In fact, sometimes it’s just a mob. And mobs can be very ugly.

Photo courtesy of O'Reilly Media

Photo courtesy of O'Reilly Media

danah boyd’s keynote yesterday at Web 2.0 Expo was a prime example of a mob mentality. Behind each of the speakers ran a live Twitterstream, which pulled everything tagged #w2e. In boyd’s case (she was the last speaker) the audience used it to at first criticize and then make fun of her delivery. Unfortunately, she couldn’t see the stream in order to use some of the feedback productively. All she heard was the laughter of the audience (read her perspective on it here). It was an extremely uncomfortable experience, and, frankly, it really pissed me off.

Those of us in this space are always talking about the importance of transparency and unvarnished feedback, and the wisdom of crowds. What the audience did at Web 2.0 yesterday technically fit into those boxes. Hey – she wasn’t doing a great job, they were having their say! – but it was also mean and rude. Getting on stage in front of a room full of strangers is a high-pressure experience, no matter how much you love the rush. Having that audience start inexplicably laughing at you? That’s the stuff of nightmares.

I’m not going to say that boyd’s talk was fantastic. It was too fast, it was dense, and she did read from her notes. But even still, the crowd knew that what they were doing was wrong – they knew they were a mob; every time anyone posted a tweet calling out those who were mocking Boyd, the room seemed shamed, quieting significantly (full disclosure: I sent a few myself).

So, in closing: the “old” rules of human decency still apply in this new space. If you tweeted something during danah boyd’s keynote you thought would generate a chuckle, you’re a coward. If you truly wanted to improve the experience, you should have had the courage to stand up, raise your hand, and ask her to slow down a bit.


  1. No way

    Really you would have rather someone stand up and put the breaks to a keynote speaker (why didn’t you if it pissed you off that’s others ragged)

    I found it amazing how the Twitter feed went from great to evil in all of 3 minutes.

    Sure you may say by no putting my name up I’m a coward but don’t sit on your chair and say the crowd did wrong (but I didn’t try to stop it).

  2. I was not there, but following through LiveStream. I was pissed off too because the crowd make her lose her focus. The content she exposed was really good and shame on W2E if they keep putting the Tweetstream back there. People that had any critics to her could’ve save them for later, but laughing at someone talking is not the right thing.

    The Tweet stream is not good or bad per se, but some people in that audience made a use of it to make it a bad thing for Dana’s presentation.

    Also I’m sure many people while laughing and tweeting lost all the valuable information she shared.

  3. Maggie DID try to stop it. I quote from: – “I have an idea – the next time you give a presentation at work, I’ll spend all of my attention live-tweeting criticisms of you, ok?”

  4. maggiefox Author

    @No way – Bob is right and also? I didn’t have an issue with her delivery. BTW nothing cowardly at all about leaving an anonymous comment, either (couldn’t resist pointing that out).

  5. Bert Bates

    Back channel criticism is ALWAYS uncivil.

    New technology doesn’t change ancient standards of civility. When you show up to hear a speaker you’ve entered into an implied contract with the speaker. Real time critiques are not the same as reporting. In the civilized world you follow the rules of conversation, and you’re free to make whatever criticisms you’d like… after the fact.

  6. It is an interesting phenomenon – I have been teaching Presentation Skills I also do a lot of work in front of audiences – this is a whole new enchilada! What were they thinking? This idea of a live Twitter stream is the reverse of a laugh track.

    It has been my experience that even the most mild-manered folks get slightly transformed behind a computer – in this case a smart phone – the same way some do behind the wheel of a car. They would not stand up and say some of the things I understand were Tweeted, but they will type it.

    Thankfully there are some manners left in our society (Mind you, I wonder sometimes?) and we refrain from acting like louts in a seedy road house and most of the time refrain from tossing beer bottles at the stage. (See The Blues Brother movie – art imitates life!)

    In presentations this practice of showing a live feed would be the same as dangling shiny things in front of a flock of chickens… Oooooo something shiny!

    It travels so far in the wrong direction from delivering a professional presentation where you engage the audience and create a shared moment. Everyone would be transfixed on the feed (screen) and I believe Maggie coined a phrase be engaged in Gloatvertising! (Great phrase I think you coined it???)

    You see everyone thinks they are funny. Everyone thinks they are comedians. We have turned into a society of Class Clowns. And that is the absolute last thing you want in or near a presentation.

  7. Maggie:

    I agree with the post – I think it is just rude behavior and one shouldn’t indulge in it. In fact how about paying attention to the speaker while they speak?


  8. Martijn Linssen

    Here’s my take on it:

    In all honesty, it was a bad presentation. The response was bad as well. And no one did anything to really change anything. Dana didn’t stop reading or start looking at the audience (or behind her), the audience didn’t stop tweeting and laughing

    Reminds me of highschool and teachers who are giving their first lesson(s). If everyone’s laughing and you’re not being funny, “it is a sign”…
    A few teachers would actually just ask “can you please share with me what’s so funny” and it would all just end there

    Just don’t blame Twitter for a bad performance. It’s lack of communication. On both sides

    So. Can we please focus on her content now? Here it is:

  9. I have to ask the question, does anyone think the mob reaction on twitter had anything to do with her being a woman?

  10. No matter how good or bad a presentation is, it’s ill-advised to post taunts on a public forum that might live forever in a Google cache or a third-party web site. Indicents like this help hiring managers and VCs separate professionals from wannabes.

  11. Here’s a simple question: what is the purpose of having a Twitter feed displayed behind a speaker anyway?
    What is the benefit to this? How does this enhance the experience?
    I have seen poor speakers, even keynotes. Either I sit quietly or I leave the room politely. Then if someone asks my opinion, I give a straight forward answer: it could have been better, and this is why…
    I have also been on the other end. I have given presentations that did not go as well I had hope. And you know when it is going bad. It’s going bad for the audience and for you. With candid feedback, you learn how to be better at presentations.
    So again what is the purpose of Twitter in this venue? I simply do not understand.

  12. Tweckling is obnoxious, but it’s what people do when they don’t feel they have democratic participation and don’ tohave a say in social media.

    Danah Boyd is one of these heavily, heavily rotated gurus on all the conference circuits that was spoiled too young because her mentors beamed overly on her when she was getting her Ph.D. and just feted and cossetted her everywhere. It was really nauseating to watch, and her politically-correct California ideology has just been impossible to take — with little opportunity to question it because the powers-that-be in Silicon Valley just prop her up too much.

    So I think you have an industry-created figure like this who just doesn’t work for a lot of people because she’s just too glib and politically correct, along with being academically dense, they rebel.

    And that’s a wake-up call to Danah and her supporters and masters that their message isn’t so palatable anymore.

    Good for Twitter, in helping show the Emperors and their entourage have no clothes.

    Back channel is here to stay. While it has the uncoutheness of the IRC channel subhuman culture of male tekkies, as a medium it is unparalleled in helping people connect and comment on topics in real time in democratic ways. The pipe should not be removed. The incivility is not fixed by controlling content. It is only put in balance by putting out more and more content of a good nature with more and more open pipes.

  13. scott

    yeah, the problem here is a twitter feed which upstages the presenter with a hugely powerful, easy access platform for hecklers. not very smart on w2e’s part.

  14. This incident effectively sounds like cyberbullying. The whole idea of Twitterwalls adds no value to a conference or presentation

  15. maggiefox Author

    @Prokofy sorry – I’m not buying your thesis that the crowd was “oppressed” in this circumstance, and I’m also not advocating the removal of the backchannel.

    My point is simple: just because you’re using technology to communicate doesn’t mean you get to act like an asshat with no regard for others’ feelings. Human decency is important, and hiding behind ideology is just an excuse for bad behaviour.

  16. Wisdom of the yobs. In public or behind a tech wall, louts, mobs, yobs, they never change. This is an object lesson for those who plan to crowdsource – could be some very harsh lessons in some people’s futures. Cheers. Ted.

  17. @Maggiefox – your response to @prokofy is spot on. Civilized behavior requires basic decency from people. @prokofy did have a good point – the back channel has always been around. Social media has just made the chatter more visible.

  18. KateNonymous

    I’m so glad to see someone else juxtapose “wisdom of crowds” and “mob”. I’m amazed that people buy into the idea that a group is always going to be superior.

    Sadly, too many of us will never learn the difference between true criticism (valid questioning and analysis) and rude snarking. There are ways in which live Tweeting can be really helpful, but this isn’t one of them–no matter what the presentation was.

  19. First, if you sent the tweets, live with it, don’t call other people out for doing it and second, WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD.

    So her preso sucked. That happens. People reacted in a juvenile matter. It happens.

    Perhaps it’s time our standards are raised.

  20. So let me get this straight, you have a big screen with a live twitter feed behind the speaker and you didn’t expect it to turn into a bit of a mob scene? OH Really?

  21. My question is not why they’d allow a public view of the backchannel, but why wasn’t danah boyd given access to the same view? How would she even be able to see any negative reactions of the audience or be able to address their issues or change the course of her content or style of her delivery? At best it’s narrow-minded to not give her access to the backchannel. At worst it’s cruel and exploitative — throw her to the mob! Let’s see how she does!

    I was not there, so I cannot comment on the presentation nor on danah boyd. But I speak often and always keep the backchannel right in front of me. I’d never stand up in front of a crowd with that liability behind my back.

  22. sleeprun

    We have found that guys, especially type-a/tech guys minds:
    – Do not track what women are saying well
    – Can not pay attention for very long, their brains are designed so they just run out of gas – especially when a woman is talking to them…
    – On social media tend to regress quickly to: A. hostility B. inappropriate sexual comments. They are horrible on Twitter! They cannot carry-on extended polite tweeting.

    In my consulting work it’s critical to be able to put firm and instant boundaries and block these pretty typical behaviors. In most social situations where a type-a guy is stressed the hostile/aggressive behaviors take over. In social media, this is just accentuated, plus there’s a guy/macho feedback loop. Too bad, but predictable.

    Never take it personally. Their brains and hormones make ’em do it.

  23. sleeprun

    ….me agin, remember that this is a SYMPTOM not the problem…thet problem was that her ideas and thinking blew the brain fuses of a lot of the audience…that’s why we avoid conferences…if it’s not already accepted wisdom…ppls defense get triggered…they either zone-out or flame-out!!……who cares…the reseaqrch on group information processing has this covered pretty well……

    …we save real ideas for selected groups who already “get it”…pablum for the rest….getting slapped down like this is a good quick signal for her to avoid these kind of forums…the rest of us would prob even pay to get her latest and very quickest ideas…

    ….taking it personally from either sender of receiver doesn’t track the data…it’s largely unconscious reflex….externalizing behavior…..pretty boring…

    …in any somed you gotta expect it and slap them back down immediately….and block ’em….sure they’ll change…they’ll get worse!!

  24. +1 Lyell. It would have been so easy to put an LCD panel in Danah’s line of sight.

  25. Interesting – engagement works in social media but not at conferences? It’s more important for a keynote presenter to “broadcast” than to “respond”?
    How hard would it be to stop, read the tweets, ask for a show of hands, adapt, respond, measure? Or does that only happen online, not in real world?
    Real questions, I know what I believe but we all differ no?

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