Quarantined Conferences: Claustrophobic Technophiles or Attentive Audiences?

Loren Feldman. 1938 Media. Audience Conference.

That’s about as much of a summary as you’ll find about the Audience Conference held in New York last Friday. That’s because there were no open laptops allowed during the performances. There was also no Wi-Fi, no video streaming, no tweeting, and no blogging. Something akin to omertà joined the members of the Audience Conference together.

This bond of silence was at the core of the Audience Conference, and it goes against everything that technology and Web 2.0 events normally stand for: openness, transparency, and participation. You would be hard-pressed to find any information anywhere on the web about any of the Audience Conference content. Tweets during the event were generic (“just arrived at the Audience Conference”) and posts after the event were vague (“loved the conference, got to meet Calacanis”). Nobody knows what happened unless you were a genuine member of the audience.

Many other features of the event were also unfamiliar. There were no sponsor booths, banners, and signs all over the place, the speakers had no slideshows, internet connections, or videos to keep us interested, and there were no press or even questions from the audience allowed. No problem.

That’s because the content and experience was so damn good. It was technology. It was performance. It was even culinary. Loren Feldman, our MC for the day, treated the event not as a conference so much as a 20-act play that he directed from start to finish. Inside the historic Hudson Theatre in New York, the members of the audience acted like precisely that – an audience. We watched, listened, and learned. We didn’t talk, text, or tweet. We sat in comfortable chairs facing the stage, not at round tables facing at all different angles to it. We retained the information we heard instead of regurgitating it for our own audiences. We learned that the essence of having an audience is performing for them on a stage – perhaps a digital one – and telling great stories.

What was the Audience Conference? From the website: “Audience is a conference aimed at those who recognize the need to reach engage and influence audiences of all kinds, an investigation into how this is changing, and a look at how technology has in the past and is now, through new media tools and the social web, changing audience participation and interaction.” I would love to tell you about what I learned from Jason Calacanis and Rachel Marsden and Rae Hoffman and Andrew Keen and Jeremy Schoemaker and Joe Jaffe and Melanie Notkin and others. But I won’t. Half the philosophy of the Audience Conference was that events are ephemeral experiences that people attending can share with each other – and people not there cannot experience.

In my opinion, casually live-tweeting conferences is overrated because to a large degree it doesn’t serve an external audience very well. When 30 people are tweeting 10 times during each of 10 talks at a conference, and then people re-tweet the tweets (on a delay, naturally), the hashtag stream is a jumbled mess of disjointed quotations that don’t tell a coherent story. I’ve written about why I think tools like Posterous might be better for summarizing thoughts from events; they serve the audience better.

That said, I disagree with the notion that everything needs to be live streamed, live blogged, and live tweeted merely because we can. I recently attended a conference that was about the size of the Audience Conference, and I had a fine experience there so there’s no need to call them out. But strange to me in hindsight was that the audience’s tables were arranged at 90 degrees to the stage, and furthermore that nearly everybody at the tables was staring into a laptop nearly the entire event. Who is that a great experience for?

Now, I am not going to start calling for a ban on Twitter at conferences. I do it sometimes when I think it provides unique value and perspective. I’ve live-blogged some events myself. Furthermore, banning these technologies at an event like the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo would probably result in an all-out revolt. But what Audience Conference taught me was a new perspective on the actual value that all of the technology adds; if you’re planning an event and you’re more worried about power strips and Wi-Fi than content and experience, you’ve got a problem in my opinion.

The comments on Nicole Ferraro’s blog about Audience Conference might lead you to believe that being able to film and tweet from a private, closed door event was some God-given right of Those Who Possess An iPhone. Sorry, it’s not. Loren Feldman took video of the entire event from six different angles (including a small cam pointed at, you guessed it, the audience) and he will decide how and what and when you get to see anything. Why not? It’s his show, not yours. Can you stream video from a live production of Wicked?

The other half of the philosophy of the Audience Conference was that it’s okay that people are better than you at something. And it’s perfectly alright to just sit back and watch them perform. And we watched performances, to be sure – not just tech talks but also personal stories, poetry readings, and musical acts. (Yeah, musical acts.) Not everyone is good enough to be the best financial blogger, or best personality, or best musical act – that’s a dream. Maybe you’re great at something, but can’t you sit back and relax the rest of the time?

I liked this too. With all the talk about how everyone is a citizen journalist and everyone is a content producer and everyone needs a digital media strategy it’s easy to forget that most people are horrible at all of this stuff. And that’s not necessarily because people don’t understand whatever shiny object has come along, it’s because many people are not gifted communicators. New media, at its core, is old-fashioned because the instinct to communicate with other individuals predates man. But some are way better than others at it. And that’s okay.

So are quarantined conferences more likely to result in claustrophobic technophiles or attentive audiences? While some in the tech community clearly think that a lack of engagement is a violation of some imaginary social media code and in an age where even live music isn’t sacred it may seem like heresy to sequester people participating in your event away from their new media toolbox. And maybe sometimes it is. But having experienced the Audience Conference myself, I can also say that in some situations people are not entitled to break out the social media toolbox, because they will genuinely gain a more valuable experience without it. In my opinion, if one event wants to encourage new media use and another discourages it, who are we to argue? We’re only the audience.

What do you think? Were people at the Audience Conference correct to obey Loren Feldman’s requests? Should they deliberately continue “hiding” the content of the event from people that chose not to attend? Should other Web 2.0 events disallow Web 2.0 usage in real time??


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