with a gawd-awful PowerPoint, or whatever. And I’ve actually heard a few of the people speak who were the loudest in their complaints, and all I’ll say is, people in glass houses shouldn’t, well, you know ….


  2. Posted March 23, 2008 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I heartily agree that, some of the audience behavior was “boorish and rude” and I should have made that point in my post. When the way one reacts is at least as bad as the behavior one witnesses then one is lowering the bar, not raising the bar of engagement. The same bad behavior is happening via anonymous comments to certain newspaper site-based blogs and at some new sites where college students can comment on each other. I agree with the reactions by several commentators on this that only the community on a blog or site (or at the conference) can effectively police its own behavior. I’ll bet steps are being taken by the SXSW community to provide interactivity with the audience – and to discourage boorish, make-it-personal behavior. This “live” time interaction made possible by Twitter, texting and other social media is creating constantly changing ways to damage or strengthen feelings of community. In an upcoming interview, I’ll be asking Smart Mobs author, Howard Rheingold, for his insights on this.

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