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.).

Bing Maps Explore is pretty sweet

Sadly, it requires Silverlight, but the functionality is fly. Check out the “Map Apps” (bottom of the screen). The Streetside Photos app draws geotagged photos from Flickr and applies them into the Street View. Pretty awesome.

David Byrne at TED – The venue determines the music

I enjoyed David Byrne’s talk at TED today. He put forth a theory of creativity that runs contrary to the romantic model. Instead of thinking of creativity as a thing that emerges from the force of soemone’s specific artistic bent, he walked through the history of music and showed how music styles have been highly determined by the venue in which it was played — gregorian chants in the cathedrals, lilting Mozart pieces in parlors, subtle classical in giant concert halls, punchy rhythmic music in small venues where you have to be heard over the crowd, crooners and singers abetted by the microphone to whisper in your ear. Creators think ahead to the space in which the music will be heard, and create for that venue.

I think there’s a strong analogy to the evolution of the moving picture, from those strangely lascivious brief dramas of the nickelodeon to the Academy ratio of the silver screen, widescreen efforts leading to visual spectacles, television shows where close-ups have dominated, etc. The space of the filmic presentation guides the creator as to what they will make.