Presenter's ideas

[UPDATE: Visit the Donahue site or see Donahue presentations.]

Donahue is a web app co-designed and built by Arc90 and Behavior Design. The original idea for Donahue was born out of frustration with the state of (in)attention paid to presenters at conferences. As the project evolved, the tool shifted to one that attempts to break down the wall between the presenter and the audience. By creating a frictionless environment for the audience to react, respond, reject or share the presenter’s ideas, Donahue shifts the standard presentation from a broadcast / consumer approach into a that of a conversation. And this is precisely the reason that people attend conferences – to engage in conversations.

Donahue – a new and unique presentation tool powered by Twitter – was unveiled at SXSW 2011, in a talk co-presented by Arc90′s Tim Meaney and Behavior Design’s Chris Fahey. Tim and Chris delivered the talk, titled “Toss the Projector: Redefining the Audience / Presenter Dynamic“, via Donahue. The ideas explored in this talk were reinforced by Donahue, including:

  • Conference talks, like all media, have been transformed from broadcast to conversation.
  • The technology of the conference presentation is broken.
  • The audience insists upon having a conversation in real-time about the presenter’s ideas, and the presenter should embrace this.
  • A presenter’s goal for a talk should be to start a meme.
  • Our collective concept of attention is changing.

Donahue uses Twitter as its conversation medium. Each “slide” unveiled in Donahue is actually a tweet sent out in real-time by the presenter. The audience reaction (i.e. the “back channel”) is collected and displayed by Donahue in a unique presentation console that participants – whether present at the talk or anywhere in the world – can enjoy and use to directly engage. The result is a uniquely intimate and engaging experience that is markedly different from the typically passive experience of sitting through an exposition accompanied by a slide deck.

Another premise behind Donahue is that while presentations have a beginning and end point, the chatter lingers on long after. Donahue leaves behind a permanent record of the speaker’s ideas, and the audience’s reaction to their points. This eliminates the abstraction of uploading the slides for later review by the audience, as the speaker’s ideas are immediately and always available online.

As a real-time platform for having a conversation around a conference presentation, Donahue had to be extremely scalable and performant. The possibility for a huge amount of curious participants was very real, as Donahue reaches out immediately into Twitter (what we internally called The O’Reilly Effect, where one retweet from Tim O’Reilly could bring in tens of thousand viewers to the presentation). Donahue achieved this level of performance with an architecture built upon real-time consumption of the Twitter API, dedicated node.js servers for the presenter and projector views of the content, a replicated farm of node servers for serving content to participants and directly connected clients using WebSockets instead of aggressive polling. The kick-ass development team behind Donahue will be sharing the architecture and technical thinking behind Donahue in future blog posts.

Arc90 and Behavior are exploring options for moving this project forward, follow @donahueapp on Twitter to stay informed of any news. For further information about the project read Conversation is the New Attention.