On Conferences and Unconferences

So this year's ETech was decent. There were only a few sessions that I found really, really thought-provoking; those were Linda Stone's, Scott Berkun's, Danah Boyd's, the Second Life presentation, and Amy Jo Kim's. ETech this year compared very poorly with last year's ETech, when, as Pete from Unspace put it, "every session was mind-expanding".

For a conference that cost $1300+, the wifi and power were terrible--they were up and down for the entire four days. The small breakout rooms were often overcrowded, and there were a couple of sessions I couldn't get into because there were no seats to spare.

My other big complaint with ETech this year is that I sat through waaay too many product pitches. I understand that O'Reilly's gotta make money, and the alpha-geek audience makes it an easy sell to companies to pay O'Reilly to pitch their products, but ease up already! There were two product-pitch tracks in addition to three other tracks, but some of the ostensibly pitch-free sessions devolved from interesting presentations into pitches.

Conferences are often difficult to plan, and I'm sure the O'Reilly gang worked their asses off on ETech. At the same time,when you're paying $1300+, expectations are high (and so they should be.)

There was a marked contrast between BarcampLA (held on the two days before ETech) and ETech itself. Barcamp was intimate, the presentations were often discussions, and good conversations were pretty easy to come by. ETech was anonymous, the presentations were nearly always one-way, and good conversations were harder to get into.

I'm not the only one noticing this. Sun CTO Simon Phipps talks about BarcampAustin:

The contrast between the two events was striking. SXSWi is impersonal, controlling, somewhat sterile by comparison with the energy of BarCamp. I can't help thinking that Unconference is the model more and more of us will adopt for the transfer of knowledge.

Doc Searls says:

I've been at BarCamp Austin for the last few hours (it's 6pm now) and all I can say is that it kicks azz. I don't have time to say more (or the bandwidth, frankly; though the connection is solid and stays up), because there are too many good 'n fun conversations going on.

Simon and Doc highlight a fundamental problem with the big conference format: when the information that speakers present is already available on the web, or is posted just after a talk is delivered, it's the conversations with attendees and speakers that drive new thinking, refine existing ideas, and create lasting connections.

So if information is easily accessible on the net, and value comes from conversations about that information, why pay $1k+ to attend a large conference IF those attendees could just as easily attend a locally organized, self-programmed conference?

I don't think big conferences are going away anytime soon, but the Unconference model is taking off. Check the Barcamp page or the Barcamp blog--in the last week alone there are posts about unconferences happening in Minnesota, Houston, San Diego, Austin, Toronto, Prague, Ottawa, Washington DC, and Oklahoma City.

It makes sense, really. The Barcamp model fuses community and knowledge transfer, is inexpensive to run, and is driven by passionate people. How can it fail?

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Comments (Post | Latest)

1. Mike D. said on Mar 19 2006:

Yep, SXSW was exactly as you describe above as well: Loosely organized panels presenting information that is not only "not new" but many times "not interesting" either. Regardless of the cost, when I'm at a conference, I want to see three qualities in every session I go to:

1. A demonstrated expertise on the subject matter.
2. An engaging style of speaking.
3. Proper preparation.

Most of the panels I attended were lucky to have accomplished one of those. Solo sessions were generally a lot better, because hey, at least you HAVE to prepare for those and you probably wouldn't be doing one if you weren't an expert. But panels, man... without preparation and a good moderator, they can be a really disaster. I even attended one panel that was like 5 minutes long and then they opened it up for Q&A.

About

Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer

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