Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe listeners' behaviours during verbal communication, Victor Yngve 1970.

The term "backchannel" generally refers to online conversation about the topic or the speaker. Occasionally backchannel provides audience members a chance to fact-check the presentation.

First growing in popularity at technology conferences, backchannel is increasingly a factor in education where WiFi connections and laptop computers allow students to use ordinary chat like IRC or AIM to actively communicate during class.


The first famous instance of backchannel communications influencing a talk occurred on March 26, 2002, at the PC Forum conference, when Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio famously lamented the difficulties of raising capital. Journalists Dan Gillmor and Doc Searls posted accounts, from the audience, in real-time, to their weblogs. A reader of Gillmore's Buzz Bruggeman emailed information about a recent sizeable transaction that had made Nacchio very wealthy; both Gillmore and Searls updated their weblogs with that information.

In her article referring to the " Parallel Channel," PC Forum host Esther Dyson wrote, "around that point, the audience turned hostile." Many commentators later attributed the audience's hostility to the information people shared while surfing and communicating on their laptops during Nacchio's remarks.

Use in Education

Since its inception in 1998 at Argonne National Laboratory, the Internet2 initiative known as the Access Grid (a large-format presentation, video conferencing and interactive environment) has used backchannel communications to permit the node operators to pass URL's for display at another site, troubleshoot problems and even discuss what's for lunch at their location. The Access Grid backchannel has evolved from the use of a MOO to Jabber.


Backchannel is very much a discipline-in-progress. While many lament the diverted attention spans of people on chat, a number of people believe that backchannel can provide a valuable collaborative learning environment. Towards that end, a number of people are conducting their own backchannel experiments.

Joichi Ito's HeckleBot includes an LED text panel displays phrases sent from the chat room to catch the attention of the speaker or audience. The USC Interactive Media Division has experimented with "Google Jockeys" to feed visual information and search results between the speakers and the backchannel, projected on multiple screens surrounding their seminars. Software like SubEthaEdit allows for more formal backchannel: collaborative notetaking. In 2007 the Building Learning Communities Conference in Boston, Massachusetts used tools such as twitter and skype to create backchannel's that included participants who were not on location and at times in remote parts of the world. At times presenters were not aware of the backchannel and other occasions the presenters themselves were involved in the backchannel.

In Europe, specifically Amsterdam-The Netherlands,'s BackChannels provides backchannels amongst others at the local Mobile Monday events on a regular basis. Combining backchannels with live videostreaming by means of using services such as Ustream or Qik, people at home can join the discussion at the event virtually. The backchannels get their input from Jaiku, Twitter and SMS. A typical backchannel can display the chat transcript, inline pictures and voting.

External links

BackChannelsoftware technology to provide reporting on Telecommunication service provider performance.

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