Update 01/11/2010: This post was nominated for the Edublog higher ed Most Influential Blog Post of 2009. Even though we didn’t win, I personally want to thank all of you that voted for us. Thank you for all of your support!
It all began at 11:59AM with a simple little post from @mherzber. Nothing major, just an observation about some visual displeasure with the first slide of the second keynote speaker’s Powerpoint on Tuesday. And then it got bad. Very bad. Then worse. And worse. And worse. Both the keynote AND the Twitter backchannel during it. Several people outside the conference caught on and have talked about it, and I thought it might be of value to provide a voice from someone who was there, and explain what happened, how, and why it’s not all bad.
So, some background. The keynote speaker was David Galper, of the failed (and mildly infamous) Ruckus service. That was the first sign that things were about to go wrong. I talked to several people the day before that were a little perplexed by the choice, and it was then that *I* connected the dots (sometimes I’m slow). I hadn’t read the description closely, so I hadn’t connected Galper and Ruckus right offhand. See, Ruckus got a bunch of VC, offered a service to colleges that allowed a way for students to download music legally (with DRM, and only if you used Windows), and then burned out six years later amid a storm of criticism. Turns out, the suspicion was well placed. If you haven’t already, you can go read all the backchannel (the fun starts at 11:59AM). I’ll warn you, it’s long, and it starts to get pretty acerbic about a half hour in. Now, here’s what I want to talk about. First off, I think people researching the incident need some context, because a lot of what has been said about it has come from people not at all related to the event. Two, let’s look at what happened. And last, what you can take away.
First off, people who attend HighEdWeb aren’t a bunch of immature, angry, hatemongering lunatics, as some might call us (well, I’m a little crazy, but good crazy. Most of the time.). The very contrary, actually. I know some of the tweets that came through were from people who weren’t there, and they basically said they wouldn’t want to be affiliated with a group that would roast a speaker like that. The proportion of those roasting were small compared to the whole, so I hate that the lumping together has to take place. We have a HUGE tolerance for presentations. The first keynote is a prime example. Many of us disagreed with some of what Jared Spool had to say, but we respected him and appreciated his effort at putting together a thoughtful keynote, content aside. And sure, a few of us poked some fun at Jared too, but it was in good spirit. He was a good speaker, and showed us that he was ready for us. There was also an unfortunate incident where a fellow attendee had her laptop stolen, and the community came together and donated enough money for her to go out on the last day and buy a new one. There was even talk of trying to start up some kind of scholarship type fund to help out people next year who might not have the budget to come, but would benefit from the experience. We are extremely friendly, unlimitedly helpful, and very fun. This is why when things are so bad that it breaks all ability to cope, we push back. Our tolerance is high, and our expectations are such that not meeting them really means you’ve failed completely. It’s the difference between just saying “man, that was pretty bad, hope it’s better next year,” and “that was terrible, and the only way to deal with it is to do something that creates the word harshtag.” We also speak our minds. Being in higher ed means playing a lot of politics. Getting to be with a group of like minded people allows us to break free a little bit, and it’s refreshing being able to be truthful with people that understand you, because we were all pretty equally disappointed. That’s the environmental effect that we deal with, that others can’t really appreciate. So it’s not that we ask for a lot, we just ask for a couple important things.
Now, what happened. As I mentioned, it started out simply enough. A few comments about how things seemed to be starting off sort of on the wrong foot. Then it got worse. Then things were off to the races. Believe me when I say that while the backchannel eventually got quite harsh, it was not out of line with respect to what was being viewed. The presentation was what many of us would call a fairly egregious breach of professional protocol on its own. It really was that bad: slides with paragraphs of text, poorly presented video with dated music that was too loud, comparisons and examples that were out of date, and a general feeling like it was a presentation developed five years ago for an audience that clearly had no clue what he would be talking about. But we get it, we’re there, we understand the channels; in this sense, we were well ahead of the keynote. Twitter allows two things to happen very well: mobs feed on themselves, and the slippery slope gets very steep and extremely slick. There’s also the snowballing analogy. Pick your poison. Bottom line, there was a lack of respect for the topic, a clear void in researching the audience, and just bad presentational ability. A perfect storm, if you will. And once the tweeting started, it simply became more fun to be in the stream than put up with the presentation. In a way, it was less about being snarky towards the speaker, and more about amusing each other by sharing and exaggerating the pain.
Personally, I feel worse for the HighEdWeb committee on this than the presenter, because I know it reflected poorly on the conference on the whole, and it puts them under a huge microscope for next year. I also would hate to have put them under any pressure as a result of something that they didn’t have control over. “You can’t stop the signal, Mal.” It brought attention to one negative, and ignored the mountains of positive associated with the conference, and that just plain sucks. I’ll be the first to step up and apologize, not for everything I said, but certainly one comment towards the end that might have went a bit far in retrospect (I’m also so very glad I resisted people’s requests for me to Kanye him). I think that it’s important to admit that several of us might have overstepped a professional line, but I think the event itself was not uncalled for and is an important example that audiences are no longer passive. You can’t just cram what you want down their throats without consequence. Presentational etiquette is changing along with audience expectations. Twitter is there, and people are going to use it, for good or for bad. One comment to me was that no one (at the keynote) came to his defense, no one was a voice of reason to calm down. While that may or may not have helped, the reason it didn’t happen was because there was nothing worth defending. And I do think that in a situation like this, constructive criticism becomes almost unhelpful. For that to work, there would need to be something worth salvaging, but in this case that just wasn’t there. One person mentioned later that for example, in TV, when things are going bad you just pull the plug. There’s also a certain expectation that comes with attending a conference that you pay for, where you are effectively paying for the keynote speaker. The standards are higher, and we expect you to step up, not down. In the tech world, you’re terribly exposed, and you’re expected to hit home runs all the time. If you can’t, there’s a lot of others that can. If you’ve lost your edge, it shows fast and blatantly. When it is so painfully obvious that you haven’t researched your audience, haven’t done your due diligence, then you might as well not bother, because we’re smart enough to see through the bull. All that aside, it excuses nothing, but only in the way that you wouldn’t excuse a tornado destroying a barn. It’s like its own force of nature at some point: destructive but naturally occurring.
So what’s to learn? Many of the other blogs mentioned at the start have covered the basics, most of which is common sense. Know your audience, make connections, PREPARE. I won’t really rehash them in any detail, since the other blogs are worth reading too just for their information on being a prepared presenter. There’s two real simple rules though that one can apply: Don’t be dumb, and don’t suck. You aren’t untouchable on stage, and it no longer means you get instant credibility. The web is a savage, competitive field where Darwin rules. And I’m not saying that you can’t shop around the same presentation at several conferences. But you do need to keep it up to date (6 months is really pushing it for presentation age in this era), and you do need to make sure some relevance is tossed in so your audience feels like you know them. Not doing so is like a slap in the face to them, and now the audience can slap back. If you can’t put in the effort, or you aren’t good at it, then don’t do keynotes. I think from the administrative side, a careful vetting process needs to be applied to potential keynotes. There’s no shortage of people out there these days with impressive looking résumés and credentials, but that means a lot less than it used to. A fast preview of this guy’s Powerpoint would have revealed the potential trouble to come pretty easily. And it might not hurt for official Twitter accounts to step into the hashtag and provide a polite nudge to maybe cool it down a little.
In the end, it has to be taken as a learning experience for everyone. What’s done is done, and the best thing you can do is learn from it and plow ahead. I hope that if and when David sees all the chatter (thus far it appears he has no Twitter account, yet) he can forgive the comments and use it as an opportunity to improve. He might be a great guy for all we know, he was just a crappy keynote for that particular time and place, and I hope he can find success in the future. I think that it was an important experience that was going to happen somewhere, someday, and it just happened to be HighEdWeb 2009, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen again somewhere else in the future. The important thing is that we take something away from it that can make us better for it in the future, and not let it lower us overall.