UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

How Rude! Use Of WiFi Networks At Conferences

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 May 2008

The Debate

A blog post on “Making Connections 2.0” by Martin Weller alerted me to the discussions which have been taken place following a recent conference at the annual internal Open University conference. As Martin describes on his Ed Techie blog one of his colleagues, Doug Clow, who was live-blogging the conference “was told by three different people in separate sessions to stop as his typing was offputting“. The pros and cons of use of a WiFi network during a conference have been further discussed by Doug Clow himself and by Niall Sclater.

A Framework For Use Of Networked Technologies

I have to say that I don’t find such debates surprising – indeed I wrote about this in a paper on “Using Networked Technologies To Support Conferences” (I wish I had Lorcan Dempsey’s skills in coining snappy names – nowadays we would refer to ‘amplified events’) which I gave at the EUNIS 2005 conference way back in June 2005. The paper described some early experiments in exploitation of WiFi networks, including my first experiment at a one-day joint UKOLN/UCISA event on “Beyond Email – Strategies For Collaborative Working In The 21st Century” in November 2004. But as the paper describes, rather than just providing access to the WiFi network and leaving the delegates to make use of it as they see fit, an Acceptable Use Policy was produced which was based on the general principle that “Use of mobile device and networked technologies to support the aims of the workshop with be encouraged” but which alerted the participants to their responsibilities: “The use of mobile device and networked technologies should not be disruptive to other delegates, infringe rights of privacy or breach copyright or cause degradation to the network which would aversely affect others“.

The paper went on to suggest that, rather than imposing a single-minded approach to policies regarding use of WiFi networks at events, there was a need for a framework for the development of an Acceptable Use Policy which would reflect the expectations of the users and take into account the potential diversity of views. The paper suggested the need for such a framework to address policy, technical, legal, social and organisational issues.

Implementing This Approach

This approach was implemented the following year at the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2005(IWMW 2005) held at the University of Manchester on 6-8thJuly 2005. An AUP was produced, together with details of networked applications which users might find useful during the event and an optional talk was held shortly before the opening of the event which provided details of how to connect to the WiFi network and use the applications.

But perhaps the most important approach taken was the evaluation of the technologies by the event participants. The evaluation form asked three questions: “I found use of the networked applications enriched the event“, “I found use of the networked applications distracting or disruptive to the event” and “I would encourage use of networked applications at future events“. A summary of the responses is given below.

Q1: I found use of the networked applications enriched the event

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
6 14 11 3 1

Q2: I found use of the networked applications distracting or disruptive to the event

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
2 8 16 5 4

Q3: I would encourage use of networked applications at future events

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
10 16 5 2 1

In addition the following comments were made:

Use of the technologies:

  • People need to follow the guidelines and TURN OFF laptop sounds
  • Need to be more inclusive – can you find a sponsor next year who will give us/lend us a wireless PDA or laptop?
  • Firewalls made it difficult
  • Tables for laptops and be better equipped rooms with more powerpoints
  • It seemed a little ‘gimmicky’ and I am not sure their use added
    real value/benefit to the workshop. Also the noise of people tapping
    their keyboard can be irritating!

General issues:

  • Please give bigger headlines about this in joining instructions
  • There’s a risk of it becoming too distracting
  • Some people may have been distracted by the availability of WiFi, but it’s up to each person to discipline themselves
  • IRC fun & thought provoking – allowing comment without disruption – could even reduce whispering!
  • I was sitting in ‘geek’ corner so it was disruptive, the clicking & beeping was a but much at times – but a very useful evil .. .and I could have moved so it can’t have been that bad!
  • Made it too easy to ignore presentations but makes it even more important for presenters to be interesting!
  • Non-users may feel under-privileged
  • Useful for sharing info but can be used negatively for ‘bitching’ about speakers
  • Very distracting in seminars
  • A negative effect if people abuse it e.g. surf the Web. Beneficial if people take notes.
  • Lots of people spent the session surfing the Web or checking their email – I found this distractive. Facilitators did not often refer to the Wiki.


It is interesting to note that although some of the problems and potential problems of use of networked technologies had been commented on by the participants, a majority (of 26 to 3) felt that use of networked technologies should be encouraged at future events. This indicates, I feel, that there is an awareness that potential problems can be addressed.

Subsequent IWMW events have made further use of networked technologies, and the numbers of participants with laptops has been growing steadily, will, I think, now over 50% of the audience bringing along and using their laptops.

We’ve explored (and will continue to explore) various ways of addressing the dangers. When I run workshop sessions, for example, I make it clear that laptops should only be used for purposes relevant to the session (e.g. keeping notes, discussions with others, checking relevant resources, etc.) and I try and joke about other uses (“I must be boring if your email is more interesting than this session“).

I’d also like to explore ways of making use of space at events – perhaps the geeks could go to other side of the lecture theatre (when the power sockets are to be found) leaving the other side to those who prefer pen and paper.

Simply suggesting that it’s rude to make use of laptops at conferences – with the implied suggestion that such use should be banned – is, I feel, inappropriate. Why, after all, are WiFi networks being installed in lecture theatres? But to raise concerns is appropriate – and we do need to explore ways in which we can seek to satisfy both the twitterers, live bloggers and Web surfers and those who don’t partake. In part this is being helped by the posts from Martin Weller, Doug Clow and others who are explaining why they do this and the benefits this can provide. But in addition event organisers, event chairs, facilitators, etc. need to explore ways of developing best practices for maximising the benefits of the technologies nut just for the early adopters and enthusiasts but for, if not all, then for many.

14 Responses to “How Rude! Use Of WiFi Networks At Conferences”

  1. Tony Hirst said

    Interesting results Brian. Out of interest, how come you didn’t show a chart?

    One way would be to generate a chart automatically using some sort of progressive enhancement.

    e.g. these pie charts of your data were generated using slightly tweaked code (to cope with the data-in-rows table layout) based on Christian Heilmann’s Generating charts from accessible data tables using the Google Chart API.

    (Okay, so the 3D effect and colouring of these charts is maybe a bit misleading… a stacked bar chart would perhaps be better? but it is just an off-the-shelf demo!)

    (More examples at Progressive Enhancement – Some Examples)

  2. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, but you say “When I run workshop sessions, for example, I make it clear that laptops should only be used for purposes relevant to the session” – why? Do you insist the same for people’s paper note books (ie do you have a ‘no doodling’ rule??? It’s seems we are all getting better at multitasking, so what’s wrong with a little IM if it’s not affecting anyone else?

    I’m intrigued about the complaints about Doug’s typing – does he have a particularly loud keyboard? I’ve not heard anyone complain about typing noise for years!

    Banning laptops is no option! Turning sound off is common sense, and being online can add huge amount, and will add even more as people get use to how to use technology – googling topics to find out more, del.ici.iousing relevant sites to share with colleagues are straightforward examples, and real time chat beats whispering to the person next to you any time.

    Have a look at David Harrison’s posting here for reflections on use of technology at the recent efsym2008:

  3. When travelling on trains, I’m always fascinated by the range of laptop typing styles. One businessman recently managed to type so loudly, he might as well have been pounding the table with his fists :-D It’s the same with mobile phones — some people “want” the entire coach to hear their conversation!

    Like Doug, I find writing by hand uncomfortable after a few minutes (the curse of using a keyboard for so many years!), so I always take notes on a laptop during sessions.

    At a US conference I attended a few years ago, during one of the sessions, the entire front two rows were full of knitting librarians. I assumed they’d stop once the session started, but no! — they clackerty-clacked all the way though! Perhaps they were knitting their notes (isn’t that what Madame Defarge did?)

  4. Chris said

    To be fair, some people in conferences touch-type like they’re on a 1950s typewriter in need of a new ink ribbon. For them (not necessarily Doug, I should add!) they’ve just found a new device to be irritating with in a small room. If they didn’t have that, they’d be tapping their foot against the back of your chair. The right thing to do is to politely tell them – as adults you should really be able to police yourselves without banning things…

  5. Neil said

    There are a lot of benefits from having wifi/laptops in the audience, and it does change the balance of power in the room, potentially helping shift from a didactic arrangement where the speaker dominates, to participatory approaches where it’s (eg) easier to challenge unsupported assertions. I wrote about this a few years back but, embarrassingly, never put the paper in a repository so now I can’t access it. Maybe others can: Jacobs, N. and McFarlane, A., 2005. Conferences as learning communities: some early lessons in using ‘back-channel’ technologies at an academic conference – distributed intelligence or divided attention? Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,Vol. 21 Issue 5 Page 317

  6. Vance said

    I think that use of networked laptops at conferences definitely enriches the experience and I believe that a world where they are not the norm is as on its way out as a world I once inhabited (1985) where people new to our dept were given the choice of typewriter or computer with Wordstar. Amazingly (perhaps not to them, but certainly to me) many opted for the typewriters and resisted the computers. I think we are seeing here a vestige of something similar, and it’s nice to see that the study shows generally positive response to the interactive potential of wireless. I look forward to the day when it’s considered odd NOT to blog about the presentation you’re in, or at least twitter it.


  7. Yvonne said

    Also, the use of laptops and recording devices makes life much easier for dyslexics.

    I am okay with note-taking, but my hand aches after an hour or so.

  8. Emma said

    Interesting thoughts …. my personal view, from being both a presenter & a participant, is that I’m more than happy to allow students to use laptops in lectures and/ or to use them in a conference; however, when I’m in the audience, either as a student or at a conference, I tend to wait to see what others are doing, as I know that soe presenters/ lecturers don’t like it; and some members of audiences don’t. So, I’ve been attending a series of lectures in the sociology department, when I’ve not used it. I do find it’s a pain not having it in some ways, in other ways, I think that paper makes me think in other ways

  9. […] Kelly raises the delicate issue of conference wifi etiquette by highlighting complaints made to a live blogger […]

  10. They’ll end up outside, with the smokers.

  11. I was also amazed when I read about Doug’s experiences. I’ve extensively blogged events live over the last few years, and I’ve never had anyone complain to me about it. But surely the complaints were about the noise not about the ‘live blogging’ – he could just have been word processing and the effect would have been the same….

  12. […] post I’m not discussing any of the  limitations of amplified conferences (which I’ve commented on previously). My final comment is to point out that I actually organise ‘amplified workshops’ and […]

  13. […] I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that many speakers do take risks when they give presentations – and that this comes with the territory. And participating in amplified conferences can then be seen as a natural extension of the risk-taking and not being fashionable or being rude. […]

  14. […] That’s the strange thing.  They argued against it. “It’s rude” they said. Or “Not everyone has such devices so nobody should be allowed to use […]

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