After 2 days at Virtual Worlds London I am more convinced than ever that we need to find a new approach to conferences.I've been watching the unconference movement for some time, and it was great that Virtual Worlds Europe emerged phoenix like from the cancellation of their venue as an unconference. But I am sure that there is more to Conference 2.0 than that. I work in the highest of tech, and go to conferences where others are as tech'd (or even more tech'd) than I am. But Conference 2.0 need not be the sole preserve of the geeks - although that is probably the right place to start.
I would love to just work with some conference organisers (and speakers and attendees) to try and start with a clean sheet and think what a Conference 2.0 conference would all be about.
THE SIMPLE STUFF
So what should Conference 2.0 be like? Well lets start with the retrofits - the things we can do with changing the current "big room" format to much:
- shorter presentations - does anyone need to speak for more than 20 minutes, watch the YouTube video or visit the web site or talk to the presenter if you need more
- have free wifi - otherwise we can't do most of the things that follow
- have lots of mains sockets for charging laptops - otherwise we can only do the things that follow for 60 minutes
- an effective back-channel. Twitter is emerging as a great way to let the audience comment on presentations and discussions mid-flow, and to talk about the subject themselves, and to contribute their knowledge. If your audience isn't Twitter friendly use a bespoke IM solution, or even SMS - BUT WHICHEVER YOU USE HAVE A BIG SCREEN DISPLAYING THE FEED THE WHOLE TIME (and an echo screen for the presenters)
- if you're using Twitter promote the hashcode (eg #vwlondon) before the event so delegates can hook up and start networking before they come
- beware of using conference specific networking systems - people only have so much time and you're better off bringing your event to their space (Twitter, Facebook etc) than having your own. And if someone is Twittering etc the conference then it will hit their own network as well.
- publicise YouTube and Flickr tags so that everyone can access all the post-event media
- in panel sessions have someone Googling whatever is being talked about - web sites, projects etc and show this on the big screen - and have their searching fed through to delicious or another bookmarking site so the audience can refer to it later
- have panel chairs who know the audience (easy if informed by Twitter), and can challenge the audience as much as the panelists
The neat thing is that most of the above won't cost you a penny (apart from the electricity and wifi bill).
SOME SOCIAL STUFF
Then we need to start opening the conference out a bit. With most of the conferences I go to the real business is done in the break-out spaces. So:
- make sure you have lots of spare comfy seating (close to mains power and with WiFi)
- relay the conference into the exhibition are and comfy seating areas (many delegates will prefer to watch the conference from here whilst they deal with real work - yet can still contribute through Twitter)
- make sure that tea and coffee are available THE WHOLE TIME, not just at breaks
Exhibition spaces? Still not convinced about the best way of handling those if your event is big enough to warrant a shell scheme type system. But how about:
- poster displays like academic conferences, encouraging a lot of people to put some basic information up for minimal cost, but they can hang around their poster or have their mobile/Twitter ID prominently displayed for easy content
- let all exhibitors have a slot in an exhibition area presentation area
A BIT MORE PARTICIPATION
Now what about making the whole event more democratic:
- let the audience decide the content. put the potential speakers/topics up on the web months before hand and let your audience vote for speakers (but ok, keep the keynotes for yourselves)
- have at least one stream which is an "unconference" - people sign up to speak on the day, just choosing from the available timeslots - they can even enter details on the web there and then so your on-line programme is up to date
Hell, why not run the whole conference as an unconference? It can, and does, work. Shouldn't your golden rule be that everyone who comes to the conference contributes something?
So far so safe. If you know what I do for a living then you know what's coming next....
Take your conference virtual. By this we mean:
- create a conference space in a virtual world (eg Second Life). For fun make the space reflect the topic not a conference room (Annual Conference of Sewer Managers or Gut Surgeons anyone?)
- stream the video and audio of the speaker into the space (OK this may cost if you're not already videoing the event - but if not why not - you can put the video content up on the web, an create a podcast with the same material)
- either stream the slides in as well, or have a full slideset in the virtual world (gives better quality but needs to be synchronised)
- have a member of you team in both the real and virtual space - so they can relay questions from the virtual space to the real conference
- ideally have a video screen showing real life attendees the virtual attendees, and a video feed into the virtual space showing the virtual attendees the real attendees (either as projected screens or as "virtual mirrors")
By setting up a parallel event in a virtual world you can:
- let delegates save carbon, energy and time by attending virtually
- let delegates who couldn't travel to the event still attend
- let virtual delegates network with each other far more efficiently than if they were each watching web site video feeds - and we're even finding now that the virtual networking is more efficient than the physical networking
- use automated networking tools like Intronetworks in ways that we can still only dream of in the real world (each avatar being told its % interest match with every other avatar in the room!)
- have an event which can live on afterwards - and where visitors can still benefit from serendipitous networking with other late-comers
Of course you still need to make money, and at the moment most delegates will still prefer to come in the flesh - but we are getting to the point where we have enough experience of delivering a good virtual event that delegates would be willing to pay real money to attend them.
Now all that might sounds like a great leap forward (and a great challenge), and I'm sure if you did all this you'd have a far more effective conference. But all we've really done is bolt stuff on to a format that probably goes back to the 19th Century. We didn't change things when vu-foils came in, we didn't change when Powerpoint came in. Please let us change now Web 2.0 and virtual worlds have arrived.
What I would like to see is a root and branch review of how we hold these events. And we've got to start with the audience and what they are trying to achieve. Are they there as passive recipients of knowledge (not sales pitches), are they there to learn, are they there to contribute, or to interact and network? And what constraints do they have in terms of time, cost, energy? And what are they going to do when they get back to the office - I've always felt I'd like a day after each conference just to work out how I spread the stuff I've learnt back at the office - how great would it be if I could use the virtual space to hold my own mini-best-of conference with the event video and commentary all to hand? Then we shouldn't think about venues but about how we can use formats and technology TOGETHER to create the best possible pre, during and post conference experience for our delegates. Only then should we worry about the venue - and my guess is that venue will not be the cavernous halls (or concrete sleeping bags as we used to call them in the Army) of most current conference venues (if I see one more chandelier I'll scream).
So that's it, that's my rant over. Please conference organisers read this with an open mind and try and find time to have a hard think and a good look at the technology before you hold you next event. Yes your delegates might still rate your conference as good - but unfortunately most of them don't know just how stunning it could be.
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Nice video from Mitch Kapoor looking using 3D imaging to control avatars - just the answer to what I was talking about to someone the other day about how we will interact with virtual worlds in the future