'Hot' or not? Welcome to real-time peer review

August 1, 2003

The conference experience is being turned on its head by electronic technology. Paul Shabajee joins the wireless chat that is unnerving speakers.

The keynote speaker was clear. He informed his audience during May's World Wide Web conference in Budapest that none other than Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web, had first referred to embedded menus as hot links. A few minutes later, while the speaker was still in full flow, delegates learnt that this was not the case. At least this was as Berners-Lee himself remembered it, as he joined the electronic debate that was accompanying the lecture. In a brief message read by everyone in the hall using the internet relay chat channel, he stated: "I did not call them 'hot'. I just called them 'links'."

Speaking at a conference can be exhilarating or nerve-wracking. But there is a new phenomenon emerging that can make things slightly scarier. At a growing number of conferences, delegates are using wireless internet access to communicate with each other and others around the world during presentations. This makes attending a lecture a potentially much richer experience, enabling insights and opinions to be shared and references to be followed up instantly. The speaker, however, might be left wondering just what it is that all those people in the audience are typing and reading.

Berners-Lee's intervention is an unusual example - it is not often that the subject of an anecdote is listening in to respond personally. But it illustrates the possibilities that internet technologies create when you have delegates communicating live.

One of the most widely used instant communication technologies is internet relay chat (IRC). Born before the web in 1988, it is a predecessor of today's instant messaging. IRC allows groups of people to text chat in real time. Anyone on the internet who joins an IRC channel can read the contributions and instantly add comments and questions.

Those on the IRC channel at the Budapest conference evolved a set of conventions for note taking and comments. One person typed in the presentation while others chip in with missed detail or web links, as well as opinions on the points being made by the presenter. When a video clip from the TV comedy Red Dwarf refused to play for a presenter, someone recognised the scene from the still image shown on the slide and less than two minutes later was able to link the script web page to the IRC channel.

In the same week, at the BlogTalk2003 conference in Vienna, different technology was used to a similar effect. Delegates blogged contributions onto their websites, rather than chatting live. Blogging involves typing the content, for example a comment or web link, into a form on a web page just like to the form you fill in when buying something online. When the send button is pressed, the text is automatically put up on the web for anyone to read. If you have a digital camera, pictures are just as easy.

At the BlogTalk conference, Maria Milonas, a sociologist at Warsaw University and one of the presenters, noted in her blog entry that dozens of people were busy writing online as each speaker presented their thoughts. "I can say sincerely that it was not a pleasure," she said. "[It is] a particular kind of stress when you are not really afraid of what you say or who you are but much more of what they are going to write about you."

Steve Cayzer, a research engineer at Hewlett Packard Labs, Bristol, who also presented at BlogTalk, blogged later that day: "Sure, I understand Maria's concern about the presenter but ... maybe it's just a matter of adjustment. Personally, I had no problem with it. Although maybe the people I fondly imagined were real-time blogging my talk were catching up on their email. Or playing Quake."

For delegates, there are many potential advantages to wireless network access. Speakers often put their slides on the web in advance so they can be viewed during the presentation. References can be checked, notes can be collaboratively taken and comments from others who may be more experienced in the topic can be pondered.

Libby Miller, a senior technical researcher at the Institute for Learning and Research Technology at the University of Bristol, gave an interesting example of an unforeseen application. A member of the audience in a crowded conference panel session had been trying to ask a question for some time.

Miller knew that one panel member was reading the IRC channel so she sent him a message, he alerted the chair and the person got to address the meeting. She also remembers a meeting where the output of the IRC channel was projected on a screen above the speakers, adding a new dimension to the meeting interactions.

A common question is: "But how can you concentrate while listening, reading, typing and finding stuff on the web? Surely you pay less attention to the speaker?" Being new to wireless networking at conferences, I initially shared such reservations. But typing notes into IRC, or a blog to a website, is little different from taking written notes. If you can touch type, it can be a lot less distracting. Given that others are contributing, too, the effort can be reduced.

The differences really occur when you are reading input or trying to follow up on references on the web, though even that may be less difficult than it might seem. There are often natural pauses within and between presentations, or bits that are of little relevance to you. With practice, and perhaps a little aptitude, such multitasking can become second nature.

Some delegates use this technology to follow what is going on in a parallel session at the same conference.

There are potentially negative aspects of using these technologies for delegates as well as for speakers. In some sessions at Budapest, about 10 per cent of the audience had laptops - one person was heard to say that the noise of tapping keyboards drowned the speaker out at the back of the room.

And it can be very distracting having someone typing quickly and reading beside you, rather than watching the speaker.

There can also be a feeling of being excluded, not only if you do not have a computer and wireless network card but simply by not being part of a particular online group. At BlogTalk, Cayzer said that there was a "physical barrier of laptops between the audience and speakers" because the power connections were all at the front of the hall so the bloggers had to sit nearby, a clearly identifiable and actively communicating group, the remainder were behind and apart. In Budapest, power cables were spread around the room, but the trailing wires and requests to help "plug this in" could still be irritating.

On balance, I believe that these technologies are likely to be beneficial.

The added possibilities for collective learning and analysis, comprehensive notes with insights and links, often far more extensive than the speaker might have, are advantages previously unimaginable. Perhaps the richest potential lies in the interaction between members of the audience, particularly if you believe that learning and the generation of knowledge are active, engaging and social processes. It is probable that the speakers will find it hardest to adjust. It may be disconcerting to know that members of your audience are, as you speak, using the web to look at your CV, past work and checking any data that seem a bit dubious, seeing what other experts in the field believe, even probing those throwaway anecdotes for veracity. Add to that the knowledge that they are actively talking about you and your presentation, and the nerves can amplify.

Whether you are a speaker or a delegate, see if your next conference has a wireless network. As a speaker, you might want to double check your script and role-play it through from the point of view of a potential, web-enabled delegate. If you are a delegate and you have a laptop and wireless card, take it along - a brave new world awaits.

Paul Shabajee is a research fellow at the Institute for Learning and Research Technology at the University of Bristol.

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