Using Etherpad for AWESOME Collaboration in a Public Talk

In my session on an Open Web App Marketplace during this year’s Mozilla Summit 2010 I wanted to split my time into 15 minutes of me talking & presenting and use the remaining 30 minutes for a discussion with the attendees. My main observation with open forum-style discussions is that you usually only get a fraction of people to speak (people are shy, the discussion moves on and your original point might not be appropriate anymore, people sometimes get into a bit of bikeshedding, etc). To overcome this problem, we originally planned to break the group into smaller sub-groups of 5-8 people and let them run through a structured brain storming exercise. As we expected to have more than 100 people in the session, this became somewhat complex. On a hunch I decided to try an experiment: What if we would allow the audience to discuss in person (one person speaking at a time with me moderating) and use an Etherpad as a back-channel for the participants to jot down their thoughts and notes. At the same time one of my colleagues kindly offered to take notes from the live discussion and add them to the Etherpad. image It turned out to not only work - but blow my expectations out of the water. The group not only had a very fruitful live discussion but people were hacking away on the Etherpad. The interesting thing which happened, was that people started to have conversations on the Etherpad itself - people agreed, disagreed, argued and sharpened their arguments. We ended up with about 10 pages full of extremely valuable comments, thoughts and ideas. The Etherpad software itself handled the onslaught of more than 50 people hacking on the same document at the same time with grace and created a fascinating visual artifact as participants could see how thoughts were developed in real time (which we also projected on the main screen). I highly recommend giving Etherpad as a backchannel a try for your next public talk. You can download the Open Source software here.