I picked up the latest Harvard Business Review first to read what their Avatar-based Marketing article was all about (more on this later) but also came across a few other articles which I thought were very useful. The first was an interview with Richard Saul Wurman on making events meaningful or useful (requires subscription).
Wurman has put on many events and conferences before but is best known for this Technology, Entertainment, and Design conferences. For an event-holder, his view is that the conference business sucks up huge amounts of marketing dollars, and is an enormous waste of the time of both participants and businesses. It is a fixture of the industry (and certainly the IT/Software industry).
However, his main issue is that most people go to these gatherings only to network and play golf. They don't really listen to the CEOs who can't really talk about all their vision. Marketers have to beg and plead exhibit-goers to take a look at their products, and pnael discussions are usually uncoordinated unrelated speeches. No one gets inspiration and overall nothing sticks.
Amusingly, I see a different view of what Wurman considers negative: "the networking". The term usually implies some sort of negative: the sleazy businessman trying to kiss up to their customers/bosses/etc. However, whether they know it or not, that is what most community forums are. An opportunity not just to learn more and ask questions, but to find that right person who may be able to help you. The way to do it is "networking". Or you could simply sit in a room where everyone is talking for long enough, and eventually someone might say something that can help you. Either way, this implies that some people need to be in the same venue to discuss topics. Others may participate or just listen in.
The venue is the issue. A physical forum like a conference is usually by far a better way to meet others, but obviously there are cons such as cost to travel and participate, time, etc. Virtual forums like discussion groups can provide many of the similar effects but it is more natural human behavior to want to meet others in person. Most real conferences are variances on different settings for in-person meetings.
The mode of how the forum occurs can also affect the benefits or usefulness of a forum. For example, an online group chatroom gives a more immediate interaction point, although if too many people are in the room, it makes for haphazard communications unless you have some sort of moderation/chat leader. A different mode is the bullentin board system that most of us just call plain old "discussion forums", that allows people to come whenvever they want, say their piece, have it recorded as part of their group, and then leave, only to return later to check for responses. This is much more asynchronous a mode of discussion.
The online chatroom is closer to the format of a physical conference than the discussion forum/bulletin board format (synchronous vs asynchronous mode). However, most chatrooms suffer from being in a text-only mode (with minimal graphic smileys), thus the impact is not quite the same as in a real conference, and almost will never be because there is a lot of social cues just simply missing when you cannot see another person. There are certainly new ones that you can notice in text-form, but humans are very visual animals, and we consciously or unconciously rely a lot on how we see others react.
This is one reason why I find 3D worlds like SecondLife and other MMO environments compelling venues. They can provide the synchronous mode feel, with actual visual representation, without the forced geolocation that live conferences require of us. SL for example, still requires a lot of the user to make it a universal tool, not just in terms of your computer's ability, but also in terms of behavior, tool controls/usage, and environment support, to overcome the substantial inertia that people have to new things (something for a future blog), but it is a solution to expensive live conferences. FYI: There have been a number of separate events (meetings, conferences, awards ceremonies, etc.) already held on SL. I wish they were all documented somewhere (by Linden Labs) to analyze the social behavior, issues, and successes or failures of these SL events, because it is these kind of events that can draw big crowds and more new subscribers.
Anyway, back on Wurman: his view is that rather than large conferences with many exhibits, sessions, etc., he would rather than one large meeting by invitation to all the people that the organizer feels wouold be interesting and active participants on the main or multiple topics at the event. This does away with the many failings that he sees and focuses entirely on enabling the exchange of ideas and facilitating discussions, rather than doing presentations and sales pitches.
He may be right in some sense. I'm a veteran of more than a decade of trade shows from every angle: hoster, promoter, attendee, booth bunny (I prefer "rabbit"), exec, press, and now more the "floater"/researcher. While seeing the range of products is nice, it's the constant shilling of products/services that makes it a drag, whether on the exhibit floor or session room. I prefer the conversations that are "in between", during the event but not necessarily part of it. This seems to me what Wurman is pointing out as his ideal.
If that's the case, I guess I'd agree with Wurman on that part. At the same time, I'm still looking around for alternatives in my purview and some of these MMOs are good possibilities.
PS: The HBR issue this month (June) has at least 4-5 articles that I found relevant which was worth the high $17 retail price for a copy.
What are conferences for?