Lessons from Conference Season Coverage

Bookmark and Share

Thinking MonkeyI’ve been very fortunate recently: in my role as Managing Editor of Social Computing Journal (formerly Social Computing Magazine), I’ve been able to attend a number of conferences that I would not have previously been able to find the time or money to attend.

In quick succession, I have attended PubCon South, SXSWi and Web 2.0 Expo. And each of those conferences have provided me with great opportunities to attend talks given by people whose work I follow (to one extent or another):

There were some stark and compelling take-aways for me as I reflect back on the past month and all of the conference activity:

The Social Media and Enterprise 2.0 space is an echo chamber.

There are a handful of smart people who keep saying the same thing over and over again to the same people. And, unless you just enjoy attending talks for the sake of attending talks, once you’ve seen them once, you can probably skip them at the next conference. I had really hoped that the people I saw at more than one conference would have something new to say; and not once was that the case, which was disappointing. While I understand that they do not assume there will be many people who follow conferences around all over the country (other than media), in an overly-blogged world, recycled presentations will fast become audience killers. This is something that professional speakers — especially in the tech/media space — are going to have to start recognizing and managing appropriately.

The people I was most looking forward to seeing are never the ones I ultimately find the most interesting.

Case in point: I did not even realize that Louis Gray was on a panel at SXSW, and yet his material has probably been the single most valuable of everything I got (on a personal, practical, daily level). Chris Anderson, Matt Cutts and Tony Hsieh also fall into the ‘not quite on my radar’ category. Each one of them I saw by virtue of fortunate circumstance, and each one of them proved to be a great highlight I never expected. The converse is also true: in almost all cases, the people I was most looking forward to seeing were the ones who ended up being the most disappointing — and always for reasons of style more than content.

Some people are just better in writing and should give up the delusion that they make good speakers.

As someone who has been online since 1996, I learned a long time ago that the ways in which someone presents themselves online is rarely a true reflection of their real life personality. And, in almost all cases, real life is the disappointment. This may be even more true now that more and more people are getting online and using “personal branding” as an opportunity to establish a bit of an online alter ego that is just smarter, funnier, more clever and more interesting than they are in real life. But before you get up in front of an audience, do a personal inventory to see if that’s the case. Because I saw far too many people speaking in public who were either disappointingly annoying or abrasive or, worse yet, simply boring.

The “Social Media Celebrity” phenomenon is gaining momentum and proving to be a bit nauseating.

I freely admit, I am not a celebrity hawk. In fact, when it comes to pop culture, I deliberately practice Tim Ferriss’ “low information diet” technique. It took me months after the rest of the world started talking about it for me to have any idea who the Octomom was, and even then, it was only because my husband was recapping her insanity one night while we were walking the dog — and I was trapped, with no way to escape. In my youth I used to enjoy a bit of it, but after a few years as a fan geek, I got it out of my system.

And now, watching the celebrity that has erupted around different individuals in the social media space — especially the big ones like Guy Kawasaki, Chris Brogan, Robert Scoble, Charlene Li, etc. — is something I find a bit unnerving. Watching the fan reactions to many of these industry leaders at the conferences was a bit like watching the cast of Star Trek walk on-stage at a Sci Fi Convention. It was never clearer to me the extent to which this new space is a complete convergence of business and entertainment. Because, while I may be there because this is my business and these are business leaders whose insights I am looking to learn from, other people are there as fans. And we’re all mixed in as part of the same crowd, which is a very unusual — and not altogether pleasant — dynamic.

All in all, it has been an interesting conference season. Interactive Austin is coming up in a few weeks, which is another small local one that I am particularly looking forward to (and speaking at). Whether or not I attend Enterprise 2.0 in Boston in June remains to be seen, though I would be very interested to see first-hand how some of this plays out in an enterprise-specific environment.

So, which was the best of the conferences from the past month? Since Pubcon was so small, it’s probably not a fair comparison. (And, in all honesty, the size of PubCon made it an incredibly intimate experience, which was great; and because it was affordable and local to Austin, it was absolutely the best local networking event I have attended since arriving in town last fall.)

Which just leaves the two big ones: SXSWi vs. Web 2.0 Expo.

No comparison. SXSWi was the better experience. Higher energy level. Higher attendance level (at least it felt that way). Higher activity level. A broader spectrum of topics, speakers, activities, etc. And I can say that, even though I didn’t attend a single party. (Socially, I took more advantage of Web 2.0 Expo, since it was my first visit home to SF in a year, and saw a ton of friends.)

What about you? Any interesting insights from conference season so far?

My Conference Season 2009 Posts:

  • Live from PubCon South: Fireside Chat with Chris Brogan and Guy Kawasaki
  • A Conversation with Penelope Trunk
  • Matt Cutts from Google Announces Friend Connect API at PubCon South
  • Amazon, Google & Microsoft Discuss Cloud Computing at SXSW
  • Highlights from SXSW 2009
  • Blogging from SXSW – Monday
  • Blogging from SXSW – Sunday
  • Enterprise 2.0 Discussion at Web 2.0 Expo
  • Leave a Reply