Just what role do conferences play nowadays?

Having attended TED last week, where people spend $6,000 + travel/lodging seemingly in order to watch talks which will be posted online for free, I found myself again wondering just what role conferences and events play. This is not of mere academic interest — Adaptive Path earns a substantial portion of its revenue through its public events, I’ve helped organize professional industry events such as the IA Summit, the IA Institute’s IDEA, and DUX, and I speak at 4-6 events a year.

Given the ascent of the Web, one could have expected conferences to wither, as you can find online much of the information presented at conferences. Why bother traveling all over the country and spending all that money when you can pretty much keep up with any field through online means? Particularly when so many events now share their sessions freely on the Web?

Just the opposite seems to have happened. We’re lousy with conferences. In my industry alone there is UX Week and MX (put on by Adaptive Path), the IA Summit, Interaction from the IxDA, UPA’s annual event, the Design Research Conference, SxSW Interactive, IDEA, and this isn’t including the newer events from overseas such as UX London and UX-LX. In the “Big Think” space, there’s TED, and now Pop!Tech, Lift, and The e.g.. It seems that the internet has made people more aware of these opportunities for gathering, and instead of supplanting them, have made attendance even more desirable.

If it’s not about the content, then it must be about the people attending, right? In the case of TED, that is almost certainly true — many, if not most, of the folks spending $6,000 are able to write it off as a business expense.

About 5 years ago, there was a lot of discussion about unconferences, events with no set agenda beyond a high-level theme, and instead of canned presentations planned ahead of time, the schedule is determined after everyone has arrived, and people lead conversations on specific topics. While the unconference movement still exists, it has not taken over the way that many thought it would. It turns out you need more than just the right people.

While the cliche that “best content happens in the hallways” is largely true of conferences, those conversations require the canned presentations. They provide the seed for the ongoing dialogue. They’re the “social object” around which conversation and community revolve.

What the Web has done is made very clear what kinds of conversations are happening at different events, and if you want to be part of those larger discussions, you know you ought to get there.

I think a lot about how Adaptive Path’s events should evolve… UX Week is the event I’m most involved with, and I want to make sure it stays fresh, lively, and relevant. We continue to tinker with a mix of presentations, workshops, and social events, trying to strike the best balance between inspiration, information, skills-building, and networking. And I wonder what I’m missing, what other elements we should introduce (e.g., design charette’s like Design Engaged, where you get 30-40 people in a room, and have them do/make something.).

4 thoughts on “Just what role do conferences play nowadays?

  1. I just posted a link to this article on another blog http://bit.ly/9oar29 that discusses knowledge leaders coming back into style at face to face meetings.

    I thought your two audiences might be able to exchange ideas on current trends and challenges
    in live meetings and events.

  2. Interesting question Peter. Have a look at the buzz going on around the Fake Digital Humanities Conf #MarksDH2010 – eg at http://j.mp/azsVoZ – for some inspiration around one extreme of what an ‘un’conference might move to.. :) ‘course it’s not unconf in that barcamp style we’re familiar with.. but you can see some aims of conference activity being met there.

    Re social objects.. I’m always inspired a bit by the quote in Bruce Mau’s manifesto that talks about a conference that was organised, but had no presentations.. just the “Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms” that frame the connection of people. #39 on http://www.brucemaudesign.com/112942/

    and.. one person recently gave me a Foucauldian take on the UX/IxD movement: in that it may also be read as a product of the Conference Organizers Industry.. :)

    on a more related but serious note.. I AM a little disappointed that we (as a practice community) seem to find it so hard to track forward and refer back to the source of our ideas and inspirations & collaborations..

    like family reunions, it seems to me that inspiration and networking enabled via physical proximity are (still) the role conferences play nowadays

  3. One thing that conferences achieve is a massive amount of CO2 emissions. Whilst I see the value in face-to-face communication can we really afford to pump out all of this carbon? How many people flew to China from the USA to celebrate World Usability Day, which this year was on the topic of Sustainability? I know we can argue FOR the need to do this but with the climate in the state it is in I also wonder whether we can start to do things differently. Perhaps Jared’s Webinars and TED talks online are showing us a better way.

    Carl

  4. Val Casey has a thoughtful post about “fixing” conferences.