Ming the Mechanic:
Better electronic tools for conferences

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Better electronic tools for conferences2004-07-07 16:50
picture by Flemming Funch

Inspired by the experience at Blogtalk, in part with the 'backchannel' interaction, I can't help but brainstorm a bit on how better tools and organizing can make it better.

First I must mention that there's of course not any panacea in all this computer use that is going on in a setting like that. No guarantee that it is all useful. I'd really much rather have some really good dialogues and small group discussion, without any particular need for computers. But no matter what goes on, there are certainly ways it can be made more rich through the information infrastructure that supports it.

Somebody mentioned that at the previous conference it was new to have WiFi networking and that kind of thing, so it wasn't really used as intensively. But here people really used a bunch of tools that way, in a more active manner. Which means that it is a key part of the conference itself, and should really more formally be made part of the process. I.e. not just try to provide an open connection and leave it at that. But also establish the necessary feedback loops.

The presenters felt a little left out, as they couldn't see what people were chatting about while they were speaking. And the people who didn't bring a laptop felt left out. Or the ones who hadn't discovered the wiki and the IRC channel. Or those who didn't know how to get on IRC. Or those who didn't have Macs so they were missing a couple of the tools used, Rendezvous and SubEthaEdit. So therefore various people got various parts of it, but maybe not all they wanted. OK, the collaborative tools like the wiki are meant for tying the strings together, and people can now go and see notes, and can read other people's postings, to see what they might have missed, etc. But should it maybe be more formally organized? Like a designated note organizer, and somebody who archives the chat transcripts. Somebody who makes links on the big screen available in clickable form in one of the side channels. Somebody who gets questions from those channels back to the presenters.

Anu Gupta has some good comments on some of these things.

Another subject. Despite a number of supporting ways of knowing participants, like them having listed their names and blogs in a wiki page, it can still be difficult to keep track of who people are. It would be useful if there were a uniform list with profiles. Little pictures of each person, liking to a profile with who they are and their blogs, etc. The information is mostly there, but it is scattered in various places. Like, even if I have a link to somebody's blog, it might or might not tell me quickly who they are. I might have to browse around for a while, which takes attention away from other things. I've done events where we took a picture of everybody at the entrance, if they didn't already have a participant profile, and the list of people was made available, and could be checked afterwards. I learned that from Sergio Lub of Friendly Favors and it can work very well.

Presenters put up slides on a big screen. I'd quite likely want to click on their links, but I'd have to type them in first, and the slide has probably changed before I get them all. They could be provided in a side channel, for example by somebody who had the job of typing in all the links as they happen. Or, better yet, the slides on the screen are presented in real-time by a feed, so that I can both click on it, and keep it, instead of trying to frantically re-type it. OK, I don't know how likely it is that one can export PowerPoint to a feed, but it is an idea.

The idea applies quite well here that everything should be a feed, and everything should be aggregatable. There could be one overall feed that shows everything that is happening. Who's speaking, what are they showing on the screen, updates to wiki or to notes, new blog postings from participants, new profile information about participants, etc. Instead of having to jump around and refresh pages, looking for things that are changed.

Self-organization can be fun and useful, but can also be messy and distracting and waste a lot of energy on duplicating efforts and trying to find out what is going on. The experiences acquired can well point out what emerges as being useful, and those things could well be phased into a more organized and stable form.

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7 Jul 2004 @ 18:29 by Seb @ : Stabilization
I guess practices such as nametags and coffee breaks were also new and tentative at some point, then the patterns stabilized, were noted as useful and eventually crystallized into conference culture. The same thing will surely happen.  

7 Jul 2004 @ 22:14 by ov : Better Tools
Thanks for the executive summary for all of us that don't have the time for the fully immersive experience.

I'd like to put a plug in here for better techniques to balance out the emphasis on tools. {link:www.openspaceworld.org|Open Space Technology} is so low tech that it verges on no tech, and yet it is an amazingly powerfull and effective technique for actually getting things done with a large amount of people. I've been at a couple of these and the empowerment and enthusiasim of the employees within the organization was amazing. The big secret involves not adding more layers of complexity that cater to an ever smaller elite, but of removing the gatekeepers and power blocks that prevent things from getting done. It has a proven track record and I've heard of cases where projects that management had thought impossible were completed in a manner of weeks by the frontline workers. The website I linked to gives a good summary and entry to the details.

I think it would be very interesting if the bloggers would take a look at this and combine the open space method with the blogging documentation for a truly synergetic synthesis.

In the early days of software development, one of the big problems was that computer systems were designed to imitate the real life situation (often resulting in the worst of both worlds and none of the compensating benifits of either). Now here we see the pendulum swing in the opposite direction where human face to face conferences are modeled as if everybody is sitting at home in their isolated cacoon.  

9 Jul 2004 @ 05:55 by Harrison Owen @ : Open Space and Cyberspace
Seems like things are coming full circle. At the first Open Space in 1985 a bunch of us in attendance just happened to come with our Radio Shack TRS-80 -- otherwise know as Trash 80's. If you never saw or heard of the, I guess that dates me, but they were the original laptops, as opposed to "lugables." Anyhow we were all connected to an early node of the InterNet, and as the Open Space went on as it usually does (exciting/rich/funny/etc) it seemed appropriate to share our experience with out electronic buddies around the world. We did, and not surprisingly, they answered back. Since the respondants were in various time zones around the world, all of a sudden that gathering in Monterey, California went global, and the time was world time. Funny sensation when the constraints of time and space disappeared -- and somehow our space/time was every space/time -- or none at all. So the old story is the new story, only with more bells and whistles. I guess my major learning of that time was that Open Space and Cyberspace were totally correlative -- and maybe the same.


9 Jul 2004 @ 09:24 by ming : Open Cyberspace
Ha, yeah, so nothing terribly new. But undeniably easier nowadays. Oh, I do remember the TRS-80, which dates me too.

Yes, I think it goes hand in hand. Open Space and Cyberspace. The presence of more channels of communication allows us to use the law of two feet and go somewhere else if that's what we want. We can show up or not for a greater variety of things. More choice and freedom of movement is a good thing.  

29 Apr 2016 @ 05:52 by Tracy @ : RmqpmcmPRAtG
You've captured this pefryctle. Thanks for taking the time!  

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