Thursday, November 19, 2009

Communication Good, Communication Bad

Two articles in the Chronicle at the top of the most viewed list are interesting to contrast. First is "Turnaround President Makes the Most of His College’s Small Size" about G. T. Smith as President of David & Elkins College:
[I]n higher education, Mr. Smith is known as a turnaround artist, a man with the talent and disposition to take a failing college and transform it into a winner.
Quoting Smith, they give the reason for his success as "The underlying thing for me is relationships—hardly anything important happens that doesn't have to do with relationships." For example:
After years of stagnant enrollment at Davis & Elkins—which had developed a dismal local reputation, according to some local high-school counselors—the freshman class was up 50 percent this fall. As of November, the number of applications was more than seven times higher than at this time in 2007, and eight students had already put down deposits. Consider that those numbers came after the college had canceled its advertising campaign and done away with mass mailings in favor of a highly personal approach to recruiting students: getting to know their names, their parents' names, their dogs' names, and conveying the message that at this college of 700 students, you're part of a family.
A bit off-topic, but equally fascinating is his take on the changing landscape of higher education, which I've speculated wildly about in these virtual pages. Pres. Smith's version:
"We can't in a Pollyannaish way say, 'The liberal-arts college will always survive.' We are all under threat or under siege," he says. "It comes down to whether you are going to look at your future based entirely upon your past or what others are doing, or whether you are going to look at the fundamentals, the principles, the basics, and have the discipline to stay with those."
That was "Communication Good." Now the other one.

A while back I blogged happily about the backchannel--the emergence of live chattering by text, Twitter, blogging, etc. during presentations, class meetings, or any occasion where people have the means and time. It's the 21st century version of passing notes and whispering.

Today's references are:
You can gather from the titles what happened. In the case of the last article on the list, a presenter at Web 2.0 Expo was giving her talk with a huge screen in the background showing the conference Twitter channel feed. When some tweeters started making disparaging comments on the backchannel, she didn't understand why the audience was reacting oddly to her talk, and got understandably flustered. The other articles talk about other instances of this "tweckling," a neologism I find kind of cute, even if the behavior is reprehensible.

Interestingly, browsing Technorati for "backchannel" only produces positive-sounding hits, with advice for speakers on how to build one, for example.

The moral of the story? It would be ridiculous to try to generalize anything based on these two completely different articles about communication, so I can't resist. The difference is between high-bandwidth, high-stakes (personal responsibility for words) communication and low-bandwidth, low-stakes (essentially anonymous) communication. It's not that the first is good and the second bad, just that they're very different. And the no-man's land in between--email--is the worst of both worlds: high stakes and low bandwidth. Ever had a joke or off-hand comment interpreted differently than you intended it? Add to that the ease of someone sending your email to a third party, and the potential for mischief multiplies.

One of the articles notes that some conferences post rules of etiquette for the backchannel. Of course, if the tweeters are anonymous, this isn't going to have much effect. In the end, though, there isn't true anonymity on the Internet. Pretty much anything can be traced if there is enough interest in doing so. Best policy, in my opinion, is: if you think it's important to say it, put your name on it, be clear, and be polite. I probably fail on the second point, but it's a work in progress. The best payoff would be to get almost as much mileage out of low-bandwidth communication as Pres. Smith gets out of high-bandwidth communication. That's a powerful idea that could spawn a sea of consultants: maximize the effect of short, text-based, remote communication.

Of course, this is the Internet; someone's probably wrote a book on it already.

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