Tech Conferences Ready to Go Virtual

By Steve Gillmor  |  Posted 2004-02-17

Tech Conferences Ready to Go Virtual

The 2004 OReilly Emerging Technology is now history, with a Wiki full of Hydra and blogger transcripts to document it. Conferences are mental marathons, and this one was as hard to keep up with as ever. Theres no way to attend every session of multiple tracks, but there could be. Its time for virtualized conferences.

Last years BloggerCon conference at Harvards Berkman Center was webcast, with IM and IRC chats allowing limited interchange with the web audience. Lotuspheres opening session was made available as a streaming Webcast several days later, and Microsoft released transcripts (but no video) of its Professional Developer Conference keynotes.

Microsoft PR privately acknowledged they withheld the video to encourage media and developers to attend in person. Vendor conferences like the PDC and JavaOne have become major marketing events for companies, both for customers and developers. IBM and Novell have piggybacked on LinuxWorld and other open source get-togethers, while the aging dinosaurs (Comdex, PC Expo, even N+I) have collapsed or converged toward the consumer electronics space.

The developer conference business model is easy to understand: Water the developers and the platform will grow. Some analysts (and Microsoft insiders) suggest the PDCs focus on Longhorn was too much, too soon, but developers only had to remember how long Microsoft kept .Net behind the firewall to relish the idea of early access to the next wave.

But each of these spaces is parochial to the larger reality of the network. The OReilly conferences have always leveraged this fact, knitting disruptive technologies together into a loosely-coupled fabric akin to grid computing. The dial tone in this case is frequently serendipitous at first, but with each successive iteration, the implementations become stable and resilient.

Next page: Disney Does Digital

Disney Does Digital

Last year was the year of the Mac at Etech. Rendezvous, Hydra, the IM back-channel, were all internal communications forums constrained from the outside community. Wikis were not yet established as a reliable map for the fundamental themes of the conference. This year, the Wiki grew quickly, as collaborative Hydra transcripts combined with deeper insight posts by domain experts (SocialTexts Ross Mayfield, EFFs Cory Doctorow, and SmartMobs author Howard Rheingold).

Last year, Dave Sifry huddled with Ray Ozzie in the corridor outside the session rooms. This year, Sifry walked a packed crowd through Technoratis paces, with overnight hacks like Top Products emerging from hallway and dinner brainstorming. In another session, Disney engineers matter-of-factly described a welter of RSS applications for internal communications and even peer-to-peer video enclosure transmission.

No one seemed to notice the irony of Disney promoting its use of patent-free contributed file sharing software on the same day Disney and Microsoft announced plans to collaborate on DRM strategies. But there was nothing ironic about the traffic numbers for ESPN RSS enclosures; Disney was looking for 500,000 users in one year, got 1 million within three weeks and have now reached 2 million.

Why then, does OReilly stop at the firewall? For starters, they dont. Although it was unannounced until the day of the event, audio feeds of the Digital Democracy Teach In were streamed, archived, and transcribed. So too were the keynotes on each day, but not the sessions. According to IT Conversations producer Doug Kaye, several hundred participants monitored the audiocast. Some joined a raucous IRC chat that in one session was projected behind the panelists for humorous effect.

No doubt making Etech available virtually would undercut OReillys conference business model—at least the current one. A certain percentage of attendees might forego the interactive and networking opportunities to save money, travel and time away from more pressing work and family issues. But virtualizing Etech would have benefits not only for remote attendees but onsite communities as well.

Next page: TiVo for Tech Conferences

TiVo for Tech Conferences

Webcasting the full conference would certainly prove useful for attendees, who often have to make difficult choices between tracks and overlapping sessions. A TiVO for conferences would have to grapple with the same issues DVRs have to confront: diluted intellectual property rights, loss of exclusive content to the porous digital domain and reduced control of advertising and sponsorship.

But opportunities for making up that revenue abound. Virtual subscribers could pay much less for authenticated access, or barter attendance fees in return for services rendered. A virtual Hydra group could produce collaborative transcripts more quickly across the full range of sessions, providing indexable and searchable material for Google, Technorati and RSS information routers.

These indexes could in turn drive video blog authoring tools, allowing participants to assemble news and opinion stories and post them to RSS enclosure feeds. This would let conference attendees get quick summaries of sessions they couldnt attend, or use material from earlier sessions as set-ups for discussions in later sessions.

As technologies such as Technoratis attention.xml reach a critical mass of adoption, RSS subscription lists can be mined to identify qualified groups of influencers. Attention dynamics—who, what and when people read, route and respond to—will initially supplement advertising and sponsorship venues, and then rapidly replace them with their superior predictive properties.

Nothing will replace the magnetic reality of the best of our conferences—and ETech is surely one. But the network can augment the conference reality, accelerate its combinatorial efficiency and provide immediate feedback on the value of its cumulative progress. However good its gotten so far, were barely scratching the surface.

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