Do Conferences Matter Anymore?

Nov 13th, 2008 | By | Category: Commentary, Internet TV, Streaming Video, Video, Video Podcasts

AngryThe New Tee Vee conference is underway today in San Francisco. Om Malik, one of the conference’s founders, says they started the event “in order to closely track and monitor the growth of online video.”

This year’s gathering features panels and presentations from people involved in “old tee vee” (the creator of the CSI: series, a writer for the popular Heroes program, and execs from ABC/Disney and Fox). They are mixed in with executives from “new” online television outfits Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube, and with the creators of new media (Alive In Baghdad, Fred, Boing Boing).

It sounds like a wonderful slate of speakers and topics. I love San Francisco, and I wish I was there today.

But then, I was reading Dave Winer’s post about watching the conference on its livestream via Ustream. He mentions that he’s following the conference, while also browsing, Twittering, “and listening with about 1/12th of my mind.” More often than not, I end up doing that even while attending a conference, not just watching remotely.

I began to wonder: has new media permanently changed the way we look at conferences?

People participating in a conference are increasingly connected to the rest of the world. Think about the role that back-channel snarking on Twitter played in the acceleration of the audience hostility during Sarah Lacy’s disastrous interview of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

If you can’t make it to a conference, you can still watch it via streaming, watch attendees’ Twitter streams, or catch up on sessions when they are published as podcasts, just to name a few alternatives.

Does it still make sense to spend a lot of money to attend a conference, when you can get the same information online for free?

I might argue that the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made at workshops and conferences are priceless. But “priceless” can be hard to quantify, especially when you’re spending thousands of dollars to get to a conference.  Are the connections you can make with other attendees and presenters worth it?

Conference organizers themselves are questioning the financial burden of putting on big events in big venues. Tim Bourquin, organizer of the New Media Expo, echoed the worries of many when he talked about the many reasons that have made trade shows more difficult and less rewarding (in every sense of the phrase). Even un-conferences like PodCamp Boston, have found it necessary to re-think the expenses incurred when registered participants turn into no-shows.

So, I ask you readers this: can conference organizers use new media to keep conferences relevant?

Or does new media render the traditional conference obsolete?

Let me know what you think.

Image: Frank Meeuwsen

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6 Responses to “Do Conferences Matter Anymore?”

  1. scratchaholic says:

    For my money, conferences are obsolete. No real news comes out of them, and too often they are platforms for boring sponsored messages.

    Companies are going to start questioning sending employees to conferences, especially when they’ve got streaming media to every employees’ desktop.

  2. Glenn Gaudet says:

    What many people forget is that the real value in a face-to-face event is the networking. The content is a reason to go but few conferences offer information that cannot be gained via other means or events. So why show up? Simple… try to close a multi-million dollar deal on Twitter or Facebook. It’s still hard to beat a handshake, grabbing a cup of coffee or breaking bread with someone to cement a deal or partnership. Conferences are not dead, its just that their content is now a loss leader rather than the main value proposition.

  3. Glenn,

    I agree about the value of making face-to-face connections; that’s why I am so torn about the usefulness/obsolescence of conferences. The content of a conference may be available by many other means than being there in person. But there is no “virtual” substitute for the conversations you have when you attend an event in person.

    I even hate to describe the experience of making connections with people in real life as “networking,” as you do. When I say it, that seems to ascribe some kind of mercenary (selfish or for self-centered) motives to it. My greatest take-aways from conferences have been the things I have learned from people I have randomly met outside the scheduled sessions. The sources I go back to again and again when writing for Podcasting News are the people who’ve been kind enough to befriend me at these events.

    But when I can’t fly out of this small Midwestern city for less than $300, I find it harder and harder to put a value on the intangible benefit of interpersonal connections. It becomes harder and harder to justify the expense of conferences where, as you say, the content is a “loss leader.”

    Still thinking….

  4. Even among our older constituents (i.e., 60+), we are finding a new preference for remote learning. The only things that draws them to conferences are networking opportunities, or unique learning models, like case studies involving group problem-solving. There is an interesting and surprising technological sophistication among older people today, and we started to move to web-casting, podcasting, teleconferences, and webinars to accommodate. Some, however, will always prefer in-person networking and contact.

  5. Vicki says:

    > can conference organizers use new media to keep conferences relevant?
    > Or does new media render the traditional conference obsolete?

    Conferences are not obsolete and “new media” will not make them obsolete. If anything, “new media” makes conferences more valuable.

    First, face-to-face connections are invaluable. Second, social media makes these connections even more interesting. When you meet someone at a conference these days, you’re “meeting” (face to face) many people you already “know”. Read Clay Shirky’s book, “Here Comes Everybody” and ay attention to the chapter on Meetup.

    Second, as you point out, those of us who can;t attend in real life get to attend in the side channels – live blogging, twitter, you tube, etc. That makes conferences more available and more useful. Where once, 100-1000 people attended and then.. the conference ended, now tens of thousands of people “attend” the sessions in new and interesting virtual ways.

    I expect conferences to change. I expect them to improve. I don’t expect them to go away.

  6. Jason Falls says:

    I see your point from an information and learning standpoint, but conferences will never go out of style or become obsolete because of the personal connectivity afforded there. I go to conferences to network, meet my virtual friends face-to-face and expand my group of real life friends. If I speak or attend some sessions and learning something while I’m at it, that’s great, too. You’re right — a lot of the learning can happen in the cloud or wherever you are, but the real value of conferences is in the face time.

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