Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Web 2.0 Expo: Some thoughts

I enjoyed this year's Web 2.0 Expo more than I thought I would. I was concerned that it might be a repetition of last year’s. Fortunately I was wrong. Some of the speakers were the same, but (from what I could see) they offered new views on a variety of issues.

Before I provide summaries of the individuals sessions I attended, I’ll offer some general comments about the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City.

Last year, overhearing talk in between sessions, it seemed that one of the most pressing concerns was how to monetize the Internet and social media, and determining ROI (return on investment). This year, though ROI was still on people’s minds, its concern seemed to be much more muted (based on my sense that there were fewer hard business types present). Rather, I sensed that the geeks who had entered the business world had come to the expo to reinvigorate their love and fascination of computers and the Internet. They came to explore new ideas and keep track of what they could bring back to the office or file away for later use.

The keynotes last year seemed to me rather perfunctory, whereas this year many were a highlight of the event. I first saw Baratunde Thurston portray @the_swine_flu back at IgniteNYC on June 1, 2009. Even then he had the audience howling with laughter. This time he spoke on hashtags in Twitter, but I was amazed at the way he delivered his speech. It wasn’t a speech: it was a dialogue with the audience. As an occasional stand-up comedian (and an editor for The Onion), he knew he had to get the audience right away. He succeeded, making his presentation among the most memorable presentation of the entire Expo. It is a model for all future presentations.

The sleeper for me was Beth Noveck, Deputy Chief Technology Officer For Open Government at the White House. Noveck spent over about 35 minutes in conversation with Tim O’Reilly, discussing the President’s Open Government Initiative. She described a direction for openness in the White House that would foster greater participation (and therefore activism) in political life. One of the first advantages of openness was making sure that no lobbyists would enter those who advise the president – and having the list of official visitors made public was a step to making sure no lobbyists would appear. She also singled out Manor, Texas, a town of 5,800 people, for the superlative efforts they’re doing to create a transparent government on a town level. You could feel the audience breathing “wow!” as she held them in attention, describing what they hope to achieve, including influencing other branches of government to be as open.

Much has already been written about – and by - Danah Boyd, her keynote speech, and the phenomenon of “tweckling” (an amalgam of Twitter and heckling). In brief, saddled with an unexpected and difficult situation for presenting her paper, Boyd was unaware that the Twitter feed being projected behind her began to comment negatively on her presentation, even to becoming derogatory. To be sure, even if the audience was correct in suggesting that she was reading her paper too fast, the nastiness was uncalled for and not constructive.

As ugly as it was, the situation suggested that the typical academic talk – of standing and delivering your totally prepared paper – is now a thing of the past. Today we're at Presentation 2.0: You must establish a relationship with and engage your audience. Do not depend on content alone to do that for you. Of course, attendees were spoiled by Thurston’s presentation – he spent a good five minutes warming us up, getting our attention, and establishing a memorable exchange with us even before he began sharing content. [Side note: When Michael Stephens (instructor at the Graduate School of Library Information Science at Dominican University) addressed staff at the New York Public Library, he began at the back of the auditorium, slowly making his way to the front, while asking short questions and getting answers. He was working the crowd.] This kind of Presentation 2.0 – which is as much performance as presentation – is now going to be necessary when conveying information to an audience, particularly if there are distractions such as slides, or simultaneous Twitter feeds (even if they are not projected, many conferences now have a backchannel, so it's not going to go away).

Despite the many good sessions I attended (summaries of which I hope to post soon), what I felt missing from the Expo were more opportunities for networking. In this day and age where the Internet enables quick and usually free dissemination, there has been much talk questioning the need for traditional conferences, when presenters could simply post their talks online.

Therefore attendance at a conference needs to emphasize the attributes beyond the papers, and that is usually networking. There is a need for more social interaction. There were a few opporunities: lunch time (often less than an hour), and pre-meeting coffee and tea in he lounge area:

Last year (which I sensed had significantly more attendees), one lunch allowed people to group themselves based on interest. I reported on sitting at a table labeled Museum 2.1 and discovering interesting people. It would have been a good idea to have this option available for all lunches. Instead, we were left to seek out others with similar interests on Twitter - not an efficient method of networking when you're with hundreds of people.

I was happy to have suggested and created an archive of tweets for the Expo - many thanks to Twapper Keeper. Even a staff member of O'Reilly thanked me. Access the archive here (Over 12,000 tweets as of the morning of November 25.)

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