Open-Sourcing Conferences

by Doc Searls

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.

June 9 - Why Am I?

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:

  1. Gather around a subject rather than a publication, a publisher, an analyst or any other established source of finished wisdom by lecturing authorities.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Create plenty of opportunities for schmoozing, including evening networking events. Set up meeting space, too, if possible.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

June 23 - Open-Sourcing Conferences

Two weeks ago, I was on my way to Copenhagen for a terrific little conference called Reboot. Now I'm in San Francisco, writing from a conference called Supernova. Its theme is decentralization. I got in tune with the theme right away on the morning of the first day when, after driving 400 miles from Santa Barbara, my car was hit by a garbage truck three blocks from the end of the trip.

After we both pulled over, the truck driver got out and clearly felt bad about causing an accident that obviously was his fault. "Relax", I said. "I'm not hurt, and I'm driving a rental car." He seemed relieved. Credit where due: the agency, Budget, swapped my busted Ford Focus for a new Ford Focus--my favorite rental car--once again violating Searls' 4th Law, which says "No matter what car you want to rent, you'll get a Chevy Cavalier". What's more, Budget also proved that you don't need to buy the insurance the agencies always try to upsell you at the counter. I didn't buy it, they barely looked at my accident report and they swapped the car with no questions asked.

My breakfast date, for which I was an hour late, was with a couple of folks from Cyworld, the giant Korean on-line service. It was fascinating. Rick Kim, whose title is too long to repeat, told me a little about what's happening on the Net in Korea. In some respects, it's nothing like what we experience here in the US or in Europe. In others, it's remarkably similar.

On the difference side, the carriers, notably telcos such as SK, which owns Cyworld, don't believe broadband is a Done Thing or that 3Mb/sec is a good maximum speed for broadband to the home. I asked Rick about the speed of service at his house. He said he got 88Mb, but that the more typical bandwidth for homes there was 15-25Mb--and going up.

Not long ago I talked with a cable installer in Santa Barbara who told me his company had no intention of increasing bandwidth, whatsoever, for the foreseeable future. We're stuck at 3Mb/down and 300Kb/up, for the duration. No Moore's Law here, folks. Move on.

By the way, when we moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, we were getting speeds of 7Mb/down and 3Mb/up. The provider throttled back the bandwidth after its backbone provider, @Home, went belly-up. Now the company uses its own backbone, it says. Oh, and the provider blocks port 80 and port 25. Nice.

So bandwidth is one big difference. Another is the culture in and around on-line services. To my surprise, the first syllable in Cyworld isn't short for "cyber". It represents "relationship" in Korean. The company sees relationships with customers and customer relationships with one another as paramount concerns. Somehow I don't get that from MSN or AOL or Yahoo, much less from the big cable and telco carriers.

What's similar is the infrastructure on which they build their services. It's Linux. To give an idea of how much their Linux infrastructure supports, 90% of all 20-somethings on the Net in Korea are Cyworld users. Among the free services offered is unlimited storage. There are a few limitations, mostly having to do with technical issues around uploads from cellphones and similar real-world issues. But the space is there. More encouraging is seeing "linux" embedded in the e-mail address of the head engineer.

Right now at Supernova, there's a panel ironically focused on attention. Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft, just gave a talk about a meme that she delivered to the world a few years ago: "continuous partial attention". She had exactly that from the audience.

Between the last sentence and this one, I was called outside the ballroom by the head of a well-known "social software" company who wants to open-source its proprietary goods. What's more, he wants to work on an open-source framework for all social software--blogs, wikis, RSS aggregators and so on.

Earlier, a guy I was talking with had a cool idea for conferences like this one. Set it up like any other conference--with speakers, panels and so on--and then announce at the beginning that all the speakers were bait, that the whole conference is completely open. Anybody can learn anything from anybody. Bring up the house lights, arrange the chairs in circles, roll out the hors d'oeuvres.

With no speakers, every attendee's expertise is a "source" for every other attendee. Conversation becomes the most efficient and effective means for moving and growing knowledge throughout whole crowd. The idea here is a profound corollary to Bill Joy's observation that "most of the smartest people work for somebody else". The balance of smartness in any conference session heavily favors the audience. So, what's the most efficient and effective way for everybody to share what they know?

We've been lecturing at conferences for the last umpty years. Audiences have been opting out through schmoozing in hallways, hanging out on IRC channels, blogging, IMing and e-mailing each other. In other words, they're going to other sources of knowledge.

When I play the lecturer role, I try to be so compelling that the audience has no choice but to quit typing and start listening to what I'm saying. But even when I succeed at that, I'm merely improving on the lecture model. I'm giving one man's opinion. If the purpose of a conference is to increase everybody's knowledge, we need to find ways for everybody to be available to everybody. An any-to-any model, rather than a one-to-many model, naturally is far more flexible and efficient.

So, what we're talking about here is, ta-da: open sourcing conferences.

Next step: making them smaller and cheaper, with better UIs.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He writes the Linux for Suits column for Linux Journal. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.

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