I am all conferenced out. I left the Syndicate conference half way through the first day, after Doc Searls and I wrote a few posts (see here amd here) about the endless "monetizing eyeballs" comments, but the real cause of my distress is how bad conferences are in general, not Syndicate specifically. I went for a long ramble, clearing my head and smoking a cigar, and thought about conferences.
David Weinberger and I once used the Late Show format to good effect at a conference (KM Forum in Camden Maine), where guests had a few minutes to do their schtick, and then we grilled them on the couch, and opened questions to the audience. It was fun.
But why do conferences have to be so boring?
This piece caught my eye today (free day pass requires watching an ad; pointer courtesy of the folks at SpotMe) about Brendan Barns, who is trying to shake up the staid world of pricey business conferences:
[from Economist.com | Business conferences
Almost all such conferences conform to a tired formula in which there is no conferring. There are lots of PowerPoint presentations, chocolate biscuits and nodding heads, some in silent assent, some in sleep. Delegates turn up to these dreary affairs because they get out of the office for a while, and their employer pays. When asked what's the point, many mumble about "networking". They go home with a fistful of business cards which they delude themselves will open up countless new opportunities.
Barnes managed to get Tom Peters and Richard Scase to square off in a boxing ring for a debate, complete with boxing gear.
Corante is planning to push into events in a larger way over the next year. With our great contributors, and focus on some of the most important issues in high tech and science, we have a great foundation for important events. But we can't approach it using the old, tired formulas. No more blah blah blah panels sessions, please.
The emerging modern model for events is a strange stratigraphy: the old bedrock of 19th century professional conferences supporting a thin layer of the 21st century internet culture. The skeletal system of the conference is unchanged, with far too many sessions, with far too many speakers, with far too little unstructured meandering in the halls. The industrial ethic at work: must cram in the maximum dronage! And then, like a light frosting on a heavy cake, we have conference blogging and IRC back channels projected on the wall behind the speakers' heads. A handwave at interactivity and community in a format that is overwhelmingly broadcast-oriented.
Other models are used, often with good effect, breaking into smaller working groups where attendees become more involved, and less passive, for example.
But the basic problem is the panel session. Unless the session moderator is an expert interlocutor, lamentably rare, we have a rambling, uneven, and unsatisfying walk through "what's my metaphor?" or other even less edifying conference games.
I strongly favor one-on-one interviews, which is a format that has sadly fallen out of use. As just one recent example, Sam Whitmore did a masterful job at the recent BDI "Blogging Goes Mainstream" conference, interviewing Robert Scoble, and managing the task of keeping him on topic, adriotly, without seeming to be controlling, and at the same time allowing Robert to be Robert.
I also believe that sessions are way, way too long. Like today's mass food emporiums, we have sacrificed quality for quantity, as if they are interconvertible. Fifteen minutes of David Weinberger noodling about the emergent properties of Internet connectedness, Clay Shirky demystifing the tagosphere, or Evelyn Rodriguez reanimating our sense of wonder, is far, far better than 45 minutes of ax-grinding polemicists fighting for the microphone.
We have sacrificed too much for the sake of turning the conference experience into a product. At least the very best events should be orchestrated as artistic endeavors, a form of performance, a sublime experience where we are challenged, enlarged, and made wiser. Where the chance interactions with like-minded others are not stolen moments over poor coffee. Where attendees will look back on them as turning points in their thinking, their careers, their lives.
So, a short post about Brendan Barnes has turned into a manifesto of sorts, but, you can start to see the vision we are pursuing for Corante Events, as we move forward. More to follow.