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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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  • bowerbird

    at one of the biggest open mike poetry events in the country,
    here in l.a., texting is banned, and violators will be ejected…

    “you’re here to hear poetry, not text your friends about
    how good it is. if you want them to know how good it is,
    have them come along next week. in the meantime, listen.”

    i chalked it up to the producers being slightly out of touch
    with the just-slightly-younger demographic that makes up
    the audience, but i must admit that the increased focus of
    their attention does tend to make the event more special.

    and part of my philosophy as a _performance_ poet has
    always been that “you need to see this live to grasp it”…

    -bowerbird

  • http://paulmwatson.com Paul M. Watson

    As long as this doesn’t lead to a return to exclusive events where the rich and powerful are the only ones to benefit then it is a good thing. One should experience the event, the moment, that you took the time and effort to get to in meat-space. I’d like to see more live video from events. It doesn’t need to feedback into the event but should simply allow anyone anywhere to experience the event. Most events are broadcasts anyway, projecting it beyond the four walls of the event hall doesn’t take away from the experience of those at the event (unless they feel exclusivity is a good thing.)

  • http://www.planetrussell.net Michael J. Russell – @planetrussell

    The first rule of Audience Conference is that you do not talk about Audience Conference.

  • http://www.comradity.com Katherine Warman Kern

    Agree wholeheartedly that “membership has its privileges” is an effective strategy to raise the value of content.

    Just disagree that the only way to execute is the old fashioned smoked filled room.

    We’re exploring how to expand that experience, real time, virtually. Not randomly via free tweets to the general public. But virtually being there.

    Stay tuned . . .

    Katherine Warman Kern
    @comradity

  • http://www.marketleveragetv.com MLDina

    The Audience Conference was one of the most amazing conferences I’ve attended so far. Truly a top notch show, though not surprising when you see who organized it all. While I do like using social media at some shows, I agree it can cloud the perspective in a lot of cases. It was great to have a unique experience that wasn’t shared on the Twitter stream. I hope to see a follow up event soon!

  • http://laurelpapworth.com Laurel Papworth

    Hi, your jibe about “imaginary” social codes is an important one. What is imaginary to an outsider is part of community to the member – think rituals in anthropology. So when Seth Godin exhorts companies to “engage” and then says he has turned off comments because the ensuing discussion might “make him change his mind”, I say walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.

    I’m not part of the “tech community” I’ve been an online community manager for many years.

    As for me, I’d take TEDTalks over this “passively enjoy what we know is good for you” – looks like back to school, forced to pay attention or else. But you go right on ahead….

    If you are in the AsiaPacific region next week, I’m speaking at the Screen Producers Conference on building audience communities. It won’t look like anything as draconian as this.

  • http://Http://www.horsepigcow.com Tara Hunt

    I hadn’t even heard of Audience Con before your post. Sounds awesome. I totally agree that tweeting/blogging/etc during the conference can be distracting. What I wonder is: why the secrecy AFTER the conference? Even Davos, TED, FOO Camp, etc don’t put a secrecy rule post conference. What if something said there opens your mind to a new idea?Can you talk about it? Or maybe you just don’t attribute that idea to the conference or speaker? Confused about the reasoning behind that part.

  • Kathy Sierra

    @Laurelpapworth
    “As for me, I’d take TEDTalks over this “passively enjoy what we know is good for you” – looks like back to school, forced to pay attention or else. But you go right on ahead….”

    I think it depends on the appropriate model (or metaphor) for any given event or “presentation” within that event. While there are many compelling reasons for events/talks that are NOT “like school”, we have no problem experiencing a film *exactly* as the filmmaker intended.

    We make choices to deliberately experience what someone else has worked hard to craft on our behalf, be it art/film/music or, in some cases, a presentation. Most TEDTalks are one-way “passively enjoyed”, though I’d argue on the word “passive” — most of these presentations are specifically designed to force your brain to become actively involved.

    But I think most of us would agree that many topics/scenarios are far better served with a higher participation model… just one example of why the *Camp and other “unconference” models have become so popular.

    Every event… and every presentation… must choose for itself whether it is a crafted presentation *specifically designed* to be experienced in a particular way (film model, in the extreme) vs. a debate, discussion, or even cocktail-party model. There’s no one *right* or best way, though there are models that are far more appropriate for specific needs.

    I can’t remember where I saw it, but somewhere there’s a taxonomy of “talks” ranging from “info briefing” to “teaching a tough topic” to “post-mortem/lessons learned recaps” and more. Generalizing across all types of conferences, talks, presentations, etc. is probably not useful. (That said, I really appreciated this post and tend to agree with most of it. Now I wish I’d been there!)

  • http://hatmedia.net Anton Mannering

    Hey Tara, I’m Lorens partner in Audience.

    There was no requirement to keep secret anything from the Audience conference at all. We only asked that people not tweet or have their laptops out and pay attention during the sessions.

    I feel a little proud though that the attendees have felt so special about the experience that they want to keep it to themselves.

    As Loren has said in the thank you, most, but not all of the video content will be released after it’s properly edited as we had several cameras on the stage. Also we owe it to our sponsors to produce quality content that will last.

    As for it leading to exclusivity well, unlike TED and similar elitist affairs, anyone could’ve attended Audience, it’s your loss if you didn’t.

    Cheers Mark for the great post, it was great to meet you at Audience.

  • http://markdrapeau.com Mark Drapeau

    Tara: It’s true, I hope we didn’t give the impression that we were “banned” from discussing the conference. Like I wrote, it’s more like an informal omerta, because we had a shared experience together and it was special.

    Anton: Thanks for chiming in. Didn’t mean to give you or any other organizers or sponsors short shrift here. But I think the “backstory” was that people think Loren is a goof (or some version of that) and the reality was he proved to be a great front man that day. Nice to meet you too!

  • http://hatmedia.net Anton Mannering

    No worries Mark. Loren is a great, smart guy and a great guy to work with.
    I don’t need the spotlight or the kudos, that’s for talent like Loren and the speakers and performers.
    I only identified myself so people would know who the hell was talking and had a frame of reference for who I was.
    I’m not interested in the press.. Unless you want me to help you put an event together, in which case, call me. :)

  • http://markdrapeau.com Mark Drapeau

    Loren Feldman’s post-event video thanks: http://www.1938media.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20070

  • http://eiweiss-als-pulver.blogspot.com Eiweisspulver

    Not every single event has to be covered extensively, most of them aren’t noteworty anyway. To keep it secret on the other hand is also strange. If there’s no sinister conspiracy going on, some information will leak and if its only by word of mouth, so i guess it doesn’t matter.

  • http://ttrumble.com Thmas

    Kathy Sierra is dead on that there is no “right way” to do a conference and that every event must choose for itself how to address the issue of audience media production and a back channel. I think that the experience of the Audience Conference is a great case study, but it is “one” option not “the” option for every conference.

    Look at the content delivered; music, poetry, cooking. I don’t attend a lot of conferences with those elements and the content at the Audience Conference seems to be more in line with performance than information distribution and development that most are. That plays a key role in the purpose and value of a back channel.

    I don’t take issue with one philosophy of the Audience Conference that “it’s okay that people are better than you at something.” I’m glad when I’m not the smartest person in the room at work or a conference. But it seems that you feel that because someone is better than me at what they are presenting that then I cannot engage them in conversation, challenge their ideas or that this requires a one-way message to me. I don’t agree and don’t think that’s a valid reason to eliminate the backchannel at a conference, there are plenty of other reasons to though.

    Finally I’ll also challenge the idea that because a Tweetstream can be a jumbled mess that it offers no value to those outside the conference. I have audited plenty of conferences this way and will attest to the value that the tweetstreams and live blogging has provided. Is the tweet stream less valuable than being at the conference? Yes. Does it take effort to understand and digest? Yes. Is it more valuable than a summary article? Yes.

    I look forward to hearing more from the audience and exploring the role of social media and audience engagement at conferences and events.