Have web conferences, as we know them, played out their role?

From my own experiences, and based on what I’ve heard from friends, I start to wonder if web conferences as we see them now will lose their charm and become extinct, or at least more rare. Personally, I can’t motivate the cost of attending them to myself, since I feel that you don’t learn enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m that superb and Mr. Know-it-all; it’s rather just that socialising and mingling seem to be the most important thing about the events, not learning. And, of course, that’s very important, but must we have one without the other?

John Gruber usually has very strong opinions, and from time to time I find him to be too much of an Apple fan, but at times he’s spot on. In his Let’s Have a Panel on What We Didn’t Like About SXSW 2007, he manages to describe the exact feeling I had after being in Austin last year. Basically, I had a great time, socially, but when it came to learning, it wasn’t much new.

Reading his post, it all came back to. My personal takes, together with some of my friend’s impressions of @media 2006, is that the panels only scratch the surface of a topic that everyone there already know a lot about and generally agree with the presenters on every note. They usually become more of a “on-a-first-name-basis” name-dropping of the most well-known names in web developing and internal jokes, than being as instructive as most people are hoping for.

Don’t get me wrong, the panels are usually very entertaining and the panelists are, most of the time, very competent people. And, most definitely, these web conferences treat you to a great time, and if you’re lucky, you’re bound to make some new friends (or get lucky… :-)). But, at the end of day, my personal belief is that people want more than getting drunk with cool people and perhaps trade some business cards (or rather, URLs…).

And that’s fantastic! But at the same time, when it comes to me, I want to learn more, get better at what I do, and have something concrete, and hopefully groundbreaking, to present and explain to friends as well as colleagues.

Therefore, I think that people will be much more inclined to go to events with just one or two presenters, talking a full day or two, delving deep into certain topics and areas of web developing, and panel-based web conferences will just be a playground for people mostly interested in chilling and hanging out with some other international friends.

What’s your experience? Am I way off, or do web conference organizers need to rethink?

 

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22 Comments

  • I think your idea about more in-depth events is good, but there will still be room for the traditional conference – not everybody attending these things knows as much as you do about these subjects.

    For every highly-informed practitioner there are dozens of people still finding their way, or who have maybe not yet even taken the plunge, and these people will still find conferences a worthwhile learning experience.

    Those of us who already know it all will just have to be in it for the beer :-)

  • I attended @media 2006 and was astonished, how bad some sessions were. Only two or three sessions were only worth attending in the sense that I really learned something or was fed with nice and new ideas.

    The only real good thing for me was the socializing afterwards, meeting so many web-aware people from a lot of countries on one place was just amazing.

    For me the unconferences like BarCamp are the future. First of all, the conference should be smaller than @media and the sessions should be packed with more information, and more unique information.

  • I agree that the social activities are probably the main reason though but in saying that I actually have never gone to any and would not mind going to one, one day.

  • So, you want to walk away with lots of groundbreaking information? Isn't that what our blogs are for? We consume so much information on a daily basis. I mean, who the heck hangs on to all their secrets until a conference rears its lovely head so they can try and divulge it all in a one hour session?

    The conferences, in my mind, are a way to connect with people face-to-face. With the internet being so global, it does mean we have to fly around the world to meet our brethren one-on-one but it's worth it to get a chance to connect directly. And as a result, yes, it becomes full of parties and inside jokes but when we all fly back home and get down to the nitty gritty of work, my network is now much bigger than it was before. I now have more people to fall back on, to ask questions to, and I get to do the same for others.

  • Kathy says:

    This year's was my first SXSW, and though I agree with you that some of the programming was a bit light-weight, many panels were quite good. Also, because there were so many tracks, I was able to attend a lot of programs on subjects I didn't know much about–it was a great way to learn. Finally, I don't think you can discount the benefit of being in the same room with 100 or so like-minded geeks. :) Many of us don't have daily access to other designers/developers, and being able to talk shop at conferences once or twice a year becomes very important.

  • Chris Huff says:

    I've yet to go to a web development conference, but I have been to various conferences on other topics. I agree that usually the information presented is of a cursory nature rather than in depth. On one hand, I agree that conferences need to rethink the whole events. At the same time, however, I think you're right on that they are really more about networking than information. Information is often an excuse to get together, but the people are the real reason. When we realize that we can get almost all of the information that can possibly be presented on the internet somewhere already anyway, we see more clearly that these conferences are less about the content, and more about the contacts.

    One final thought: when we can learn things in different ways, it becomes more engrained into us. Thus, I may have a read about a technique a million times online, but it may take that one brief overview audibly, in person, for me to really get it.

  • I agree that the ammount of learning that goes on at a conference is done by those who don't have the time or desire to routinely check others blogs and articles – many things said at conferences have already been said elsewhere before and those "in the know" would have heard about it.

    I have found that conferences seems to be a way of challenging people to go out and change the things we do or go and learn the new things that we hear about – and then forget most of it while getting drunk afterwards!!

    A number of conferences now have started doing day sessions either before or after them which seem to be the places where some real hands-on learning happens.

  • I think that as well as providing opportunities to meet new or old friends in meatspace and hang out or talk shop, events like @media and SXSW are an opportunity to become re-energised about what we do for a living. It's easy to become bored and complacent, especially if you work in-house on the same sites day in, day out – mixing with people and talking about exciting things can give you a new perspective and get you fired up about what you do, a benefit that shouldn't be understated.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Thanks for your input!

    I have nothing against the socializing; on the contrary, I think it's great for people to meet in real life, to have fun together and do crazy stuff! What I dont understand about that, though, is that some people think learning vs. having fun is mutually exclusive.

    Personally, I want fewer and more in-depth presentations for people to get their hands dirty, than just hearing what most people already know or agree about. No matter if we've read it in blogs before the actual event or not, challenge us!

    When it comes to newcomers, what I've heard is that they get put off by too many internal jokes and discussions just giving a short description of a subject with not enough information.

  • Ash Searle says:

    I felt exactly the same about @media 2006, but realised that I'd gone there with the wrong expectations: I was hoping for education and training, not presentations and discussion.

    I'd guess that a Carson Workshop or Guerilla weekend would be better for boosting skills. Or, to avoid dipping into a training-budget, perhaps something like FooCamp / BarCamp; or one of the Yahoo! sponsored events?

    If you're not presenting, and you already know your subject area in-depth, I think you get more value out of a conference by attending sessions on things you don't already know about (e.g. typography, design, microformats.) That's how I'll be choosing which sessions I go to at @media 2007 anyway…

  • it is common that companies pay your ticket and expenses, and expect you to get better in your field of expertise and to report back and teach your co-workers what you’ve learned.

    But if Bob’s employer is sensible, she isn’t going to want Bob, the hard core JavaScript bod, to go to a JavaScript presentation when there’s a design presentation in the next room that will probably give him some insight on how other members of his team work and how he can better incorporate JavaScript into pleasing designs. You get better at what you do by getting a greater feel for the big picture.

    To re-iterate a point as well, if you think there’s more to learn, ask questions, either during Q&A sessions or during lunch or breaks or parties. Speakers will know more about their specialist subject than the average attendee, and it’s usually quite a unique opportunity to interact with them. Let their presentation be the springboard to your more detailed interrogation.

    Blogs are, mostly, free and books doesn’t cost that much. So, if the knowledge transfer isn’t enough, I think people will find it hard to motivate the cost for mere socializing and some tiny tidbits that they did learn

    Good point. I was going to make a comparison to the price of MP3s vs. stadium concert tickets or watching sports on TV vs. going to see them, but I’m losing myself in stretched similies :) Obviously, the idea is that you get more from an in-the-flesh training session than relatively non-interactive training tapes, for example, which is why conferences in all disciplines persist.

    I agree that for many, the price is high. The ticket price is usually just a small part of it when hotel and travel, and days off work are factored in. One of the reasons for @media being based in London (or San Francisco for that matter) is the large local concentration of web professionals, so cutting out the hotel+travel costs for many attendees.

    At the end of the day a company or organisation isn’t going to pay to send someone to a conference (or an individual isn’t going to pay for themselves) if they don’t think the event has a good chance of delivering a good risk to reward ratio. The package of education, networking (with attendees and speakers), and, very importantly, inspiration, will tend to justify the expense for most – the cost will be repaid in one way or another. It’s also the case that most web conferences are very cheap, making it an easier choice for a company to send someone. I’m not trying to be controversial there – most professional conferences cost well in to the $thousands!

  • Hello. I organise @media.

    A few quick thoughts…

    * A lot of these conferences attract a significant number of relative newcomers to whom most of the subjects are completely fresh. Of course, they don't have a soapbox such as a popular blog to get heard though, and because they're new they're less likely to shout out about things anyway. There isn't just one raft of web developers who come in, learn their stuff, and hang around forever, is there?

    Passioate views of not being new / in-depth / educational enough often comes from the vocal minority.

    Having said that, I'm certainly not going to ignore such feelings, and I've asked most of the speakers for @media 2007 to go more "hard core" ;)

    * At multi-track events many attendees go to the sessions on the topics they already know about – designers go to design panels, JavaScripters go to JavaScript presentations, etc. As Ash just suggested out, you'll get a lot more from doing the opposite.

    * There's room for blogs, right? Like yours? What's the difference? OK, it's a little different, but it's just another way of conveying information and opinions. And what about books? Written by the same people who speak at these conferences?! Some of them are best sellers!

    * I've got no time for people who say they learn nothing from conferences (I don't actually think there are that many people who do say this though). If it's well organised, and has a good set of intelligent speakers, and you make an effort (ask questions if you want to know more!), you *will* learn something. I've been in the game for a long time, and I've learned from every event I've been to.

    * I think the social side of conferences is great. It's the best part for me, but then I'm not as deep into the development learning game as I used to be and I really like beer. Similarly to the comments about skill levels, there's an assummption amongst the socialising developers that everyone does this. They don't. Many @media attendees, for example, go to the event and don't attend the parties (and for that matter, many are nine-to-fivers who aren't as enthusiastic about the extra-curricular "community", which is fair enough). SxSW, being a massive festival, is probably different.

    * Oh, and that's another thing I just thought of – the panels at SxSW aren't usually as professional because it *is* a festival first and foremost, rather than a professionals' conference. Why would a speaker prepare in the usual manner when there's no speaking fee, travel, or accommodation supplied by the organiser?

    Of course, I would say this, but I think there's a very important place for conferences :) @media's doing really well again this year, and I hope the feedback will be as overwhelmingly positive as it was for previous years.

  • Rob Kirton says:

    It may be worth while stepping out of your comort zone when deciding to attend conference. For example, make a point of attending a typography only conference if interested in picking up particular information on that font front (sorry couldn't resist that one).

    You learn something new, will mix with a different crowd, expand your network and possibly find some useful business leads on the back of it. If you're the only web development expert there, you are more likely to pick up on any leads going.

    I use this as an example only. The point is that we all have the ability to network on-line to a large extent, and it is all to easy to correspond with the same folks and end up preaching to the converted. It certainly isn't the best way to develop new business opportunities.

    This is not something I have personally done, however it is curently on my list of things to consider.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Ash,

    Very valid point. It is indeed more interesting to go to sessions about topics you know less, or even nothing, about.

    However, to me and I guess for many others as well is that it is common that companies pay your ticket and expenses, and expect you to get better in your field of expertise and to report back and teach your co-workers what you've learned. In that sense, I'm not sure different conferences deliver.

    Patrick,

    Thanks for your comment, I'm glad to see your willingness to discuss this!

    From what I've heard and seen, I'm not sure that the number of people that attend are completely fresh in the game, but that can of course vary between conferences. But I guess the problem there is probably trying to accommodate to newcomers as well as seasoned web developers, and what you end up with is some compromise in-between.

    When it comes to books, blogs and conferences, naturally they complement each other. The difference, though, is that a price comparison can't even be done. Blogs are, mostly, free and books doesn't cost that much. So, if the knowledge transfer isn't enough, I think people will find it hard to motivate the cost for mere socializing and some tiny tidbits that they did learn…

    <blockquote cite="http://www.robertnyman.com/2007/03/20/have-web-conferences-as-we-know-them-played-out-their-role/#comment-43716"&gt;

    I’ve got no time for people who say they learn nothing from conferences

    I agree that most people will definitely learn something, but the questions are if it's a) Sufficient, for the expectations, and b) enough to motivate the entrance fee, travel, hotels etc.

    <blockquote cite="http://www.robertnyman.com/2007/03/20/have-web-conferences-as-we-know-them-played-out-their-role/#comment-43716"&gt;

    Having said that, I’m certainly not going to ignore such feelings, and I’ve asked most of the speakers for @media 2007 to go more “hard core”

    That sounds great! Good luck, and my best wishes to the attendees to become satisfied :-)

    Rob,

    Absolutely, I agree, and people really should do that. But at the same time, I wouldn't want to sacrifice the opportunity to get better at what I do.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    <blockquote cite="http://www.robertnyman.com/2007/03/20/have-web-conferences-as-we-know-them-played-out-their-role/#comment-43726"&gt;

    You get better at what you do by getting a greater feel for the big picture.

    Oh, absolutely, I couldn't agree more. I just meant that it isn't always solely the web developer's call what to see and what's expected to get back from the investment.

    Some managers/companies agree that broadening your knowledge is the way to go, while others want to get two days of, say JavaScript knowledge, than one day of it and one day of miscellaneous stuff.

    But overall, I agree with you, and I'm happy to hear that you have such a sensible attitude about it all. :-)

  • Dave says:

    Conferences will of course continue, but they’ll change (slowly) to match needs.

    I think what is needed is stronger local groups (in addition to conferences). I’m part of a local group of web folks who all work in the same industry, and it’s phenomenal. We meet once every month or two, talk as a group all morning, and then go to lunch. It helps me to know where the bar is set, we can share ideas, and since we’re in the same industry we run into a lot of the same situations.

    My main issue with conferences is that even well-intentioned presentations seem to turn into sales pitches. It’s great that you’ve decided on Solution X for your needs. I’d like to see a one hour demonstration of Solutions X, Y, Z, A, and B that shows the pros and cons of each.

    (I’d also like to require that all presenters take a long, hard look at whether they would fall asleep if they had to watch their own presentation, but that’s a separate issue.)

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Dave,

    I definitely agree. Local groups are a great complement.

  • Kris says:

    I had very high expectations about @media2006, but were somewhat dissapointed by how little there was for me to learn. On the other hand, call me arrogant, but it strengthened me knowing that I am up there.

    Now all I need is to have a weblog and write a book to be like ‘them’. :-)

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Kris,

    Interesting to hear. Although, at the same time, I'm glad it made you feel confident! :-)

  • This is an interesting topic, given the disappointment of some of the conferences that I have been to over the last couple of years.

    Whether the employer pays or not, it's a lot of money to shell out so I expect to be able to take quite a lot away from the panels. I get quite frustrated when the panels are not organised or sessions quickly degrade into question and answer sessions. I am paying to hear the insights of the panelists and presenters, so when they start asking the audience questions like "how would you guys do this?" I start to wonder what the benefit is over reading blogs…especially when the latter can be done for free.

    If conferences were purely about the social side then there would be no need for me to attend during the day…I could just wander into the bar closest the conference venue each night!

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Stuart,

    Very good points. I've also been disappointed by a number of panels/sessions where the organization/speaker preparations have been pretty poor.

  • [...] been to SXSW before, and consequently questioning the role of web developer conferences, I must say that I was very impressed with @media AJAX. Great organization, fantastic speakers and [...]

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