Do we still need conferences?

That is my second EuroOSCON bagged and as I took the 12hour trip home (taxi + eurostar + underground + train + car) I am left pondering if the whole experience was worth it.  What did I actually get from the conference that I wouldn't have otherwise have gotton.

 Well let us start with the experience as a whole.  O'Reilly conferences are always well run, no major complaints there.  From both a speakers and attendee point of view, they treat you well keeping you informed both online and offline of the latest goings on.  Speakers are well catered for with all the usual AV equipment they require and their keynote is more like a show with good quality sound and visuals.  O'Reilly also provide free wi-fi throughout the conference, allowing you to be online no matter what session you are in.  

Although I think it is at this point the wheels probably start to fall off the conference wagon.

The opening keynote was a rather forgetful affair.  Tim O'Reilly stood up and pretty gave the same "web2.0" pitch as last year.  Nothing new and I can honestly say I recall not a single nugget from it.  Now this surprises me.  Tim is perceived as someone that has his finger on the technologists pulse, leading us all in the direction we should be heading.  Infact, his side kick, introduced O'Reilly not as a company that publishes books or puts on conferences but as a company that follows trends (although I dare say the money from the publishing empire affords them the luxury of this statement).  I still remember statements from Tim's last year keynote.

Content aside, I took some time and looked around the room of delegates as the keynote progressed.  The vast majority were all on their laptops banging away very rarely looking up at the presenter.  You could assume they were all taking notes, live blogging or something, but as I looked over the shoulder of some, most were checking email, instant messaging while others just surfing.  So with that in mind, why on earth were they there?

So if the keynote is this poorly attended in terms of attention span, then why bother?  Couldn't we have just broadcast this over the net right to the very laptops that the delegates were so diligently clued to in the first place?  For my own part, I consider it rude to be using my laptop while someone is speaking, but it appears I am in the minority.

I noted last week that the sessions were cut down to only 40minutes in length and as a speaker I felt that was not enough time.  As an attendee of many of the sessions I can assure you it definitely isn't enough time.  The sessions that I sat through, were not that great a quality and sadly I took nothing away from them.  The speakers were competent enough, I just felt they were rushed, and instead of cutting to the hard stuff they did a very high level overview with no depth at all.  For my own session, I have to confess to ditching some of my cooler demo's and only really had time for a very simple helloworld example.

But again, there was still people banging away on their laptops in these sessions.  Granted not the majority, but a good proportion.

A conference is more than just sessions; it is about meeting people and getting to know the new people are working on. This is probably what the majority of people really come for. 

So how about we ditch the charade that is known as sessions and just have a format where everyone gets a chance to meet with everyone.  They have speed-dating for lonely hearts, why not take this format and apply it to the conference delegates and forget this nonsense of pointless sessions.  At the end of the day, we are there to meet people, to forge new relationships, new partnerships and make business.  The sessions are increasingly becoming the fluff that gets in the way.

I do not wish to berate the O'Reilly conference because they are not the only ones to suffer from this.  My last 12 months of conferences have been completely forgettable and I can only thank my lucky stars that I didn't have to pay for the entrance ticket myself as I would be feeling seriously short changed.

But I do enjoy meeting people and that at the end of the day, is the only reason I go and probably will continue to go and keep the conference cycle turning.



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