I’ve been to a fair number of conferences, but few I’ve really enjoyed. It seems the people running them don’t think about the purpose of their conference or how to achieve it, they just think “Oh, let’s have another conference”. This seems to almost always lead to bad results.

The problems with conferences come down to three things:

1. Speech is a bad medium for communicating information. (This one is due to Tufte.) Speech can’t be stopped and rewound, it can’t be carefully examined, it can’t be slowed down, it can’t be paused, it can’t present complex concepts, and it’s really very low bandwidth. Just use paper. Tufte suggested giving the audience a bunch of paper that communicated the important information and have them read through it before hand.

2. Speech is a good medium for dialog. (Also due to Tufte.) Speech is best used for interaction. Are you sure that’s correct? Have you seen this? Why didn’t you go this way? Smart people love discussing things with other smart people, especially when the others are informed (see point 1). Let them!

Every conference I can think of gets these two things backwards. They use valuable face-to-face time for worthless presentations by people who are not particularly entertaining and even if they were are saying things you already know, and then try and stifle discussion (one question per person, sir!) and shunt it off towards lunch or something (we don’t have time for questions now). Hello? What did all these people come out here for? I can watch infomercials at home just fine, thanks.

3. Get smart people and encourage them to talk. Now this one is a bit difficult. Most conferences seem to use a large mass of “normal” people (the “audience”) to subsidize the “special” people (the “speakers”). Since I tend to be in the latter group and don’t have much money, I sort of like this. But the annoying side-effects are that “special” people don’t get to discuss things with each other and “normal” people waste everybody’s time by asking stupid questions. I’m not sure how to solve this. Maybe only let “special” people ask questions? I suspect this would seriously hurt the feel of the event.

So what happens when you do this? The closest thing I’ve heard of is the Hackers Conference. Reading the description made me drool. Everyone’s a presenter, interrupting is encouraged, everyone gets a booth to demo, there’s lots of talking-to-each-other time, the conference runs 24 hours, they invite only the best. They also do a lot of other clever things to make it work, especially in the physical location.

Sadly, I’ve never attended. Mostly because I’ve never been invited (you have to be invited to come, and you have to be cool to be invited) but also because it’s incredibly expensive (I suspect this is because of the physical location thing, but also because there are no “normal” people to subsidize the rest of us). Maybe someday, all conferences will be as cool as this. Or at least the ones I’m interested in. I sure hope so.

posted December 09, 2002 12:28 PM () #


Creative Commons Launch!
the next eldred
web publishing is also typography (The Elements of Typographic Style)
Santa Switch
Copyright is Unconstitutional!
How to Run a Good Conference
How Total Information Awareness Works: A Simple Guide
piracy, bits, and meatspace
Explaining Spectrum, RDF
OS X Hack: Printing 4-up to Save Paper
Problem Child

Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)