The Conference I Want To Attend
from the make-me-uncomfortable dept
by Mike Masnick
In the past couple of weeks there has been plenty of talk about "big idea" conferences like Supernova, O'Reilly's various conferences, and the new Always-On conference. I've gone to similar conferences in the past, but I've found, lately, that I have very little incentive to attend. Each time, before I go, I look down the speaker list, and say to myself "I know what all these people are going to say." If I confront conference organizers about this (and I sometimes do), I'm told that this time will be different.
Each time, however, I find that I'm right - and I don't feel that I come away from these conferences having learned anything useful.
It's gotten to the point where I'm only attending conferences where I'm also speaking - and I do my best (though, I don't always succeed) to make sure what I'm talking about isn't what people already know I'm going to say.
Over the past year, I've had a few discussions with others about this very topic, as well as read others' opinions on the subject, and have no come up with a more detailed description of the conference that I would like to attend.
First, there needs to be some different speakers. Run down the list of A-List bloggers and look at all the conferences they've spoken at. Then look at the topics they've spoken about, and see how much you actually learned. It might be interesting, but it's the same thing they always talk about, and it's almost instantly forgettable once the presentation/panel discussion is over. There are a few (but just a few) exceptions.
Second, I want to see speakers in an uncomfortable position. This isn't just my sadistic side, but since it's usually easy to predict what someone is going to say, we might as well force them to say something different. I want to see people put into different roles to force them to really think through their positions. I want to see someone from the RIAA asked to role play the head of a file-sharing system alongside a "super node" file sharer role playing as a music exec or a musician. I want to see a spammer role playing as a sys admin of a major ISP.
Next, the discussions need to be more interactive. Almost invariably at these conferences, no one remembers what anyone on stage says. If the internet is supposed to be about many-to-many media and the ability for everything to be interactive, why are our conferences still focused on the "broadcast" model of a speaker onstage and audience paying attention? Conferences need to have more breakouts and roundtable discussions. Recent conferences have tried to do this by having group blogs/wikis/chat rooms, but all of these simply take away from what's going on on-stage. It makes the conference into a multi-ring circus, where no one is paying full attention to anything.
This leads into the next issue. The only real value I've found myself gaining from any conference was not at the conference itself, but at lunch. Lunch is when people actually get to meet and talk to each other. While there are other "networking sessions", these tend to let the usual cliques all meet up and pat each other on the back, or repeat arguments they've had going on for the past ten years.
An ideal conference, then, would be more like a day full of these lunches - that forced people to think in different ways. Thus, I'd love to see a conference where people are either randomly (or carefully planned by the organizers) split into small groups, and given a task or a challenge. Let them do some scenario planning that forces them to think creatively. Get people thinking, get them involved with the ideas, get them interacting with others and force them to think outside of their own viewpoint. Maybe challenge them. Have different groups "competing" in some way to get people to really pay attention, and really try to get their minds around very difficult issues.
Put me in a small room with Jeff Bezos from Amazon, Hilary Rosen from the RIAA, Linus Torvalds, and Michael Powell from the FCC, and tell us that we've just invented TiVo, and the broadcast industry is trying to shut us down, and ask us to create a strategic plan for what to do. In another room, I want a similar group of folks (possibly someone from TiVo/Replay or some other such company, an advertising executive, and others) and tell them that they're a broadcaster trying to deal with this new technology, and ask them to come up with a scenario. Give us an hour or two, and then have the groups come together and present their findings. Then, let the rest of the attendees vote on who has the best solution.
I want to go to such a conference, and come out at the end of the day having met 20 to 30 new people, who I have a newfound respect (or distaste) for, while having generated new ideas in my head, and reshaped old, stale beliefs and ideas.
That's a conference I would attend. It would take a lot more effort to organize, but the end result would be a lot more valuable to all participants, if the goal is really to generate and discuss new ideas. It wouldn't be about patting each other on the back or rehashing old arguments. It would be about changing your perspective, making you uncomfortable, getting you involved, and making sure you came out of your shell a little bit.