My Net-Net on the NetSquared Conference
I've been back for a day from the NetSquared Conference, and have had a little time to reflect on it. Several people have asked me what my take on it was. The short version is superb logistics and people, but so-so sessions, except for the excellent skill share. However, I am sure that the organizers will learn from this year and I will happily go again next year, if I get the chance (and can afford it if it isn't local).
Basics first. Compumentor and their helpers did a superb job with the logistics. There was power at every table, and the wireless was better than at any of the many O'Reilly conferences that I have been to (it probably helped that the conference was held at the headquarters of one of the world's largest manufacturers of routers and wireless devices). The food wasn't gourmet, but it was reasonable, on site and on time. The conference hotel was nearby and was modestly priced (for Silicon Valley). Most people probably won't mention these things, but I have seen what happens when these things aren't true -- a lot of people spent half of this year's Emerging Technology Conference (ETECH 2006) in San Diego complaining for good reason about the wireless (bad), the space (very bad), and the prices (outrageous). The only logistical flaws for this conference were the pre-conference confusion and lack of transparency about registration, and the badges. Everybody's badge was labeled with their role, i.e. volunteer, sponsor, speaker, including one called "scholar", which looked to me like the "poor scholarship kid" label at a fancy private school. While some of this is common at business conferences, I wonder what purpose it served at a conference like this to visibly segregate people that way. Aside from those two issues, the Compumentor crew managed to pull everything together in time, and have my thanks and admiration for doing so.
As always, one of the best parts of the conference was talking with the fellow attendees. I got to meet a number of people whom I had previously only known from their online writings, I got to catch up with a lot of people that I admire but only see once every six months or so at events like this, and I got to meet all kinds of interesting new people that I never would have had a chance to meet otherwise. I also learned about lots of compelling sites/organizations like MomsRising. So Compumentor definitely succeed in bringing an interesting and exiting group of people together for NetSquared.
The sessions were less exciting. Some of it was the format, some of it was the heterogenous nature of "the audience", and some of it was the speakers. Some of it may just have been my ennui. After several years of going to a lot of conferences, I am burned out on the experts in the front of the room lecturing the rest of the room model, and prefer the Unconference format that Kaliya Hamlin and others have advocated for and successfully run. Some of the panels tried to actually have a discussion with the audience, but unless you are a great facilitator, that is very hard to do with groups the size of the breakout sessions. The only session that I saw actually successfully have a discussion was the session on gender, and it has been pointed out to me that the gender composition of the audience and speakers might have lot to do with it (less chest beating and that other activity that males do in large groups was how it was put to me). Other people tried, most notably Micah Sifry in the plenary with Joan Blades and Amy Goodman, but I didn't see anyone else succeed in having a discussion with the panel and the "audience". I'm sure that the wide disparity in familiarity and comfort level with the technologies was part of the barrier to conversation, one that the conference itself hopefully did something to reduce. Some of the sessions seemed like rehashes of old issues to me (and others), but they might have been new to others. But part of it was that the quality of the speakers/panel members was very uneven. Some people are really brilliant, and/or have made great contributions to the world, but are lousy public speakers and/or moderators. Unfortunately, some of those were given speaking slots at NetSquared.
There was one session I loved, which was the skill share session that Allen Gunn a.k.a. Gunner moderated in his unmistakable style (dude!). Gunner asked me to offer to teach people about blogging, which I was happy to do (I love teaching and will do it at the drop of a hat, if given half the chance). I helped one person, Tony O'Shea, (who needed very little help) create his first blog, Philadelphia Child Care, then while I was helping a woman from Serbia create a blog for her film maker husband Zelimir Zilnik, Tony was teaching two more people who had come up to the table how to blog. Seeing the exponential returns to scale of education take place in front of my eyes was extremely gratifying, and was one of the highlights of the conference for me.
Lastly, I was blogging a good bit of the conference for NetSquared, but got discouraged from doing so and ended up not posting my (not very good) notes from the second day because of the information architecture of the NetSquared site itself. There doesn't seem to be a center to it. What goes under "build" and what goes under "share", and who decides? During the conference, I couldn't find the place on the site where I could follow what was going on the conference by reading all the blog posts from the conference.
My suggestions for improvements for next year's conference: keep inviting great people but find a way to let more of them attend; sharpen up the information architecture of the NetSquared site so it is easier to find information, and easier to follow what is happening at the conference remotely; dump the color coded badges; more and smaller breakout sessions; crisper panels and speakers, chosen for their ability to present or facilitate a discussion; and more skill-share / problem solving sessions.
All in all, I had a good time, met some great people, was able to give back a bit to the community by sharing some of my geek skills, and learned a bit. While there were some flaws, I'm sure that it will be better next year, and I look forward to helping make that true. Thank you Marnie Webb and Britt Bravo for the opportunity to attend.