Time to shake up conferences?
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 by Dave Winer.
The TC40 conference, which (important caveat) I did not attend, had a big impact on the space I occupy. Sometimes I think we put too much emphasis on Techmeme, but it is important, and for the two days of TC40, most of the top articles had something to do with the conference. Yet most of the people in the TechMeme loop were not there. This makes me wonder if we can do better with these conferences that become the cursor for a few days. And the answer is of course we can. But it may mean reconfiguring the conference to take the emphasis off the people in the room and put it on the people on the net.
As Jim Forbes points out, if you wait for hotels to change, you're going to wait a long time. They're not really in the conference business, they're in the bedroom business. So anything that keeps people out of the hotel is likely to stay out of the conference -- like really terrific networking. So that suggests a different approach, one that does not rely on hotels.
I've done four conferences, three of them at universities, and one at CNET in San Francisco. At two of them, we hosted as many people as they did at TC40, because we had multiple tracks, and a very large facility. And the last three were all very much present on the net. The first, not so much. If I do another conference, we'd try to push the envelope on the net side of things, and probably not try to host as many people in person. Instead of 500 to 1000 people, I'd try for 50 to 100 people. Kind of a middle-ground between the experts at the TC40 conf, and the audience. More like a TV studio than a conference. Everyone would be either a blogger or reporter. All would be encouraged to participate. And everyone would lead a chat room, or a blog comment section, or a video track. We could have much more diverse video nowadays, because of services like justin.tv and ustream.tv, and I'm sure many others, who provide outbound bandwidth. All we'd need at the facility is enough bandwidth to connect to these services, and if you're not at a hotel, that's not at all hard these days. You could do it at Stanford or Cal, or even the Hillside Club. If you're not deep inside a building with thick walls, EVDO can serve as a backup. If you can't get on through the LAN, try a WAN instead.
I'd also like to see less of a focus on the interests and success stories of venture capital. Something has really changed, even the VCs seem to know it. Money is undifferentiated, so why pay so much attention to what the money people say. Let's get people with big ideas to contribute them, and to disagree with other people with big ideas. That's not to say I'd exclude the money people. But I would insist that they be people who are participating in the networked conversation, not just at the show, but 24 by 7, on blogs, on Twitter, on whatever.
I had this discussion with Loic last week. I didn't think and still don't think that it was a good idea for him to have French politicians speak at LeWeb last year. I didn't think it was a good idea for Chris to invite John Edwards to speak at Gnomedex in 2006. Why? Because these people don't have blogs, they don't understand the net. They want to use it, for sure, to get money and votes, but they don't have a vision for it, beyond that, so what they have to say is uninteresting. "Give me money. Vote for me." That's all they say. If they want to come, great, let them listen and ask questions. And look for politicos (as with the VCs) who are making a difference on the net. People like Fred Wilson or Paul Kedrosky, for example. I'm sure there are many more.
And I'd work to develop more ways for the back-channel to participate, to come to the front. That's the key to the future of conferences, how to extend them into the net, so the communication path is every way imaginable, not just from the venue out to the world. I want to feel like I'm in a nerve center, whether I'm at the venue or sitting in my living room in Berkeley. I had that feeling, btw, or an inkling of it, watching the AlwaysOn conference eariler this year, which had excellent presence on the net, real-time. The TC40 conference promoters, amazingly, actively thwarted the back channel. I don't know what their thinking was, but I think it was wrong.
Maybe someday these conferences could host real-time development, where media hackers put together new communication systems and deploy them before the conference is over. The moon mission approach to development, if you want to get something done quickly, make sure you know where you're going and are excited about it. Sometimes it's amazing how quickly these things can bootstrap.
I'd also like to see a mix of interviews and debates, and open discussion. Dinners in every major city that wants to have them. The truly great tech conferences of the future will be world wide events, as the web itself is world wide, and will be inclusive, not exclusive, and cost very little to participate in, if not $0.
Mundeemo: "Don't forget a row of suicide booths.."