Friday, October 9, 2009

Takeaways from the Great Keynote Revolt of 2009

By now, the HighEdWeb "Great Keynote Revolt of 2009" has been commented on by a number of writers, including  Dave Ferguson (and here), Denise Graveline, Silicon Beach Training, Michael Fienen, and several others. I'm not going to go into the keynote directly, even though I was there. If you want background, read these posts or the transcript (beginning at 11:59AM).

I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the keynote as a social experience.

Soon after the keynote began, @stomer commented:
conspiracy theory about the keynote: it's a test of the power of the back channel; social experiment. #heweb09
And what a social experiment it was. We were there as an audience, to participate by listening attentively to the presenter. But since the presenter failed to engage us, we turned our attention to the backchannel and began to partcipate with each other. But what we were participating in was not what the speaker was intentionally sharing.

The strange thing about that keynote was that it was the high point of the conference for everyone who experienced the backchannel. Not only that, it was a shared experience that bonded us together. I think that we all felt closer to each other by sharing that experience, by sharing our reactions with each other during the keynote, and by being able to share our thoughts and feelings with each other afterward.

It set the tone for the party that happened that night, and I know that we had a higher energy and a closer bond than we would have without that keynote. We all talked about it over and over that night, and it became a shared inside joke that anyone in the conference could refer to and that everyone would immediately understand.

The bottom line was that this was an intense shared experience that brought all of the attendees closer together, not entirely different from the way that survivors of a shared tragedy are often bonded.

Regardless of how I may feel for David Galper, I think that for the conference and for the conference attendees, this was an almost universally positive experience. Where before that keynote we were 450 mostly strangers, after it we all had something we had in common that we could connect on. I met and spoke to more new people in the day after that keynote than I had in the two days prior to it.

In the end, no one will remember my talk on redesigns three years from now, but everyone will remember the "Great Keynote Revolt of 2009". And they will remember it in a very positive way... in the way of how 450 mostly strangers came together in the backchannel to learn that they held common views and feelings and were able to share them with each other. It joined us and humanized us to each other in a way little else could have. In the end, regardless of any of the other presentations, this will probably be remembered as the best HighEdWeb conference ever.

You may be horrified that we would take that away at the cost of that poor man's ego, but I doubt many people there feel that way. If he was ridiculed, it was because he was in no way prepared to present to this audience.

The big takeaway of all of this for me is this: to make an event like this a true success, you have to find a way to bond people together in the experience of that event - to make that event a milestone in their lives. David Galper did that better than anyone I have ever met. It's only unfortunate that he did it unintentionally.


@brendensparks said...

Unique take. I think it's the most insightful of all that have been written thus far.

Hopefully conference organizers will listen to your advice and look for something to create this bond next time around.

Susan said...

Well said.

Aaron Knight said...

Very well said.

-- @farktal

notjared said...

#sniff #sniff...I love you man!!!

me said...

Tony, I had a similar experience a Stamats conference last November (with a lot of these same folks in fact). I have to say that the backchannel of Twitter users - a minority of attendees, always - bonded in the same way as they seemed to at Highedweb. It wasn't a particular presentation that bonded us, and especially not an unfortunate one such as this. I believe it's worth looking into the nature of the backchannel - small group, exclusive, instantaneous, parallel to the presentation - for an explanation of the very satisfying bonding that happens within the group. And I believe conference organizers would do well to look at leveraging its power in more and more creative ways.

kathleen vandervelde said...

Sorry, I did not mean to be all but anonymous on the previous comment. Good insights in your post!
kathleen vandervelde aka @kathlee

Tony Dunn said...


I agree. One of the purposes of my post was to alert the HighEdWeb committee that they had an opportunity to replicate this bonding experience deliberately at #heweb10.

ann said...

Very interesting and insightful post.

I agree that it was a fascinating sociological phenomenon and perhaps unifying, but I saw it slightly differently.

Most groups find it easier to unify around a common enemy, and I thought the "harshtagging" of NotJared was an example of social media meeting mob mentality.

I wouldn't be interested in doing the work (smile :) ), but I would be interested to know the number of conference attendees who were active on the back channel. I don't think it's totally accurate, but the Ning community had 125 people list their twitter names. And of those, I'd guess maybe half were the majority of the backchannel. So maybe of a quarter of attendees were active on twitter?

I say that because I don't think the backlash against NotJared was unifying to all at the conference. Some were disturbed by what happened and the reputation heweb09 developed. I heard that voiced many times through the remainder of the conference.

Perhaps I am in the minority, and that's alright, but I didn't think the end (unifying) was worth the means (harshtagging- for lack of a better word). There was already a pretty healthy backchannel camaraderie, and ganging up on the speaker wasn't necessary to strengthen it.

gilzow said...

@ann - someone did the work for you: =)

I'll admit, I wasnt really paying attention to the keynote or the backchannel (hallway conversation, work emails, trying to get something to eat, etc.) but what I did see of the presentation was pretty bad. At first, you could barely hear the presenter. Then he played a video where the music was 10X louder than the people interviewed, so you ended up straining to hear what they were saying, only to cover your ears when the music came back. Then he talked about a threesome and showing a video of said threesome. Can you say "unprofessional" and "inappropriate"? And THEN he talked about how kids these days are using AIM, GTalk and ICQ. ICQ?!?? Really? *I* dont even use ICQ anymore, and I had an account when they first started! I'm willing to bet that the majority of incoming freshman have never even HEARD of ICQ.

Basically, he seemed to be out-of-touch with the current state of affairs on the web, yet was presenting to a group of people whose job is to be on top of the latest web technologies and trends. The presentation seemed to be more of an "Introduction to the Internet" for people who still dont know what it is, instead of something relevant to what all of us (who attended) deal with every day. Jared (the first keynote speaker) is somewhat controversial, but was still engaging and shared information that attendees could use.

lelo said...

Interesting viewpoints. I wasn't there in person, although I had a staff member who was. I did watch with interest and dismay as this unfolded on Twitter. A couple of things immediately concerned me:

Who invited the keynote speaker and why hadn't they thoroughly vetted this person before giving him a coveted keynote spot? I think that in any conference debacle, there is shared responsibility between the speaker and the chair/committee who chose them. However, I didn't hear or see any commentary questioning the wisdom of those who did the inviting.

Second, if I were a professional in the business and was invited to speak for HighEdWeb in the future, I might have to pause and think about whether this form of response to a speaker is something that is now being encouraged as a way to "bond" or be an "active" back channel participant.There was a strange "cool" factor that seemed to be surrounding the "Great Keynote Revolt" and now the talk of recreating this type of feeling in the future because it brought people together. All I can say is "wow."

There's a fine line between making appropriate commentary and constructive criticism or crossing that line and adopting a mob bashing of an invited professional, skilled, knowledgeable or not.

I am a frequent conference speaker. I firmly believe in the educational value and professional growth opportunities in sending my people to conferences. But, I was highly disappointed in some of the unprofessional comments I witnessed in the Great Keynote Revolt of 2009. My opinion? When you continue to hear more talk about the negative things that happened than about the great presenters and the positive learning opportunities, it makes me think the "Great Keynote Revolt of 2009" may be a really bad thing for HighEdWeb's professional reputation. It failed to achieve any sort of "cool" factor in this manager's mind.

jashin said...

I'm reading all about the harshtagging thing just now and the foremost thing that stands out in my mind is - great way for everyone to bond over a common enemy and all, but I don't think it's a positive thing that no one had the guts to stand up and talk to the guy instead of passive-aggressively trashtalking him on Twitter.

Yeah, the whole thing seems pretty funny, and I'm all for inside jokes, but I'm reading these comments on the transcript to the effect of "won't anyone Kanye this guy" or "I'm tempted to beg for someone to stop him to spare us all." Interesting, to beg for someone else to stand up and voice what everyone's thinking. DO IT YOURSELF, DUDE.

I'm sure no one is going to see or care about this comment, but the whole phenomenon is very interesting and I feel like no one commented on how this might be yet another manifestation of the Internet's ability to enable passive-aggressive tendencies.