Paul Gillin has a great summary of what many geeks have been discussing all week, and which mainstream media has not really commented on – the shift of power at conferences and events continues to move to the audience. Paul writes about the keynote at the South By South West (SXSW) conference last week, in his newsletter (worth reading every week, posted online here):
The highlight was the keynote interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by BusinessWeek’s Sarah Lacy. Evidently, a lot of people in the audience didn’t much care for Lacy’s rather interruptive questioning style or her cozy familiarity with the subject. They were also put off by her failure to involve the audience more directly in the line of questioning. So they started Twittering about it. And as the interview went on, the comments passed between attendees took on a life of their own. By the 50-minute mark, the emboldened audience was actively heckling the moderator. Lacy was a bit flustered, but she finished the interview. When she walked out of the auditorium a short time later, bloggers armed with a video cameras were there to record her reaction to the audience’s behavior.
One of Paul’s points is that the audience is difficult to engage in conferences, often ignoring feedback forms and requests for comments. But systems like Twitter allow feedback in a completely different way. I’ve been at events where a ‘back channel’ chat was posted behind the speakers, but it is really tough for a speaker or moderator to react to it. A third person has to act as the ‘greek chorus’ of the audience and pass along the zeitgeist.
As someone who frequently moderates panels at Social Media Club and NYSIA, as well as elsewhere (at the UN next week – see the right side of the blog for upcoming speaking engagements) I’m getting a bit paranoid that I need to have Twitter up and running during my panels. Another technique, and one I like to use, is to shift the power to the audience as early as possible, but not having too many ‘panel’ questions, and ensuring the audience feels heard. A more radical vision of this is the Barcamp/Podcamp/&lt;Insert name of your UnConference here&gt; where the audience makes and contributes to the content. When I started participating in these types of events a few years ago, many events people thought I was crazy to like them. Unstructured content, the audience is in charge, no cost? But they work. I was at a session at a very important business council last week, and the first session before structured speakers was a “1 hour feedback and ask for what you need” discussion. I believe the group would have gone 3 hours giving each other answers if the moderator hadn’t stopped them. The participants wanted to tap into the wisdom of their crowd – their peers at other companies. There are many moderating techniques such as Open Space, World Cafe and more that preceed and portend this conference trend.
How can conference organizers tap this trend, while still doing business and making money? I’ve learned from my friend Jerry Michalski that the most interesting stuff happens in the hallways at conferences, and that you can design an event around that kind of interaction and not have panels. It can be tough, but the relationship building and knowledge are top rate. How does Twitter and other connectedness and presence tech help? They provide a feedback mechanism and a communication channel that may not be evident, but it is what the attendees are feeling.
Last night at the Business of APIs conference, we were discussing the Sarah Lacy incident, and Jeremiah Owyang asked us to pick “Mob Justice or Mob Rule” to describe the incident. I wasn’t at SXSW but watched the session, and I’m guessing this was a bit of an overreaction, but was Mob Justice – the audience wasn’t getting what they had paid for.
There’s more to think about on this, but I have to run to a meeting. Please add or comment below.