This past week, I was at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City. Since we launched BatchBlue Software just over three years ago, I’ve been to quite a few conferences. In tandem with the growth of our company has been the rise of social media, which has been great for us in many ways since our product, BatchBook, is an online contact organizer that grabs feeds from social media sites and lets you read them in one place.
But something seems to be changing in the conference world. In the past, they’ve been great places not only to learn from the leaders in your industry but to make connections, spark new friendships and form potential new partnerships. That sense of the hallway conversations being as important as the sessions themselves seems to be receding, largely because the conversations…aren’t really happening.
At Web 2.0, people were heads-down on their various electronic devices during breaks, not engaging with each other but seeking frenetically to connect with people not actually at the conference. I don’t mean to just specifically call out the Web 2.0 Expo because this is certainly happening in other places as well. And the conference panels were very good, in fact from a business-level some of the most useful that I’ve attended. But that’s another post.
Having recently attended the PopTech conference, which is a place where people connect instantly and constantly to share ideas, discuss sessions, start projects, I was particularly struck by the lack of attendee interaction. Even at the Web 2.0 “Power Up” station (Web 2.0′s version of the Blogger’s Lounge at another highly social conference, SXSW) it felt like we were in a cavernous office, with people quickly clicking and scrolling away in solitude rather than talking about the sessions that they had just attended.
Admittedly, people still have their daily work to do and as someone who liveblogs, I’m guilty of having my laptop up and running most of the time during sessions. But another thing that’s changing is what people are doing while they are online during the sessions. The Keynote speakers had an enormous screen behind them that was at first broadcasting their Twitterstream (hashtagged #w2e) behind the speakers. As an attendee, I found it enormously distracting. danah boyd from Microsoft Research New England, presenting on (ironically) “Streams of Content”, found it so unnerving that the audience was laughing at criticisms of her presentation that she later stated on her blog that she “closed down”.
I’m all for the back-channel and having a spirited conversation about a presentation, but I can tell you that as a presenter, to have it broadcasted while you are presenting sucks, especially once the spammers and the trolls join in. There’s even a term now, “harshtag”, which is when people start tagging their related tweets with something insulting in order to get it to trend.
There’s something seriously wrong about a thousand people who won’t talk to each other in the hallways bonding together to silently mock presenters, who have taken time, energy and in many cases personal expense to come speak. The first time I saw this happen was Sarah Lacey’s now infamous interview of Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW, when the back channel on Twitter caused the crowd to turn against her and made for a fairly hostile Q&A. It happened earlier this month at a HighEdWeb Keynote speech in Milwaukee, where even non-attendees jumped on the bandwagon (possible now with live-streaming.) I know that the audience has spent money and time to be there as well so they feel like they are owed a relevant, well-prepared presentation. But this livestream Twitterbashing (Tweckling?) seems a bit like the bully in my Spanish class who used to reflect a circle of sunlight glinting off his watch onto the teacher’s bottom while she was writing on the chalkboard just to make the class laugh.
So what could be done to make the overall conference experience better, especially in light of the fact that conferences are expensive, time-consuming and need to show a real ROI if people are going to continue to attend them? Here’s a few ideas.
Choose your venue carefully: The Javitz Center, where Web 2.0 Expo was held, is a black, Death Star-like structure that dominates several city blocks. The sessions, Keynotes and even Starbucks felt like miles away from each other and in between, there was no real place to congregate except a very few stone benches. And maybe it was just that it was in New York, but it seemed like once the day was over the attendees disappeared into the city, choosing to meet up with their in-town friends or folks they already knew rather than going out with new people.
Don’t post the back-channel or moderate it if you do: After the danah boyd incident, the Twitterstream screen was moderated before it was broadcast on the giant screen. I’m not sure this is a better solution than just letting it do its thing but not on the stage with the presenter. PopTech had the unedited stream running on its website during the conference, which seems like a good compromise.
Attendees, find a more constructive way to voice dissent: Most of the harshtaggers probably wouldn’t invest the time it would take to actually be constructive since it’s easy to get a cheap laugh in 140 characters. My husband suggested that a speaker stop the presentation to invite a Twitter heckler on the stage so they can present and see how the crowd feels about that. It might be disruptive, but at least it would be interesting, while most hecklers are not.
Put down your devices: I thought a lot about Chris Brogan’s post on how to be “sexy” at conferences. What he means is, be approachable, be both interested and interesting. It’s like your mom’s advice on being polite: enter a room head up, shoulders back and smile.
Next time you’re at a conference, try putting away the iPhone or the Blackberry during breaks. If you disagree with a presenter, seek them out afterwards, write a thoughtful blog post or contact them via Twitter to start a conversation. Say hello to people. Be open. You could meet someone IRL (!) who could become a friend, a mentor or business partner, or even start a project that makes the world a better place for your being in it.
Photo credit: Graham Steele