Posts Tagged ‘conferences


SXSW 2008 Highlights

Post SXSW, I’ve thought about some of the inconsistencies highlighted by the event:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. By now few people haven’t heard about the Zuckerberg/Lacy keynote. For those unfamiliar with the details, Jeff Jarvis does a fair write up. At its core, the crowd’s reaction wasn’t about actively joining a conversation, but about disruption. I didn’t realize that heckling the person on stage was acceptable until I started attending tech conferences.

I totally understand why the audience was frustrated with Lacy’s interview, but please explain me to how yelling at her from the audience accomplished anything. Rachel Happe perfectly captures the disconnect between the positives we normally associate with social media versus what happened in the keynote:

I’m not disturbed that there was a great deal of criticism of the interview – that is completely fair. What I am very disturbed by is that the audience aggressively heckled Sarah during her interview….based on the social validation they got through Twitter to do so. Ironically in this case, social media is enabling people to be extremely disrespectful and anti-social. If people didn’t like the interview, why didn’t they quietly leave?

Sometimes revolutions are called for…over the lack of civil liberties, economic freedoms, fair wages. But not over a poor interview. We all need to remember that what makes for good social experiences is a little respect —for everyone. (link)

The best things didn’t always happen in panels. Unlike my first year at SXSW where I went to a panel 95% of the time, I only made it to panels about 50% of the conference this year. I did have some client work that demanded attention, but the rest of my time was spent talking to people. While SXSW probably offers one of the most diverse and talented panel options, I found that creating my own mini-panels was as, if not more, rewarding.

Part of this experience was enhanced by the Bloghaus, a meeting room set up with wi-fi, plug-ins, food, and great people. My very good friend Chris Brogan, who spent even less time than me in panels, twittered, “The BlogHaus is worth $500 to me. You?” (link) The tweets in response were generally positive. I’ve decided that while panel options are important for determining which conferences to attend, the other attendees are just as important.

Technology doesn’t always provide the answer. I suspect most everyone knows this fact. However, given how excited we get by the latest gadget or gizmo, I think we sometimes forgot how often humans solve the problem. For example, the previously mentioned Chris had his site crash during SXSW, right after he and Julien Smith published a Change This manifesto, Trust Economies.

After fighting with customer service reps who kept saying everything would be fixed in an hour, we ran into Scott Beale of Laughing Squid in my hotel lobby. During our conversation, the website issue came up, and Scott offered some options not previously suggested by Chris’s many interactions with customer service. While the advice didn’t correct all the hosting issues, the relief that Scott had some helpful advice made a huge difference to Chris.

For all the power of groups, sometimes one on one matters more. I spent most of my lunches having great conversations with Dave Seah. We met last year at SXSW and became friends when I gathered up the courage to approach him after recognizing him from his blog. While we’ve communicated frequently throughout the year, there was something extra special about spending time together in person, sharing ideas and talking about current projects.

I also had time this year to reconnect with Rachel Clarke, the person responsible for getting me to SXSW in the first place. Then, I had the pleasure of meeting Jane Quigley (she blogs here and here), a classy lady who took the time to share her insight of the industry. These quiet conversations were absolute bliss after the sometimes loud and chaotic interactions that can happen at SXSW. All told, as much as I enjoy the varied and interesting back and forth within a group, sometimes, one on one matters more.

I think that’s what drives SXSW success: each attendee ultimately determines their conference experience. The inconsistencies I’ve noted don’t take away from the experience, except, perhaps, for the first one. The first inconsistency focuses on something necessary to make conferences work: respect.


If panelists believe that they’ll be yelled at by the audience because they aren’t “delivering,” how long until people say, “no thanks?” If attendees didn’t feel confident that they could approach each other without being blown off, how long until they stop registering? (BTW, hypothetical @SXSW. I haven’t seen or had this happen).

Each of the things I like most about SXSW hinge on respect, respect for the individual, respect for his or her work, etc. Perhaps the people who heckled during the Zuckerberg keynote believe that they were in the right or that they wouldn’t mind if someone did the same to them. However, I think the other things we take so much pleasure in are put at risk when we forget the basics. I think the old but true saying still applies, do unto others as you would have them do unto. I sometimes wonder why this community appears to forget it.


Postscript: During the next two weeks, I’m in the process of moving into a new house. Between my business and painting, posting might be a little light, so please be patient. I’ll post pictures of the finished project.


The Gap Between Talking and Acting

Mind the gapI’ve never been to TED, the $6,000 conference extravaganza that sells out every year. However, I’ve seen many different posts that either point to TED presentations or talk about how great TED is. So I was caught off guard by Umair Haque’s recent post at Bubblegeneration:

So, let me be a bit more blunt than I’d like to be. Do conferences like TED do more harm than good?

It’s not just the fact that TED is just a wee bit pretentious.

The problem is simple. The underlying assumption is that we can help solve the world’s big problems by putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.

We can’t.

Intrigued I read on. It gets even more interesting a few sentences later:

Economic history, of course, has been a harsh judge of this approach. We know how it ends up: creating even more misery than went before. It’s helping societies build the right DNA that fuels growth.

And that’s exactly why, though TED is sexy, it’s also kind of intellectually bankrupt: it’s actively helping stop new DNA from happening.

Let me put it even more sharply. There have been gatherings like TED for hundreds of years. But the vast majority of the world continues to live in bone-crushing poverty, misery, and fear.

Think about that for a second.

Acknowledging the Gap

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m headed to two conferences, E-Tech and SXSW. I’m sure I’ll have a great time, see friends, and enjoy the presentations. I’m also realistic about what a conference can accomplish and the dependence upon the individual to act on what she learns. However, conferences like TED create the perception that something is happening by the very act of “putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.”

Sometimes unknowingly, we get caught up in the discussion, forgetting that we’ve got to figure out a way to act. The discussion is so intriguing, however, that we tell ourselves that the talk will naturally progress to action because it’s so great. As Umair points out, such gatherings have happened for years and the world is still beset by the serious problems focused on at these events. Clearly, we need to do a better job of bridging the gap between talking and acting.

One Step at a Time

In simple terms, it’s the difference between talking about starting your own business and putting together a business plan. Then, it’s the difference between talking about the business plan and taking the plan to a bank to discuss financing. You can see how this plays out. Success isn’t even determined by whether you open the business but whether you keep acting on the ideas. Talk alone isn’t enough, but it is a starting point.

Umair added an update today, clarifying:

I am not “bashing” TED. Nor do I think it’s just wankery. I enjoy watching the talks. But I’m not sure it does more good than harm.

Let me put it another way. Conferences are one way to organize and manage stuff—a kind of DNA.

When the stakes are low – a conference for media deal-making or something—that’s fine.

But when you get lots of brilliant people in one room, surely there’s a way to organize it so more value is created than just lots of interesting talks. Surely there’s a way to amplify the productivity of conferences like TED – because right now, it ain’t too high…The problem is that the very people whose problems desperately need solving the most—are always excluded by the DNA of orthodox conferences.

I didn’t get the feeling that Umair’s intent was to bash TED, which some of the comments seem to believe. I think instead that he’s done a great job of analyzing the underlying value of events like TED. I’d love to see a comparison of historical TED talks compared to initiatives related to the subjects under discussion. Does TED contribute to the solution or distract from the problem? On an even bigger scale, when are we talking when we could be acting, hiding behind the belief that the talking is enough?


(Image courtesy of Marcio Cabral de Moura. Some rights reserved.)


Conferences as Conversations

Normally, when I attend a conference I try to blog about the different sessions I attend. However, I must admit that my attendance at BlogWorld in Las Vegas, and thus any related posts, has been spotty. I blame this fact on all the great people I’ve met who’ve made me forget the time, resulting in a skipped seminar. However, Las Vegas itself is a crazy town for conferences.

So much of Vegas is wasted on me, but I’m also amazed that conference organizers are anxious to compete with Vegas for the attention of attendees. This train of thought made me start thinking about conferences in general. Why do we attend conferences, workshops, seminars, training etc.? I suspect we want to believe that we’ll learn something, but I think a bigger part of it is the desire to be around people like ourselves, or at least people who understand what we do.

Over the last two days, I’ve had amazing conversations with Marshall Kirkpatrick, Jason Van Orden, and Adam Weiss, to name a few. Their passion for what they do and their obvious talent is so inspiring and a difficult experience to duplicate in a group setting similar to what one finds in a conference panel or seminar. These individuals plant seeds for what’s possible and share perspectives that I’d never come across in a regular day. For example, Adam, a director at LinkShare, very patiently explained the potential value of the company in a totally non-sales, informative way. I may never use LinkShare, but I’ll always be immensely happy that I met Adam and feel I received something valuable from our conversation.

Jane Austen, one of my all-time favorite authors (predictable, perhaps), captured for me how I feel about conversation and people:

My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company. (link)

Luckily, this world I’ve joined has many “clever, well-informed people.” Now, going back to the question about why we attend conferences, I wonder if conference is more accurately a codeword for conversations. Humans have gotten together in groups to exchange ideas for centuries. I’m disinclined to believe that we come together to sit in little rooms and stare at a speaker in silence. We’re coming together to exchange ideas. That’s why this idea of social media and building networks has so much power—it increases the potential to have those all-powerful conversations. You can sign me up any day for more good conversation.


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