More on Moderating

Some interesting comments on my earlier post on moderating panels at science fiction conventions and how I plan to excise “not a question, more of a comment” ramblings from audience members at future panels at which I am a moderator (these interesting responses include additional comments here, at Wild Irises’ LiveJournal). Given the volume and the quality of the comments (i.e., high), I thought I’d address some of the issues that were brought up. This is my warning to you that unless you’ve read the previous post and/or care about the issue of moderating panels at science fiction conventions, this entry may well be impenetrable and deadly boring.

* One of blowbacks from people responding to the earlier piece is that it seems to be fairly harsh on panel audiences while ignoring the sins of panelists who derail panels from their subjects as frequently if not more so than audience members. I plead guilty as charged to this for the simple reason that I was not trying to encompass the entire role of a panel moderator in the earlier piece, I was focusing on a single aspect of it — in this case, how rambly audience members who don’t have a point when they raise their hands annoy me, and one strategy I plan to use in the future to avoid rambly pointlessness on their part. Rest assured, dear readers, I also have strategies to avoid rambly pointlessness on the part of panelists as well, but that’s the subject of another entry entirely.

However, I will certainly agree that panelists can benefit from active moderation as much as audience members can, if not more so, as they are expected to be engaging and interesting and informative and may therefore need coralling when they are not. In the not-so-recent past I’ve sat on panels where there have been panelists who don’t say in ten words what they can say in 10,000, and others who seem content to sit there and hunch over their little plastic cup of water, stay silent and count the minutes until the panel is done. Neither is optimal; a moderator needs to work with both to get the best out of each of them.

* Another idea floated in comments is that at a panel, the audience and the panel are equals. Well, no. Generally speaking the panelists are actively chosen by the con to be on a panel based on their interest/expertise on the topic; the audience self-selects — some of them may also be experts on the subject, some of them may have a passing interest, some of them may be there because they think one of the panelists is cute, some of them may be there because the room the panel is taking place in has a clear signal for the hotel wireless and they want to do a blog entry. In general, it’s reasonably expected that the panel will take up the bulk of the panel time tossing about ideas like seals with a beach ball, which will on occasion be thrown out into the audience with the hope the audience will bounce the ball back with an interesting new spin. In terms of the discourse of the panel, the panelists are primary participants, and the audience secondary.

No, it doesn’t have to be that way, which is why I used the weaselly qualifying term “in general” in that last paragraph. There is absolutely no reason a panel can’t be largely audience driven in certain circumstance — at Noreascon I moderated a panel on massively multiplayer online games which I threw open to audience questions almost immediately, in no small part because there were only two people on the panel, and one of them (me) was not a programmer for MMOG, and I sensed that the audience would ask the other panelist (who was a MMOG designer) far more relevant questions than I could. My job at that panel was simply selecting who got to ask the next question and occasionally throwing in a follow-up question for the other panelist. I think that panel worked beautifully.

And for that matter, not every expert-audience group interation at a con needs to be a panel. In the comment thread, people note interesting experiments with the panel format at particular cons, which blurred the roles of panelist and audience member; I would heartily encourage lots more experimentation. A panel is not the right format for everything, and I think a fair number of the dead panels I’ve seen were so because the panel format didn’t lend itself to the best exploration of that particular topic. Panels are merely the default format, and science fiction folks, of all people, should be willing to leave the default behind.

That said, there are times when the classic panel format is perfectly right for a subject, and in those times, it’s the folks on the panel who should be assumed to be the primary conversationalists. The audience members can, do and should participate, but while the panel is for their amusement and edification, it’s not about them, or featuring them in a primary way. It’s about whatever the topic is, and it’s primarily featuring the panelists. In general.

* Some comments suggest that forcing everything the panel audience says to be phrased as a question will keep certain commentorial avenues from opening up. Yes it will. That’s indeed the point. But the underlying complaint here is that it will limit interesting discourse, which I don’t know is true. This is true: Asking all comments to be in the form of a question is a little bit of hoop jumping. But the intent behind it — keep the conversational ball in the air — is the point, and making the audience aware that as a moderator you see it as their responsibility to keep the conversation moving forward when it thrown to them is not a trivial thing. The issue with “not a question, more of a comment” isn’t that it’s a comment, per se. It’s that they derail the conversation taking place in the panel. Having audience comments in the form of a question implicitly recognizes that the conversation is intended to go forward, not to deflate and die in the fifth row. That’s worth a smidgen of hoop-jumping. Anyway, science fiction people are smart people — I have faith that they have the ability to have an interesting point in the form of a question.

* I suspect that at least some of the flak for my “no naqmoac” position is the “you’re not the boss of me” rebellious streak science fiction fans have toward anyone and anything they feel is making arbitrary decisions in an attempt to affect their behavior. Something along the lines of you know, I wasn’t going make a comment, but now that you’ve said I couldn’t, I think maybe I will. Also, and complementary to this: No one likes a dick, and telling people to ask questions rather than comments seems dickish, even if it’s for a good cause.

I certainly understand the “you’re not the boss of me” attitude, because, you know, I kind of have it, like, all the time. Nevertheless, panels are not (or at the very least, should not be) unstructured environments, and while I’m sure we all agree that we would never launch into a long, blathering, and utterly pointless comment as a panel audience member, we all know people who would. As a moderator, my job is to help the panel achieve its goals of staying on topic, being jam-packed with interesting ideas, and rolling along in an engaging and interesting manner, whether the person speaking is a panelist or an audience member. Someone’s gotta drive, in other words, and the person who’s gotta drive should also be willing to turn this damn car around right now and go back home if you kids don’t stop that this instant.

Now, naturally, when laying down the ground rules for a panel, the moderator should be pleasant as possible and do what he or she can to make sure the audience (and the panelists) understand the need and desirability for certain ground rules. Most people, I suspect, will understand and attempt to honor them. And — this is an important point — if the ground rules are getting in the way of the panel reaching its full potential, the moderator should kick the ground rules to the curb and let ‘er rip. A smart moderator (in my opinion) sets rules but is not a slave to them if the situation requires change. Most of the time, I suspect, this won’t be necessary, but it’s nice to give one’s self the option.

Ultimately, however, the moderator’s role is management, with the goal of enlightenment. Occasionally a moderator may need to get snippy — snooty! Snotty! — with someone to get that done, and as you might have guessed by this point, I don’t have a problem with that, although it’s not my first choice of behavior (a gentle subtle nudging of the conversation back to the topic is a good start, followed a slightly less genial “let’s move on” is that doesn’t work, and escalating from there). But better the moderator put his or her foot down to keep things moving than the panel gets derailed. People remember a derailed panel.

* Claire Light suggested I become Panel Commissioner for the next Wiscon. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha! No. I’d rather plan a totally awesome dance.

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