The ‘Chat’ Infrastructure At IWMW 2008
Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 5 August 2008
The First Use Of Realtime Chat An IWMW Event
The IWMW 2005 event held at the University of Manchester on 6-8th July 2005 was the first time that a WiFi network was used at UKOLN’s IWMW annual event. I had attended the EUNIS 2005 conference a few week’s prior to this and presented a paper on Using Networked Technologies To Support Conferences. This paper described the potential benefits which networked applications could provide to what Lorcan Dempsey subsequently described as Amplified Conferences. As described in that paper we ensured that we described the technologies which would be available at the IWMW 2005 event and provided an AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) covering use of the technologies.
I think there were less than 20 participants who made use of the event ‘chat’ infrastructure, which was provided by IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and those taking part were mainly Web managers ho had a very technical focus, as can be seen from the IRC archives. The nature of the discussions changed, however, on the second day of the event, the 7th July 2005 or, as it became known 7/7 – a date that (fortunately) is not as globally significant as 9/11 but, especially for those with London connections, a date which will be associated with the London Bombings.
It was a very surreal experience following a message on the IRC channel about was was initially reported as a train crash on the London Underground, and the subsequent discussion.
Jul 07 10:08:02 <Tim>explosion on london underground. entire network closed!!
Jul 07 10:09:04 <–DavidBailey has quit (Quit: CGI:IRC (EOF))
Jul 07 10:10:06 <JeremySpellerUCL>explosion where?
Jul 07 10:10:15 <Tim>liverpool street
Jul 07 10:10:35 <JeremySpellerUCL>Grief
Jul 07 10:10:40 <Tim>metropolitan line, two trains collided, several wounded
Jul 07 10:10:58 <Stuart_Steele_Aston>Tthe bbc site is grinding?
Jul 07 10:11:02 <JMHarmer>bbc news site not responding – u saw the news report? prrsumably everyone else is trying to now.
The launch of a WiFi-enabled IWMW event will be one that will be remembered for a long time by those who took part in the discussions on that day.
The ‘Back Channel’ At IWMW 2008
Moving forward to IWMW 2008 we knew that many of the participants would expect a real time communications infrastructure to be provided, as this has been the norm at IWMW and many other UKOLN events since 2005. And as we were video streaming the plenary talks we expected to have remote participants joining in the discussions, too.
Over time the terms used to refer this technology has developed. Use of the term ‘chat’ has decreased, in part due to its derogatory connotations but also due to a move away from IRC to move native Web-based communications technologies. I have heard the term ‘back channel’ being used, and this term works when it is used if (as was the case with Ewan McIntosh, the final plenary speaker at IWMW 2008) it is used to provide realtime feedback to a speaker. But more commonly the realtime communications technology is used by the audience (both those physically present, those watching a video stream and also, in some cases, those who may only have access to an audio stream or are viewing the PowerPoint slides). The term ‘micro blog’ has also been used (indeed this is how I described the service on the IWMW 2008 Web site) but that suggests a official commentary on an event, rather than the discussion forum which was how the service was actually used). I don’t think there is yet a widely agreed term to describe this, so for now I’ll use the term ‘back channel’.
Since IWMW 2007 Twitter has become very popular in certain circles, and most IWMW 2008 participants will have heard of it, even if they weren’t Twitter users. However we decided not to suggest use of Twitter as the event back channel, as, when I’ve tried this previously, I’ve found it is too intrusive those who follow me on Twitter who aren’t at the event or aren’t interested in the event.
There was a need for a tool, I felt, similar to Twitter, but which was less intrusive. I had some experience of Coveritlive (at events such as the eFoundations Symposia – although I haven’t been able to find the archive of the discussions). However I found a number of niggles with that software, including the need to (normally) approve comments. In response to a tweet for alternative suggestions I decided to make use of Scribbeitlive.
This did have some advantage, but also some weaknesses. As Andy Powell commented on the eFoundations blog:
My feeling is that ScribbleLive makes better use of screen real-estate. On the other hand, Coveritlive has better bells and whistles and more facilities around moderation (which can be good or bad depending on what you want to do). In particular (and somewhat surprisingly), Coveritlive handles embedded URLs much better than ScribbleLive. Overall, my preference is slightly twoards Coveritlive – though I could be swayed either way.
In response to Andy’s post Matt Jukes and Phil Wilson suggested that neither tool was ideal for the job. I would agree with this – I think we will see much development in this area, not only in enhancing the usability of the tools but also in allowing the data to be more easily integrated with other tools. I would like, for example, to be able to have tools to allow me to export the data to other environments (I have migrated the content to the IWMW 2008 Web site, but I had to do that manually). It would also be useful to be able to link comments with particular presneter’s slides or the video – without having the disucssion having to be tightly-coupled with the multimedia experience (as seems to be the case with, for example, the Elluminate service).
Another comment Andy made was “the importance of having someone in the venue dedicated to supporting remote participants “. Again I would agree with this. This was an area I had responsibility for – but found that I was not able to do this at the start of the second afternoon due to difficulties in connecting to the WiFi network. I also found myself failing to support the remote participants during Ewan McInitosh’s talk because I found it so interesting! But if we do need dedicated support for remote participants there will clearly be a cost in providing this support. Does this mean we should start to charge remote participants, I wonder?