I didn't actually get to see the now infamous Mark Zuckerberg interview yesterday at SXSW, but having read through about six thousand blog posts about it, I feel as though I've seen it. And, naturally, I have some thoughts about what happened, some of which connect to what happened the day before when I was on the same stage talking with Henry Jenkins.
Most accounts of the interview have talked about the role that the Twitter "back channel" played in the event. Clearly it was pivotal, and I think it sheds some interesting light on how face-to-face group events are changing thanks to communication tools like Twitter.
I probably did more than fifty public appearances last year in front of crowds -- speeches, conversations, interviews, panel discussions, etc. And every time I get up there, the primary thing I'm thinking about -- more than the words themselves, most of which I've said before in roughly the same sequence -- is the room tone. In the words of our commander in chief: is the audience with me or against me? Are they having fun? Are they confused? Am I talking at too technical a level? Am I being condescending and talking down?
This can be very hard to gauge, because the information channels that flow back from an audience to a speaker are very narrow ones. An audience enraptured by a fascinating story is, most of the time, indistinguishable from an audience slumbering at a ponderous lecture. You can't read facial expressions in that environment, so all you have to go on is the sound, and the sound in both those cases is silence.
This is the main reason that I compulsively make jokes when I'm in front of a crowd. Not because I'm a ham (though that's no doubt part of it) and not even because the audience likes to laugh. The big reason to make jokes is because they're the best way to get a quick read on the collective mind of the group you're talking to. The volume of the laugh is important, but so is the lag time. You can tell immediately if they're on your side, and if they're really following what you're saying, by how quickly the crowd responds to your jokes. And in doing so you open up the channels of information flowing back to you from the audience. If they're slow, you know you have to adjust, wake them up a little. If they're quick, you know you've got their attention.
In our talk on Saturday, Henry took another approach that had the same effect: he had a couple of "rallying cry" lines that set up the audience to murmur or applaud in endorsement. (A bunch were about Obama.) That's a great approach if you can pull it off; you really know you have your crowd if they're clapping mid-conversation.
But most of the time the crowd is quiet and unknowable. The room tone is silent. The one advantage you have as a speaker is that this unknowability extends into the crowd itself. Each individual might be sitting there quietly steaming at the absurdity of your comments, but unless they start openly hissing at you, they have no way of realizing that all of their neighbors are feeling the same hostile sentiments. And because people are more inclined to chuckle, laugh, or clap than they are to boo or hiss, the public signals that flow back to the center stage tend to be positive or indifferent, and not openly negative.
But backchannels like Twitter change all that. When enough audience members connect with each other, a consensus room tone can quickly form, with each member's personal outrage amplified silently by his or her neighbors'. Onstage, of course, you see and hear none of this. All you know is that the crowd is quiet Until something tips, and they start vocalizing as a group, having been empowered by the backchannel consensus.
And that's the irony of it: you have a thunderous room tone that is audible to everyone in the room except the people on the stage.
I'm not sure what to make of this. I think the overall system is on the whole better than the traditional lecture information channels. But I also think it has its quirks and points where it fails outright -- and given all that, Sarah Lacy probably had a case when she said she had a hard job up there. But maybe by thinking these issues through we can make it easier next time around.