Editors' Note: The following is the text of the June 9 and June 23 editions of Doc Searls' SuitWatch newsletter. Sign up to be a subscriber of this bi-weekly newsletter.
I'm leaving in a few hours for the airport. Three airports after that one, I'll be in Copenhagen for Reboot, which describes itself this way:
reboot is the european meetup for the practical visionaries who are building tomorrow one little step at a time, using new models for creation and organization--in a world where the only entry barrier is passion. reboot is two days in june filled with inspiration, perspective, good conversations and interesting people.
This year's theme is the *new ways ahead*. After more than 10 years of *old ways* of creation, old values, and old models for communicating and organizing ourselves, *new ways* are emerging. That is what reboot is about.
Hey, that's what I'm about too.
In particular I want to reboot the whole Conference System. It sounds as though reboot is trying to do exactly that. Hope I can come home with some fresh ideas. Lord knows, we need them. Because the defaults are as stale as dumpster gunk.
The problem is mass habituation. We're so used to the whole routine: picking up badges, grabbing coffee and cookies, sitting in rows behind tables with laptops flopped open, surfing the Web or answering e-mail while keynoting CEOs from sponsoring companies drone PR while the PowerPoint deck shuffles by, complaining about the absent power strips and bad Wi-Fi connection. The list goes on. And on.
There's infrastructure galore to support the system, especially at the hotels, many of which are designed from the start to be conference habitats. All your better hotels know how to set up and take down the furnishings, organize mics and projectors, put signage on easels and trouble-shoot problems when they come up. But they have their routines, and it's hell trying to break them. Want your tables in a big circle instead of rows arranged like church pews? They can do it, sure, but you're in virgin territory.
Conference organizers are part of the same system and are no less routinized, whether they work for the company giving the conference or are hired for the job from the outside. One organizer for a recent conference hounded me repeatedly for my "PowerPoints", even though I repeatedly said I didn't work that way and wasn't sending any.
It really strips gears when attendee know-how trumps a venue's roadblocks. I've been at many conferences where the hotel or the conference center refused to offer Wi-Fi but instead insisted that everybody share two blue Ethernet cables beside a bank of Net-connected PCs nobody wanted to use. So somebody would configure his or her laptop to be a wireless access point and treat the room to a Wi-Fi connection, with the venue completely unaware of what was happening.
I wrote about conferences in "Showtime", my April 2004 column in Linux Journal. In it I offered nine recommendations to improve the existing tradeshow format. They're still good, but this time I'd like to offer some recommendations for what Dave Winer calls "unconferences". Here goes:
Gather around a subject rather than a publication, a publisher, an analyst or any other established source of finished wisdom by lecturing authorities.
Make the subject so new that most of the wisdom still is forming. This is critical. There are a lot of subjects out there on which everybody is busy making and changing minds rather than compiling finished documents. These are the subjects for which there are too many qualified speakers available to bother casting one person in that role.
Recruit attendees from the population of people who are forming that wisdom, informally. These are the people thinking out loud about the subject and contributing unique wisdom to it. Podcasting is a good example; so is grass-roots journalism.
Don't set the topic agenda. Let the attendees do that through a conference wiki or some other shared DIY note-taking area. This is one of the cool things I learned form O'Reilly's first Foo Camp. The schedule was an empty grid. Rows were times and columns were rooms.
Attendees posted topics in boxes on a first-come, first-post basis. It was, in effect, a DIY conference. But do begin and end the day with everybody in one room. It frames the day and gives the organizer a chance to play host, make announcements, set the ground rules and so on.
Provide working wireless connections with no encumbrances--no splash screens, registrations and so on. Make it as easy as possible for everybody to get on the Net, blog, join the IRC, update a wiki or do whatever else they want.
Record and podcast the sessions. The idea isn't to make the event public but to seed the world with whatever wisdom grew at the conference. One thing I like about the Bloggercon conferences is the sense that the whole field moved forward. It was like we got together, and instead of raising a barn, we agreed on improved barn-raising materials and methods.
Create plenty of opportunities for schmoozing, including evening networking events. Set up meeting space, too, if possible.
Set out a lot of cold water and ice, in addition to coffee. It's just a bugaboo of mine. I'll pay more for a conference that doesn't skimp on vittles.
Designate a summarizer. Somebody needs to follow up on the conference, gather feeds of searches by Technorati, PubSub and Feedster on subjects that came up during the conference and summarize the whole thing. It's not possible to catch everything. What matters is knowing that the conference made a difference in the world.
Learn and reboot. And share the wisdom about the conference itself: how it succeeded and failed. What worked and didn't. We have an institution to rebuild here. There are a lot of mistakes to learn from.
Any more ideas? Send them to me. If I like them, I'll bring them up at reboot.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal
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