November 14, 2010

Thoughts on Conferences

I'm back from an excellent day yesterday at Interesting North yet I'm feeling strangely disappointed.

Interesting North

It's not a reflection on the event itself - that's what's so strange about it. IntNorth was one of the most enjoyable conferences I've attended:

A gorgeous setting. The bar set high with the polish and smooth-running that Tim and his team achieved. The typically "Interesting" variety of topics, all lovingly presented by people obviously passionate about their subject. A lovely lunch - popping over to the cathedral for soup and bread in support of a local charity was a great idea and meant we could meet more people rather than scatter across the city. I haven't seen that done at a tech/geek conference before and frankly it's something that should be done more frequently.

Conference Format

So. If it was such a fabulous conference, which it was, why was I left wanting more?

I think the problem is with the conference format. My discontent has been building over the past few events that I've attended. The whole broadcast dynamic of one person imparting knowledge or ideas to the audience feels at odds with the more egalitarian, discursive world of blogs and twitter.

Barcamps are a step in the right direction, but they just open up the speaker slots - they don't change the basic structure.

In theory there's nothing to stop me proposing a discussion or a debate or something similar for a barcamp session, but the trouble with that is that I (and I suspect many others) need to let ideas and arguments gestate for a while before I'm comfortable sharing them.

I had a flavour of this at the Arduino DevCamp earlier in the year. Rather than present, I held a session discussing favourite libraries. Some useful info came out of it, but I think a lack of preparation all round (me in thinking about how to kick the session off, and other participants because the idea was new to them) made it a bit of damp squib.


Another problem with the conference format is the lack of time available to talk to other attendees. Not networking in the "how to get ahead sense", hence the quotation-marks round it in the heading, but meeting new people, chatting to old friends, talking about what you're all experiencing... that sort of thing.

There were a raft of people at IntNorth with whom I wanted to catch up, but just got to say a passing "hello" to. I don't, personally, want longer breaks - I'd prefer more of them. I find it really hard to end a conversation - as often because they're so interesting as because they're boring - so externally enforced breaks in the breaks would be good too.

There's also the inverse problem of starting conversations if I don't know anybody. Short breaks would help there too as there's less time to stand on your own like a lemon. Maybe there are more ways - which aren't the enforced fun of networking games - to help break the ice?


Lots of questions. Any answers?

Not yet. Not really. In the best blogging tradition, this is me writing stuff down to help my brain process it, and to see if it resonates with anyone else. However, I wonder if blogging itself could be part of the solution.

So, to recap: broadcast dynamic... bad; meeting lots of people... good; new ideas... good; no time to prepare... bad; mixing people up... good.

The Long Conference

Blogging, in one of its forms, can be a debate held across space and time. I write something on my blog; you link to it from yours and either expand upon it or argue against it; I can respond, others can join in.

What if we did some of that and then met up in person to continue the discussions? That would provide for the engagement and preparation of everyone beforehand, and because the discussions are stretched either side of the meeting event it would be a bit of a long conference.

In addition to getting your ticket, you'd have to have published a blog post on one of the conference themes beforehand. There'd be no judging of the quality of your writing or of your ideas - it's just to prove that you've spent some time thinking about it. No blog post, no admittance to the conference.

Some of the conference topics would be announced at the same time as the conference dates, and people would be able to suggest additional topics and themes. A conference committee would decide which additional ideas were accepted and add them to the proceedings.

The blog posts around the conference would be aggregated onto the conference website, so people could engage with the topics beforehand, and the committee would select a list of speakers from all of the blog posts. At the conference itself, there'd be short talks from the chosen speakers to act as starting points for an ensuing discussion. After each talk/discussion session there'd be a break to either let people continue debating, or drift off to other things.

There'd only be room for two or three sessions in each track in a day, but there'd be space for people to commandeer a room for a longer session if need be. The idea is to focus on connections between people and quality rather than quantity.

Right. There are holes in this that I could drive a bus through, but it's getting long enough already, and more importantly, I've finished my pot of tea. So I'll leave it there for now.

What do you think? Is there a germ of something interesting here? Would you want to come along if I organised it? Please leave comments, blog about it, or tweet your thoughts. I'll be watching the Internet for items tagged with #longconf.


Posted by Adrian at November 14, 2010 06:49 PM | TrackBack

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Very interesting Adrian: would be good to see more of these ideas as you think about them/share them. Long conference is a very cool term!

Posted by: Nathan at November 14, 2010 10:23 PM

Good post Adrianand yes I do think you have something here.

As you know at be2camp we try and move away from trad conferences towards a barcamp concept, but having to be careful to stay within the comfort zone of attendees we usually end up with a standard powerpoint delivery format. We do however ensure that all the presentations, videos, twitter channels and blogs are captured for future viewing in an attempt to keep discussions going.

I do think we could make more use of twitter + hashtags to enable the pre event discussions, shape agenda themes and allow the discussions to continue post event.

I would be up for attending or indeed helping to organise a long conference event (a be2camplongconf perhaps?)

Posted by: matin at November 14, 2010 11:36 PM

Really like the ideas here & the chance to prepare in advance sounds like a good plan, however I'd rather not be the fact that you have to have blogged a out it - personally I don't blog, don't like writing long posts, find it confusing & just don't want a blog! However the fact that I don't have a blog meaning I can't ho the conference doesn't seem fair! :-( How about Twitter hashtags & perhaps a forum instead - still with a similar proviso - that u have to be activly interacting?

Posted by: at November 15, 2010 01:29 AM

I would echo what Martin said about Be2camp. He and I have both been concerned that the original 'unconference' idea seems to have been diluted (some people still want a formal event they attend and just listen), and have tried to develop ways to share information before, during and after an event.

But even if you do, for example, get people to post blogs in advance of the event, there's no guarantee that people will read them (at least until it becomes expected or normal practice). I did an event recently where the organiser had asked people to write about their subject beforehand. I did, but when I asked attendees if they had read what I had written, less than one-in-10 had done so.

Twitter hashtags have worked well at several events I have attended, and I have also contributed remotely to event-related Twitter conversations, but (again), particularly in the conservative industries in which I mainly work, that conversation is mainly with a small minority of Web 2.0-savvy people.

Posted by: Paul Wilkinson at November 15, 2010 08:34 AM

This is serious food for thought as we start preparations for #PodCampUK in Liverpool next year. As you know, Adrian, we'd be honoured to have you among our number as we get things together.

Let's talk over your concept. It's certainly novel, and I'd be more than happy to weave much of it into the model under debate for the PodCamp event.

Great work. Fabulous, in fact!

Posted by: Dave Thackeray at November 15, 2010 09:53 AM

Thanks everyone for the comments so far, and apologies to anyone whose comment has been eaten by Movable Type. I'm not sure why some aren't getting through, so it might be best to save a copy of the comment somewhere just before you click "Post" - at least until I get to the bottom of the problem. Or stick the response up on your own blog - it'd be good practice for the #longconf ;-)

Martin, Paul, I think Be2camp does a good job of encouraging a community around, and between, the events. I guess I'm looking for depth of engagement rather than breadth - it's answering a slightly different question than a traditional conference in some ways, so people who just want to consume can do so from the comfort of their own web browser ;-)

I don't think it's vital that everyone has read all the blog posts beforehand - it's the *writing* of a blog post that's important. That's what means you've started to process the ideas and ruminate on them.

Anon, I can see what you mean, but I think a forum would make it hard to weave in blog responses. Plus there'd then be the need to curate a forum, which for some reason seem more likely to veer off into the youtube or comment-is-free territory. We could maybe host blog posts on the #longconf website, which is a bit of a half-way house?

Dave, thanks. Will see what I can do to help out with #PodcampUK, though how much time I'll have for it if I'm organising #longconf... That'll teach me to pipe up... :-)

Posted by: Adrian at November 15, 2010 11:13 AM


I made the point that using something like a defect tracker as an issue manager might be a useful manifestation of your vision. Each topic is raised like a defect report, and then it can be added to, discussed, but more importantly promoted and demoted and triaged.

I imagine the meeting to discuss, say, the top ten issues, being a larger than normal but still disciplined triage session, and god knows you know I know all about those.

I just thought that such a thing would be a neat implementation of your idea. What say you?


Posted by: redpola at November 17, 2010 01:55 PM
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