Technology to Improve the Speaker-Audience Relationship

Liveblog of Drew Harry‘s (@drewwww) MIT Media Lab thesis defense (with readers Wanda Orlikowski, Judith Donath, and Chris Schmandt).

Drew’s thesis presentation covers a range of projects that tell a broader story about complementary communications systems and how people use them. A complementary communication system is simply how a group talks about their shared experience together. From the whisper to the written word, communication’s been around forever, but technology has changed who we reach and how we behave. We sit in rooms with technology interwoven in our presence: our laptops open and projectors whirring.

There are a multiplicity of communication systems, with official front channels and informal back channels of conversation. Anyone who’s ever had to speak in front of a Twitter stream understands the difference between these channels. Drew reframes the relationship as main stages and side stages on which we project our identities. Stages are more intimate than channels, and there’s a stronger feedback loop between the front stage and side stage. The backchannel can be covert and counterproductive, as seen in the tweeted uproar during Sarah Lacy’s interview of Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW 2008, or it can be incorporated into the main stage.

Designers of communications systems have long sought to conquer distance with technology. Replicating face-to-face communication is a huge goal and area of investment, from CISCO’s telepresence strategy to Apple Facetime. But Drew argues that technology can also improve upon the face-to-face experience. Face-to-face is a very difficult medium to compete with; we drop our technology when we can simply experience the rich interactions of face-to-face contact.

But there are downsides: not everyone is equally comfortable participating. Simultaneous speaking is viewed as impolite, so larger groups only sustain a single speaker, leaving out others’ voices. Lastly, you’re stuck with the identity you were born with, which can hinder your ability to be heard.

Drew reviews the checkered history of virtual spaces like SecondLife. Anyone following technology in 2006-7 will remember the hype behind it. And yet the promise of the limitless virtual world often resulted in replications of our existing worlds:

“We can do anything!”

“What should we do?”

“Build virtual houses and offices to live in!”

Drew built new environments in SecondLife where your physical location in the virtual space could signal your feelings. A football field with two endzones marked AGREE and DISAGREE allows individuals to vote with their virtual feet. There was friction in this interface, though. People were used to the real world models of coming into a room and sitting down in one place.


Backchan.nl was a project in 2009 to reconfigure the relationship between a conference speaker and the audience. The project sought to improve on the inefficient social contract that puts us all at the mercy of the first person at the Q&A microphone. Backchan.nl allowed anonymous identities and crowd up-voting of questions, with questions deteriorating over time.

The tool was put online, where it was used for 791 events, from conferences to classrooms to business meetings. The MIT Admissions office used it for their information sessions with remote applicants.

A key consideration in designing these tools is managing attention. We’re all competing with screens, but Drew argues that there are a million ways to ignore the main stage, from sitting in the back of the room to staring at the speaker but zoning out inside your head. People see relevant side stages as a way to keep themselves engaged with the main stage of communication. Additionally, the existence of a backchannel on which to raise concerns and otherwise be heard provides audience members with a sense of agency and control, and a path to improve the conversation, all of which mitigate the traditional attention problem. Allowing the audience to surface shared problems, whether it’s a broken microphone or an overactive air conditioning system, creates awkward moments that force those on the main stage to address the backchannel.


Tin Can is an iPad app to support the flow of attention and participation in more intimate classroom discussions. Students are told that the app keeps track of time, ideas, and topics that come up in the discussions. But its designers were also interested in student engagement, participation in discussion, and awareness of their fellow students. The app shows a roundtable of conversation participants and lists of topics and ideas. Students felt rewarded when their app content made it into the actual conversation, and overactive minds were OK when not every idea they submitted made it to the main stage. The professor brought it all together by promoting individual quotes and ideas from students without necessarily focusing the entire class’s attention on a shy contributor. Students who don’t participate turned out to be very self-aware of their lack of verbal contribution, and appreciated their ability to contribute and interact with the professor without becoming the center of the group’s attention.

The app raised the question of defining the main stage itself. The main stage might be a boring Powerpoint slideshow, while the Tin Can app hosted a more compelling conversation. Drew sees the app as training wheels for the classroom environment, where it can pick up the slack when the main stage’s communication fails the audience, but it can clearly also be a distraction.


ROAR blows up the scale of the online audience to stadium-level proportions. There are two levels of interaction in a stadium, Drew says: the small group of people you came with, and the much larger crowd around you. Drew sought to determine the broader activity levels across the larger crowd: What are they interested in? What are the immediate trending topics and reactions across the large audience? The Pulse feature scans the realtime chat for keywords and highlights them in the fluid stream.

Drew compares and contrasts the key variables across these tools. Is the main stage mediated? Is the side stage publicly displayed, or is it private? How frequently is the side stage expected to be used? And what’s the scale of the audience?


Abstract: 

We have long assumed that being face-to-face is the best environment for social interaction. But is “being there” the best we can aspire to? One common approach to improving face-to-face contexts is to add new communication channels — a strategy often described as creating “backchannels.” In my work, I use a series of novel complementary communication systems to show both how adding communication platforms to collaborative situations can be useful while also arguing for a new conceptual model of side stages (in the Goffman sense) that contrasts with the traditional model of backchannels. I will describe a series of projects that embody this approach and explore its limits. This will include work on virtual world meetings and presentations, an audience interaction tool for large groups (backchan.nl), a tablet-based system for small group discussions (Tin Can), and a platform for connecting huge distributed audiences (ROAR). In each of these projects I will trace my three major research themes: understanding how conversational grounding operates in these environments, how non-verbal actions complement text-based interaction, and how people make decisions about how to manage their attention in environments with multiple simultaneous communication channels.

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