I am probably jumping the gun with this post but I haven’t written anything in a while and it’s a rather immediate topic: the interview of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg by Sarah Lacy at SXSW 2008. Identified as a disaster by many accounts, others found it to be an unfortunate occurrence, even Zuckerberg himself.
What concerns me more is the reaction of several (perhaps many but I didn’t search long enough) that identified the situation as a revolution, a changing tide of the way conferences are executed. In an article on CNNMoney.com, Dan Fost used the term “Conference 2.0″. This is probably the start of a buzzword war and we at large will be the casualties. But more importantly, I am concerned the event will spark a notion that this is the way of the future and conference organizers should heed the call. I haven’t seen much discussion regarding this or similar concerns and I hope that eventually more sources will offer balance to the topic.
My primary concern stems from a “proof by example” approach. This isn’t necessarily suggesting that the authors of articles relating the amazing influence of mob force on an organized event but more in the interpretation of the masses thinking that they are welcome to drive any public discussion in any direction that pleases them. Such behavior would become rather distracting. I can envision many good presentations being derailed by a group thinking they have the vision of the people.
Certain venues are more conducive to real-time attendee-defined content; for example, technical expos. Expos are generally driven by industry elements demonstrating their latest wares. These are typically pre-defined by marketing with hired expert addresses and vendors who pay premiums to be present. The price of admission for the end user is steep as well (but you will get your fill of free food and drinks).
Many of the talks at expos are by paid experts who travel the circuit giving the same talk many times. They are focused on their topics and typically have a great deal of experience. Anecdotally, from my experience, many of these experts are attached to some business or other, be it a tool vendor or consulting firm. They typically are there to sell their ideas as much as they are to present them. Since the talk is likely to be similar to the last one the attendees heard from the speaker (as has been my experience), this type of venue might lend itself well to an audience-driven format especially if there is a control on the way the audience provides direction.
The reason that this may work is that the talks provided at expos are often directed toward the average user (of a product or method), or perhaps the advanced user, and not the expert. Many of the expo talks I have attended where I was more on the expert end of the scale were entertaining but I can’t say they were all that useful for inspiring something new. The average/advanced users have specific questions they want solved and in a venue where they may feel they have paid for a service, they want to be able to ask them and not necessarily hear the party line.
On the other end of the spectrum would be an academic conference. In this venue, the content is necessarily not something to be determined in real-time. A presentation at an academic conference is, ideally, one that presents some advance of knowledge in a specific area. It’s something that may only be known or understandable by a small group of people, perhaps just the presenter. In this case the result requires a build up of context and arguments and derailing the presenter would render the talk pointless as the end goal may never be reached. Here, the Q&A would have to wait to the end.
This doesn’t mean that the those attending do not have influence over the content, it is just that the participation happens prior to the event. Conference committees may define the theme and topics for a conference but it is through a collection of reviews, often done by those intending to attend the conference, that give rise to the final content.
If you were to argue that Zuckerberg’s interview and a presentation by an expert at an academic conference aren’t the same, you would certainly be right. My point is that many won’t make the distinction and without a balanced discussion there will be some instances very soon where good events turn bad. Ideally the event will force event organizers to include more flexible agendas where it makes sense. Even academic conferences need a breeze of fresh air at times but too much wind makes it difficult to be in the park.