The Before, During, and After of a Conference Backchannel

The topic of this past week’s #chat2lrn session was “Backchannels”. I was invited as a guest for the chat and wrote a post to set things up entitled Backchannels: How to Make the Most of a Conference.

The chat was well attended and very active. I think this is representative of the growing awareness that exists, not only in the concept of a backchannel, but also of the value that they can bring to a learning experience.  A number of questions came up during the chat, and have inspired a few blog posts.

This initial post reflects on the the first question posted during the chat, which asked people to share their experience with backchannels. The various answers here indirectly gave the only real ‘correct’ answer to the question: There really is no wrong way for an individual to participate in a backchannel.

Now, I could split hairs here. I could tell you that I personally define ‘participation’ as a conscious action taken to insert yourself into the backchannel workflow, or put it more simply… To join the conversation.  But that’s a deeper dive than this question was intended to explore.

Many people in the chat shared their backchannel experiences, which included things like:

  • I like to read the tweets from conferences I can not attend.
  • I like to tweet my notes from sessions.
  • I like to read the backchannel feed after attending a conference.

Some people jump in and participate. They actively engage others and start conversations. Others may not tweet at all, and may simply view the stream and explore the sharing. Still others may not actually view the backchannel at all and simply look to others to curate the value for them.  The point here is that neither approach is right or wrong. Each individual must determine what his or her own personal definition of ‘value’ is for a backchannel and seek that out.

Keep in mind though, it’s a much deeper experience to participate in a backchannel then to simply view it (or lurk, as the phrase often goes). It’s like swimming: You can gain some insight from the edge of the pool, but you can’t really experience swimming by watching others in the pool doing it; to truly appreciate it you need to jump into the water yourself.

Another aspect of the backchannel that is often overlooked is the ‘when’. A basic and common definition of a backchannel often sounds like this: an online conversation about the topic or the speaker taking place during a presentation. There’s a certain literal aspect of that definition that is true. The backchannel concept started there, as a conduit for conversations that were taking place in real-time, with our without a speakers’ knowledge.

That’s all true.  It’s just that I think the definition of ‘backchannel’ has evolved into something that goes beyond its literal definition.

If we limit ourselves to only that – to the ‘during a presentation’ part of the definition – we miss out on much of the value available from a backchannel.  For example, here are some of the valuable things that are shared via a conference backchannel both before and after a conference session:


Speakers often share information about the sessions they are conducting. Sure, some of these tweets are nothing more than an advertisement, but often they include links to articles and blog posts related to their sessions. This can provide an excellent foundation for a session you are considering attending. These sorts of posts can also assist you in planning your conference agenda, sparking interest in sessions you may not have considered or clarifying a session that you then choose not to attend.

Participating in a backchannel in advance of an event is also a great way to connect with other attendees. Networking is always a large part of a conference experience. Connecting with other attendees enhances this tremendously. I’ve ‘met’ many people at conferences that I feel as though I already know based on our online connections. Backchannels are a big part of that. In addition, attendees share ideas about sessions and their plans, which can help you set your plan as an individual.


In just about every presentation, speaking engagement, or workshop I conduct, I conclude with some version of this statement: What happens during a conference is somewhat meaningless; what really matters is what we do differently afterwards based on what we learned while there.

It’s for this reason that I often consider the time period after a conference event concludes to have the most important and most valuable information being shared. It’s at this point that attendees (and others) begin to reflect on what they learned from a conference, capture these reflections in blog post, Evernote notes, Diigo lists, and countless other vehicles, and share them with others via the conference hashtag.

Great Backchannels are Active Before, During, and After an Event

It’s through this expanded definition that includes time both before and after an event that backchannels really explode as a professional development resource. The literal definition positions a backchannel as a set timeframe matched to that of the live sessions. It’s much more than that.

A vibrant event backchannel starts well before an event and continues well afterwards.  There are event hashtags that I continue to engage with for weeks and months after an event takes place.

It’s in those examples that I see this expanded definition of backchannel taking place, one in which the event becomes a catalyst for the emergence of an online community.

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