Our desire for backchannels

Recently I saw Snakes on a Plane with Felix Petersen. After the movie, Felix soon exclaimed: “We should have had a backchannel!”. That got me thinking.

Backchannels everywhere these days. But what is a backchannel? It’s a kind of parallel discussion, a collectively shaped comment on some ongoing conversation. An alternative channel, often with a different conversational modus.

We see a world that is becoming increasingly hypermediated. The idea of immediacy often attributed to the conversation seems to be fading. The notion of sequentiality is being replaced by a sort of multi-modal parallelity. In other words, the backchannel is going mainstream. Soon it will be everywhere, in all conversational contexts imaginable.

Why? Because there’s a demand. In fact, isn’t there for every conversation a hidden, mirroring, and even antagonistic conversation? For every shared experience a colorful array of potential comments on that experience? For every explicated thought, aren’t there dozens of potential thoughts flocking around it, some countering it, some intensifying it?

Such is the nature of the conversation, but it is only lately that parallel, tacit reflections have become incarnated in mediums where they can evolve and flourish. And so we see chats, feeds, collaboratively edited documents, and even entire parallel worlds turning into shadow conversations appearing and vanishing in tight interplay with a multitude of ongoing discourses.

Sometimes the backchannel even takes center stage–reducing the speaker, or the movie, or the experience in question to a mere object of intense discussion. I myself saw Robert Scoble turn into a de-throned moderator for a stormy backchannel during his talk at Reboot last year.
Similarly, instant messaging is often just a conversational backdrop for what we do in front of our computers–ever heard of continuous partial attention? What used to be intense one-on-one conversations are now ongoing background mumblings in our hypermediated daily lifes.

The backchannel is here to stay. With time it will become ubiquitous. It will enter our most private and intimate spaces. And we will wonder how we ever could live without it.