Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

Social networks in meatspace

I just had a wacky idea.

We know what social network software is, right.

Now suppose we turned a conference into a social network.

Ask everyone who’s coming to sign up with LinkedIn or Friendster, or maybe Ted Leonsis’s new system.

Then we ask people to check off people they’d like to talk with at the conference, and make a brief note about what they want to talk about, and whether or not it must be private, and how long it will take, and if it can be part of a group discussion.

The person you want to meet with can say yes or no or no response.

Then, a week before the conference, we publish a schedule, with meeting places.

The people who a hundred people want to talk with in public get meeting rooms.

People who no one wants to meet with can sign up for dinners and lunches, or post on their blog about how fucked up the A-List is.

What do you think?

Dinner at La Costa, Sunday March 12

Let’s have a Scripting News dinner at La Costa this Sunday night.

Not sure if they still have the speaker’s dinner at Esther’s; but I remember what it was like when I was a newbie and didn’t have a dinner date on the first night of the show and all the cool people had been invited to the insider’s dinner. So let’s have an outsider’s insider dinner on Sunday, and get the conference off to a great start.

If you’re going to be there on Sunday, and read this blog, I’d like to have dinner with you. Either comment here or send me a private email if you’re coming. And if you can’t make dinner, I look forward to seeing you there in person on Monday.

A rambler on flaming in the blogosphere

Talking with Scoble today we agreed that the blogosphere has gained many of the negative traits of mail lists or Usenet. There are certain topics that, if approached, will result in a flameout. So you don’t go there.

Imho there’s no point blogging if you accept those constraints. There aren’t many people who do the flaming, but they do control discourse, because they control things like who gets to speak at conferences. Since I don’t get to speak at the conferences anyway, perhaps I should start to go through these barriers, accept the flaming, and go ahead and say what I think.

I even get flamed from the podium at conferences where I’m not allowed to speak. It’s practically institutional by now, everyone knows its done, it’s even openly discussed at the conferences that it works this way. I hear about it, in email from people who are there, and don’t like it. That’s new and positive. It shows that perhaps our community is overcoming this limit.

Since coming back to the Bay Area, I’ve been seeking out local speaking opportunities and smaller events, or new places like Mike Arrington’s BBQ (where I gave the keynote, proving that Mike’s sense of humor is intact). There’s a new generation of software entrepreneurs who have only heard the nasty stuff about me, which sets expectations low, and that’s actually pretty good. They seem surprised that I can carry on a conversation like a relatively normal person, and I don’t spit when I talk. Last night I explained it this way. I’m a celebrity. And what matters to people is what they think of me, not who I really am. But, by going out and talking to people, that negates the negative buzz, and I hope raises some questions when people say the nasty stuff. It’s hard to overcome the tar-and-feathering that has been done to my reputation, but I’m trying. I think my contribution is solid, and not in question, and after that it’s just a matter of taste.

Yesterday I wrote, in my BDG to RSS 2.0:

“Some people will say I’m stupid, or corrupt, or incorrigible, even toxic, or any number of negative personal things. What they’re really saying is they don’t like me. That’s okay, no one is liked by everyone. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, and you shouldn’t worry about it, because I don’t.”

There’s more to say about that. When someone says that kind of personal stuff, you can turn it back and ask them why they are making it so personal, and how do they know so much about Dave. My bet they don’t know me at all and they have a reason to want you not to listen to me. I won’t show you that kind of disrespect, I want you to get all the opinions you feel you need, and then make the right choice, for you. You should never base your opinion of some idea on what someone else thinks of the person who is advocating the idea. That is a perfect example of disrespect, of you.

What is an unconference?

The idea for an unconference came while sitting in the audience of a panel discussion at a conference, waiting for someone to say something intelligent, or not self-serving, or not mind-numbingly boring. The idea came while listening to someone drone endlessly through PowerPoint slides, nodding off, or (in later years) checking email, or posting something to my blog, wondering if it had to be so mind-numbingly boring.

A fundamental law?

This observation may turn out to be the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences.

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.

It’s probably much worse than that. My guess is that if you swapped the people on stage with an equal number chosen at random from the audience, the new panelists would effectively be smarter, because they didn’t have the time to get nervous, to prepare PowerPoint slides, to make lists of things they must remember to say, or have overly grandiose ideas about how much recognition they are getting. In other words, putting someone on stage and telling them they’re boss probably makes them dumber. In any case it surely makes them more boring.

Turning things around

So then, how do you turn things around so that we can harness the expertise we just discovered and get a discussion moving efficiently and spontaneously without forcing the interesting conversations into the hallway. I wanted to see if there was a way to get the hallway ideas to come back into the meeting room. It turns out there was.

First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They’re now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone who was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do? Choose a reporter, someone who knows something about the topic of discussion (yes, there is a topic, it’s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story together.

Real reporters are often the best discussion leaders. Put your DL at the front of the room, with a mike in hand. A couple of people roam the room with handheld wireless mikes to put in the face of the people who are speaking. No one lines up for a mike. Think Donahue or Oprah. The DL’s job is is to craft a story from the expertise in the room. Everyone is a source, about to be interviewed by someone who’s listening. The DL may actually call on people, so no one should get the idea that they can fall asleep or daydream. Pay attention, you might be the next speaker!

Highly structured

The discussion leader has been given guidelines in advance. Don’t let people repeat themselves, if a point has been made, move the discussion forward, quickly. No self-serving statements, you’re not allowed to give a commercial for your product, like so many speakers do at conferences. If someone starts to, quickly, the discussion leader cuts them off. You must speak to the people in the room, if you start saying things we don’t understand, thank you, smile, now let’s move on. The discussion leader’s responsibility is to the story and to the room, like the good reporter that he or she is.

I’ve heard it said that there is no advance prep for an unconference, not in my humble opinion, there’s lots to prepare for. The idea is to fully explore a topic from all angles. Every person in the room is responsible, in an ideal unconference, for understanding what’s been said before on the topic at hand, much as a panelist at an old-style conference would be, if they took their job seriously. I always spent a couple of hours, at least, on the phone with each discussion leader before the unconference.

One of the best discussion leaders I’ve ever worked with, Jeff Jarvis (an ex-reporter), started by assembling a panel in front of the room. This was at the first BloggerCon at Harvard in 2003. I walked into the room and said Time Out, and told the panelists to take their seats in the otherwise packed classroom. I saw Jarvis’s eyes light up — he “got it” right then and there. No crutches. No droning. We’re all equals in this room. No one’s ideas are presumed to be better

There’s no turning back

Once you’re in you’re spoiled. I’ve heard it said many times, by people who had a real unconference experience, that they can never sit in a dark room, with their hands folded, waiting for the Q&A period, listening to a PowerPoint presenter drone on and on, while the heads bob up and down and a dull roar of enthusiastic discussion can be heard in the distance, in the hallway.

I’m sure there are other structures that work, basically any way of organizing a discussion that involves the minds and expertise of all the people in the room will work. We’ve drifted far from the ideal, so it’s very easy to improve on the normal conference experience. Yet this year, most of us will go to conferences that make minimal use of the experience of the people who participate. It’s a shame, a big revolution is possible here, one as big as the changes that have been brought about by blogging and podcasting. It turns out the exact same principles can be applied to face-to-face conferences, with outstanding results.

Bay Area Tech Conferences

Why was yesterday’s conference so good, for me? Well, it’s the first time I’ve been to a conference in this format, where companies do short presentations and then take questions and criticism from a panel and from the audience. Obviously a lot depends on how good the questions are, and they were spotty at this show. Sometimes the panelists knew the topic, and other times, not at all. But the format is useful and potentially lively, which helps you stay awake even when the networking is insufficient.

Every conference has to make-due with inadequate technology, one would think that a conference at Microsoft might be exempt, not so. The port issue was a deal-stopper for me and others, and there was no webcast. These are not small issues for the conference promoter, beacuse a conference that has a live presence on the web has exponentially more impact that one with almost no presence, like yesterday’s conference.

It seems we need a dedicated venue in the Bay Area, a permanent space that’s designed for tech conferences. Every conference emanating from Silicon Valley or its environs should have state of the art networking. For that to happen we have to define what that is, and the only way to define it is by doing it.

What’s rotten about tech conferences

Marc Canter explains why it’s so ridiculous that leading tech conferences sell speaking slots. I agree with almost everything he says. Here’s my two cents.

First, it’s okay to make money, really, I’m not just saying that. I like to make money myself, and a good portion of my time is spent trying to make money, and sometimes I actually do. So I’m not preaching purity, and I don’t begrudge the conference promoters their profit. They run commercial conferences, they’re supposed to make money. But like Marc, I think it’s a waste when I see all those people come together to find out what’s new, and see that the most important stuff, the stuff that requires the most cooperation, the stuff that I’m totally sure these guys are all going to be basing their businesses on next year and the year after, isn’t there at all. They just don’t include it.

See, that doesn’t make sense to me. Squeezing out the new technology to make room for more paying keynoters is over-the-top greed. It’s just unacceptable. Like I said, no problem with making money, but there has to be a limit. A few years ago it was RSS, then podcasting, this year it’s OPML and reading lists. This stuff is never there, it’s always something else.

They say it’s because they don’t like me. That’s so childish and is no excuse. The technology matters, people who reduce it to personalities are people who are covering up the fact that they don’t have a clue about the technology. Imho, of course.

Make way, conference promoters, serve the people who come to find out about new technology, instead of milking them like cash cows. Ultimately it will make your business better, but for now you should do it because it’s the honest thing to do.