At the Social Computing Symposium last week, I stumbled into a discussion that I had not given much thought to and made a brazen claim based on a gut level reaction of disgust to the proposed value of "back channels" in social software. Doing so was like running headlong into a beehive with my mouth wide open.

Liz Lawley, Queen Bee of Social Computing, took an affectionate little stab at my tongue in passing. On her mamamusings blog, which is syndicated by Coranate.com

Liz writes the following in her post, korby parnell asks, when will you stop b[e]rating your colleagues?

"Let me clarify that what Korby is talking about is not the public, open backchannel that’s increasingly becoming available at conferences and symposia. He’s talking about side conversations that break off from the main group, and that aren’t publicized. He feels that the software should "announce" private meetings that form in that way, and I disagreed. There’s value in allowing people to meet and talk privately, I think, and "calling them out" by default strikes me as invasive. I’m also troubled by the underlying assumption that private is more likely to be negative or "anti-social" than public."

In my response to her post, I add some meat to my assertion:

"The further you get from pure social software and the closer you get to knowledge management software, the less important it becomes to empower 20% of your customers to gossip about the other 80% and the less imperative it becomes to make the creation of and participation in back channels easy."

In my comment, I begin to conduct a litmus test of my assertion that back-back-channels should not be enabled by default. I start with the social end of the social-knowledge management (KM) software spectrum by claiming that back-back-channels SHOULD be enabled by default for IM clients. I then examine email apps, where I conclude that Bcc is a backchannel that should not, for social reasons, be promoted by the Outlook team, for instance.

And now, the example Liz has been waiting for…the application that I had in mind when I ran into the beehive with my mouth open. In my penultimate post  I wrote, "The central question is this: Would there be value in adding a "backchannel page" to the "talk behind" WikiModel? Richard, Ward, and I agree that the answer is a resounding YES. The use cases are clear and compelling. More on this in T minus one blogpost."

I recently learned that the high priests of Wikipedia.org frequent IRC channels to discuss the uninformed plebians who routinely desecrate their WikiTopics. Fernanda Viegas stated during a presentation at the SCS that the pejorative "f*ck" (her spelling, not mine) has a shelf life of something like 1.7 minutes on Wikipedia, on average. That’s the way she spelled it. Unemployed editors everywhere exult when they hear this statistic, I’m sure. But me, the renegate writer? I just had to try it out. In the middle of her presentation, I bopped over to Wikipedia to see how long my f-word would last. As a new dad, I couldn't bring myself to do the deed. To save face and complete the experiment, I decided to and did create a new topic, "F*ck" in Fernanda’s honor. In LESS THAN A MINUTE, a self-described Wikipedian who has been a Wikipedia:Administrator since February 17, 2004, redirected my topic to the ‘official’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuck.

Sh*t! Wikipeditors even spot misspelled explitives that fast.

I was intrigued. What do these people do all day? Who is this guy that took it upon himself to obliterate my perfectly good topic? Why did he do it? I decided to visit his personal page and learned a bit about him. Knowing that he must still be online, I wanted to chat. I realized that doing so might avert a WikiWar between us: I undo his change, he undoes my change, rinse and repeat for as long as we both shall live.

Wait! I want to chat with this guy. Unsatisfied expectation::Red flag. How can I do this on Wikipedia? I suddenly realized that the Talk Behind model is incomplete. I also began to wonder if Mr. Charles Matthews is not pejoratively omniscient, as I first believed he might be. Perhaps he and his wikish friends are chatting all the time about the foolish acts of wikiputians like me?

Wouldn’t it be nice if Wikipedia had a Backchannel that was open to all? Use Cases: 1. user wants to ask a stupid question that that won’t be persisted forever in the versioned Talk Behind Page and 2. avert WikiWars by allowing potential adversaries to "meet" in close temporal proximity and thereby simulate the diplomacy-enabling effects of physical proximity. After all, we would have never come as close to nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis as we did had a direct phone line then existed between the Kremlin and the White House.

The purpose of the back channel is to enable the uninformed (me) to ask stupid questions and avert WikiWar with the informed (Charles Matthews). The high priests of wiki will probably always have their offline chats in the dark dungeons of IRC. There is no clear use case that I can imagine for enabling them to create smoky backrooms (back-back-channels) and engage in elitist WikiPolitics WillyNilly.