It’s now been over two years and a dozen talks since I first started speaking with my blogger hat on. Each time I go to one of these things, I realize just how out of place I am.
The talking-head conference circuit (as opposed to academic) is designed around polished and powerful speakers with a true flair for the dramatic. They manage to be theatrical without being corny. They are engaging and accessible without coming across like used-car salespeople. Even when you are aware of the halo effect, you cannot help but be enthralled by people who are truly, naturally good at this stuff (like Bill Clinton say).
These are professional speakers in the fullest sense of the word.
Me, I mumble, hem and haw, get tempted down unscripted rabbit holes on stage, lose track of time, go too fast or too slow, pause too much or too little, forget to repeat for emphasis, and generally put on a pretty amateurish show each time.
But here’s the funny thing: increasingly I find that it is people like me who seem to be on the agenda at these things. It is sort of like the rise of reality TV over scripted, or the rise of blogging over traditional publishing. I seem to be part of a broad amateurization of the speaker circuit.
I fully expect some sort of iStockSpeaker site to pop up soon, full of people like me in the directory.
The Speaker Circuit
Chances are, you don’t actually know what the “speaker circuit” is. Here’s a secret: neither does anyone else. Some parts of it are very legible. Bestselling authors with agency representation belong in this legible part, as do ex-Presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs and the like. This is the marquee talent on the road.
Other well-understood parts are the “roadshows” (speakers who take the same act everywhere, to events organized by others, as well as their own for-profit workshops and seminars), dog-and-pony shows for specific messages managed by PR agencies, corporate retreats and university commencement speeches.
Off stage, the people who belong in the legible part of the circuit are pretty impressive. They network smoothly and energetically, non-clumsily pitch their books, companies or consulting services, deal graciously with swarms of fans, and overall, maximize the hell out of their time at any event. When you meet them, they immediately make you feel comfortable. When you run into them between events, you realize that their lives are beautifully organized around speaking gigs. They move smoothly from one event to the next with no disruption to the rest of their lives.
And then there are people like me. Off stage, I have to very carefully pace myself and ration out my limited supply of social energy in order to actually enjoy the event. Each time I go to an event, the rest of my life gets disrupted for days before and after. If I have two or more events in quick succession, things get pretty chaotic. I count myself lucky if there is even one person in the audience who has heard of me before.
I am an amateur in the fullest sense of the word.
There is some clear social structure as well. Keynotes for example, are best understood as talks by speakers who are better known than the events they headline, and can therefore add some marketing pull. There is a delicate Groucho Marx type balancing act here: nobody wants to keynote any conference that will have them.
Nominally, a keynote is simply any talk in a typical position on the agenda (say first single-track talk after breakfast on the first day) that is billed as an introduction to theme for the event. Quite a few speakers claim “keynote speaker” status based on having simply occupied the position at some point, but you aren’t a true keynote speaker unless you’re more famous than the event itself.
But when you put together all the clear elements, you still end up accounting for only about 20% of the stuff that makes up the “speaker circuit.”
By comparison to a corporation or industry, explicit organizational structure accounts for much less of the nature of a given event or space of events. It is a fundamentally murkier part of the collective economic life of homo sapiens.
I still haven’t figured it all out. That’s part of the reason I keep going to these things. Somewhere in there, there is a sort of Gervais Principle for the conference circuit that I might figure out someday.
Truth be told, as far as explicit networking value, driving book sales or business development go, speaking gigs are basically not worth the time investment for 80% of the speakers. My suspicion is that most of the direct value accrues to a small fraction of attendees.
The Amateurization of Speaking
You don’t have to fully understand how the speaker circuit works to realize that there is a widespread amateurization going on. When I first started doing speaking gigs, I thought I needed to spend some time working on my stagecraft. But I very quickly realized two things.
First, the few times I tried to do a more polished, halo-effect type talk, even though the videos clearly looked better, I personally hated doing them, and interactions with people afterwards were less fun. The better you are on-stage, the more distance you create off-stage. Of course, there is some minimum skill needed, but the bar is not as high as people think.
Second, I realized that conference organizers are typically not looking for halo-effect dramatic content from amateurs like me. There are others on the scene who are there fore the purpose. People like me are part of the amateur portion of the proceedings.
And increasingly, that’s the more important part. Sometimes it’s the only part.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why this is happening. Part of it is simple supply and demand. There are now more conferences, with more agenda inventory to fill, as cheaply as possible. And the blogosphere is one cheap source.
The Internet also makes it much easier to organize events. Everything from identifying and communicating with a target audience, to registration, sponsorships and logistics, becomes easier with the Internet (remember when conferences relied on paper mail for organization, before around 1998?). Barcamps and meetups are the most obvious examples.
But this doesn’t explain why there are more events. Where is the demand coming from?
Events and the Internet
My theory is that this is due to a chicken-and-egg feedback loop between physical events and the Internet.
If you think about it, the Internet really borrows much of its organizational structure from the transient part of offline social order, not the fixed part.
In other words, the Internet is a set of ongoing sprawling events, a continuous show. Not a set of institutions defining a social order. You don’t have things like cities, organizations or homes. You have a flow of activities with vague temporal boundaries. For the first few 1.0 years, we made the mistake of using fixed-institutional metaphors for the Internet (homes, offices, cities, communities), but shortly after the 2.0 era started, we witnessed a decisive shift towards transient-structure metaphors.
Like the stream for instance. While an offline institution like a corporation can be viewed as the embodiment of a stream, the metaphor really works much better when mapped to an event.
This coupling with the Internet is what has led to the increased demand.
The virtual world, by making bits cheap, ultimately devalues straight-up overt communication. There would be no contest between attending a talk in person versus watching a video if the only content were the talk itself. The virtual option wins every time. For content where this is true, virtual events ultimately kill physical events.
But by vastly boosting the amount of content online (like this blog for instance), the Internet radically boosts demand for associated context and subtext. When texts become cheap, context and subtext become relatively more valuable.
This is one reason why I think offline events are a necessary part of sustainable blogging. Or any sort of online activity.
Europeans seem to instinctively understand this much better than Americans. I’ve now spoken at two European events, and both times, I got the sense that the organizers understood what they were doing much better. They struck the right balance between context and agenda. There was more of a festive air to the proceedings. Online components were more thoughtfully integrated.
This could be partly because America is more of a low-context culture than the rest of the world, with a much more transactional approach to events.
Events are Eating Organizations
In a way, the best way to understand what’s going on is that events are eating organizations. This is a corollary that follows from Marc Andreessen’s observation that software is eating everything. Events are software. Organizations are hardware.
Organizations are ultimately abstractions that make some class of interactions cheaper by codifying them within a structural boundary. Digital technology makes much of that codification fluid or entirely unnecessary. A software project living on github does not really need to have an associated organization until much later in its scaling journey.
You could say that software eats Gesellschaft and all that remains is Gemeinschaft. Events without organizations.
There is a new Greatest Show on Earth: the Internet. The subtext and context for this show are the new breed of amateurized events. This is more than just disruption of traditional conference culture by new conference culture. It is a slow shift in the very nature of social organization.
I think there’s a lot going on as part of this overall process. Events have always been important in the history of technology (the 19th century was a parade of World Fairs for example), but generally organizations have been the more important part of the equation. Technological eras are identified by their associated institutions.
With the Internet however, organizations recede into the background, and events carry more of the burden of economic and cultural life. At one point, it even struck me that Silicon Valley is best understood as one continuous tradeshow. Startups, until they become profitable, are more like booths or exhibits at a 19th century World Fair than companies. Meetups are pre-organizations that may never turn into organizations. The tech blogosphere is more like live event commentary than “news” in the sense of newspapers. The press in the traditional sense is an institution, but the blogosphere is a show.
This suggests that there are interesting challenges ahead for organizations with a particularly high proportion of Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, like universities.
On the one hand, they are likely to get unbundled into events, wherever context and subtext are important.
On the other hand, for “commodity” courses (like Statistics 101, say), with relatively low context/subtext and high textuality, we will see massive aggregation online. This is already happening with MOOCs on Coursera, Khan Academy, and so forth.
Blogs as Extended Events
Lately, I’ve started to think of what I do as an ongoing event with online and offline components, rather than content creation. The writing is the story of the event. It makes most sense when situated within the event stream it catalyzes.
I am not quite sure what that means, but it is a fertile framing that gets me thinking more clearly about some challenges. Every year, more of ribbonfarm seems to go offline or offsite.
I’ll be at ALM Chicago March 5-7. I’ll be doing a workshop format talk on systems thinking. Hopefully I’ll meet some of you there.
And of course, my own biggest little experiment, Refactor Camp, is two weeks from now. We’ll see what happens in this second iteration.