Experiencing conferences virtually 1

As a conference organizer myself, I’m always interested in observing good tech conferences. Three great events are happening back-to-back around now: O’Reilly ETech, South By Southwest Interactive, and PC Forum.

I’m not attending any of them, although I’d love to be at all three. The good news is that, in today’s world, you can glean a tremendous amount about the content and “vibe” of a conference by participating virtually, through the blogosphere. A conference is a physical event delimited in spae and time, but it’s also a dense cloud of ideas. When I first put up a wireless data network (pre-WiFi!) at PC Forum in 1999, and when I started doing trackback aggregation of attendee blogs at Supernova in 2002, I was thinking about opening up that idea cloud to the world, in both directions. Today, it’s nice to see that concept becoming real.

(Although I must admit, I’m still surprised by the number of tech conferences with bad WiFi connections. After we had problems because of heavy demand at Supernova two years ago, I basically got rid of everyone involved and made a significant financial and time commitment to rock-solid connectivity. With the level of usage we have, I can’t guarantee perfection — especially when hotels charge something like $1500/day for a T1 line that costs them less than that on a monthly basis — but it’s a priority of mine, because it’s so crucial to the Supernova experience.)

I’ve learned a great deal so far by following ETech on the blogs, and expect to do the same with the other two events. My Supernova planning wiki is filled with new ideas. And it’s great to see people like Linda Stone, whose talk last year at Supernova on continuous partial attention opened many eyes, getting invitations to speak at so many other events. Reading the commentary from many ETech participants gives me a sense of the “temperature in the room,” which is crucial for a conference organizer to understand. To my mind, a good conference is an artful mix of giving people what they want… and what they don’t know they want yet.

Of course, virtual participation isn’t the same as actually being there. The in-person networking and conversations with attendees and speakers are how tech conferences earn their registration fees. In an environment where it’s so easy to get the content from events online, and with many free or low-cost “unconferences” playing a valuable role, a conference better be good to justify a fee of $1000 or more.

Registrations for Supernova 2006 are running two months ahead of last year’s pace, which makes me happy, yet also scared. It’s a great challenge to create an amazing conference experience in this market. Then again, I love a challenge. This week’s troika of events are raising the bar, but hey, that’s good for everyone. After all, I’m not just a conference organizer, I’m also a client.