Tech conferences and integrity
Wednesday, May 02, 2007 by Dave Winer.
The brief look we had yesterday at the invite list for the conference in Hawaii run by David Hornik of August Capital provided a reminder that there's often a story behind how the speakers at conferences are chosen (or invitees to invite-only events), a story that often is not shared with the people who pay to go to the conference, and the rest of the world, even though sometimes the conflicts are very clear.
The first time I remember being sure of such a conflict was at an Agenda conference after Stewart Alsop became a venture capitalist. I noticed that a fair number of the presenters were from his portfolio companies. He may have even joked about how he was using his power to tilt the table in favor of his investments. I also remember hearing a lot of grumbling in the hallways (some of it from me) that we were paying to see ads.
Who loses when tech conferences lack integrity? I'd argue that the Valley loses. It's this kind of inbreeding that kept them from seeing what they call "user generated content" until 2004 or 2005, when it had been growing along with the web since its inception in the early 90s. An industry that prides itself on always being at the forefront had fallen far behind the leading edge. And even today, they don't understand it -- they call it "new media" -- and invite people who make them feel safe, they don't want to hear from people who challenge their assumptions. That's not a good way to design a conference, people come home feeling bored with the same-old same-old, when there are new experiences to be had, new ideas to be shared.
Long-term this is their loss, although it slows down the flow of capital to new ideas when they most need support. They are happy to come in when it has been proven that there's money to be made, but the technologies come out much less powerfully than they would if the investors of the Valley really risked alongside the innovators. But they find us too brash, or outspoken, that's how we sound to them -- and to their friends in the established media and "new media" but until they embrace the randomness of the web, they'll continue to be surprised, continue to play catch-up, and continue to miss the really big opportunities.
Stewart Alsop via email: "I became a VC in June 1996. At Agenda 97 that fall, I shared the program 50/50 with Bob Metcalfe. I made my first investment at NEA right after that conference in December 1996. I did not participate in running Agenda 98, by which time I had three portfolio companies. But, even if I did AND if I had all three CEOs participate (which none of them actually did), it's hard to imagine that 3/26 of the program would be a 'fair number of the presenters.'"
PS: Valleywag has a copy of the invite list.
PPS: I've backed it up here.