Iâ€™ve been to a few events this year that all had something in common: online chat during the presentations or discussions. Usually it was done with IRC, which allows anyone with an Internet connection and the technical ability to join in the chat. Iâ€™ve been thinking about my experiences lately and how it affects my attention.
I have mixed feelings overall. The chat creates a second place for me to spend my attention at the event and Iâ€™d say that if I split my attention between the chat and a presentation, Iâ€™d be able to devote 30-40% to each. Obviously, Iâ€™d be better off sticking to just one.
Sometimes the chat is on-topic, which maximizes both resources. As someone mentions an author (for instance), a chatter will post a link to the book or provide more info about the subject matter. I enjoy these additions to the presentation and often refer to the links.
The off-topic chat represents a unique problem for me. First, Iâ€™ve often found it more compelling than the live presentation. People may disagree or discuss something contentious that brings more people into the fray and my peaks my interest. I get sucked into watching the words scroll by. But, itâ€™s off topic, so I feel bad for missing out on the presentation. I donâ€™t want to be rude to the presenter and I would hate to know that it was happening during my presentation.
Something I found interesting last time was my ability to get to know people through the chat. I sat beside two people who were dedicated chatters. By the end of the event, I got to know them much, much more through the chat than I did sitting beside them. Itâ€™s a little sad, but true.
We talked about it at the event and I voiced my thoughts that the chat makes me divide my attention inefficiently. I quickly found out that others have a lot more bandwidth than me. I think Iâ€™m just wired differently. Tom Coates said he often chats on IRC, IMs multiple people, writes emails and keeps up with the presentation without skipping a beat. Not I, but I bet teenagers today are increasingly capable of this feat.
I saw a couple of examples of heavy chatters asking (in the IRC channel) â€œHas the presenter talked about XYZ?â€??, which to me was an obvious example of presentation attention deficit.
I think the chat also created a digital divide in the room. People without computers were completely left out. Then there were people who couldnâ€™t connect with wi-fi or couldnâ€™t figure out how to get into IRC (I had this problem for a while). I was a little uncomfortable about the how this felt for the folks left out of the action.
So I have mixed feelings. I've only been in a few events with chat going and I'm sure there are a lot of other perspectives out there.