Bodies and screens, voices and tweets, hallways and backchannels, experiencing the American Sociological Association meetings this weekend in Denver means stepping into an atmosphere oversaturated with information. The bombardment can sometimes be overwhelming, with more sessions than you can attend and more tweets than you can read. This isn’t going to be a post on why we should use Twitter at conferences, Whitney Erin Boesel already did that more diplomaticly than I could pull off. Anyways, framing it as ‘why do we continue to meet face-to-face?’ would be more interesting for me. Instead, I simply want to argue that there will not be separate online and offline conferences happening, that Twitter isn’t a backchannel and the session room isn’t the front. The reality of the conference is always both digital and physical for everyone whether their noses are buried in a screen, sheets of paper, or staring unblinkingly at the podium.
One of my favorite conference activities is watching how people sift through this information-saturated environment. Notice their various comportments: some sitting, watching, listening with paper and pen, others clutching a glowing screen. Some are hand-high asking questions out loud, others are tapping angrily at a keyboard. Some are checking Facebook, others in that place between awake and asleep. This is the conference, individuals and their relative position to creating and consuming (i.e., prosuming) the surrounding atmosphere of information, be it analogue or digital.
There is no “backchannel”, there is no more or less “real” way to exist within this atmosphere of information, yet we continue to hear that the Twitter distraction whisks people away from the “real” conference in favor of something separate and “virtual.” Each time we say “real” or “IRL” (“in real life”) to mean offline, we reify the digital dualist myth of a separate digital layer “out there” in some ‘cyber’ space. And when we call Twitter a “backchannel” to mean a separate conversation, running tangent to the offline conference in some space behind precious face-to-face exchanges, we continue to support this digital dualism. The implicit, and incorrect, assumption is that the on and offline are zero-sum, that being offline means being not online, and vice versa.
Instead, the atmosphere of information is always at once analogue and digital, and we exist within it, always both on and offline. The idea of a backchannel is the fantasy of some Matrix-like informationscape untethered by material realty, similar to the complementary fantasy of some purely offline front-channel, some natural habitat untouched by digital contaminants. You can refuse to carry a phone, ignore all screens, and boast to everyone who will listen how old-school you are with your pencil and leather-bound notebook, but you still have not opted out of Twitter or the mislabeled “backchannel.” Akin to what I argued in The IRL Fetish essay, those who proudly fetishize their analogue resistance to digital distraction are still experiencing an augmented conference and are still deeply influenced by what happens online. In fact, they are often less-prepared to understand the nature of that influence.
That said, it remains important to differentiate between information, as it travels fluidly on and offline, that is coming at us from bodies or tweets, paper or pixels. Just as the person neglecting information in its digital form is less-prepared, equally problematic is the logic that being always more deeply digitally connected is a good thing. Neglecting what is happening face-to-face in favor of the backlit action on your screen can be a mistake. Conversational nuances, room dynamics, and of course, undistracted attention to the speaker are all important conference skills. The question should never have been ‘is Twitter good or bad?’ but how to best arrange your digital and analogue inputs and outputs in real-time. Always tuning out the room or Twitter are both failed conference strategies.
If we can acknowledge that the conference is both information and people who are always simultaneously on and offline, we’ll be much better prepared to prosume this information environment. We can stop fetishizing both “revolutionary cyberspace!” as well as pure physical co-presence. It means no one is fully offline. It means there is no such thing as a front or back channel. It means we need to stop saying real and “IRL” to mean offline and “virtual” to mean online. The ASA IRL is Twitter, too. Remember that claims to what is “real” are always claims to knowledge and thus power; it is not insignificant that “real” and “true” have nearly the same antonym.