Conference Markup — techniques and technologies

It inevitably follows that in becoming a man of letters– a title which should encompass both "personal publisher" and "freelance researcher"– one has to keep in mental shape by going to a conference every now and then to meet and greet. This impulse is checked only by the need to anchor oneself at the home office to actually get some work done. My home office shared my interest in my going to this particular conference, the Gilbane Conference on Content Management, so I ventured to San Francisco for the opportunity to do so.

My auxillary reason for attending conferences stems from my ongoing exploration about constructive media. In theory, these are laboratories for the interchange of ideas, and thus we have an opportunity to publicly test some communications technologies and techniques to improve the level of exchange. The fetish for new technologies often obscures the developments in techniques.

A good example of a technique is that which allows the speaker to understand who has a question or a comment to make, by the raising of hands. As most primates can independently control each of five digits, one might have expected at this stage in the evolution of homo sapiens that some extensions to the system would have developed. Baseball players have long mastered such digital communications: they signal the number of outs by the number of fingers they uphold– raising the pinky finger along with the index is visible to their teammates hundreds of feet away. The umpire holds up two hands to indicate the count of balls and strikes to the pitcher. None of this requires electronic gizmos, but it does require the agreement of shared norms. What has made networked digital communications formidable is both the global reach and the rigidity of protocol, which encourages everybody to plug in (the famed "network effect"– the more fax machines in use, the more necessary it was to have one). But the fact that the count of balls and strikes and outs can be communicated by SMS around the world need not change the basic technique employed by ballplayers.

In the case of a technical conference, it is conceivable that both hands and keyboards could be well employed. For example, following a Berkman Center conference I attended some 16 months ago, I sketched out a solution to the problem arising from a large discussion room of hundreds of attendees. One problem was that too many people chattering in an online backchannel during the proceedings (the actual problem here being that the most interesting things were not said by the speakers); another was there being not enough times for questions. It seemed to me sensble that the proper use of a backchannel would be to route and triage questions that were necessary to be asked, and this I called BackChannel Conferencing. Now in a forum of manageable size, without electronic gadgets, one could devise a simpler signaling system.

As t happened, Gilbane conference did not have such a rush of questions for the speakers during the sessions I attended ("We can always count on you to raise one," a fellow attendee wryly told me before the second keynote). Nor did it have many laptops chattering away (I’ll plead guilty to some occasional typing, though not in dialogue with anyone present). Nonetheless, the Gilbane conference was very interested in collecting feedback, and it seems like an evolved technique could be useful.

At each session, a paper was given to each attendee for rating the speakers. This appealled to my need for what I’m calling pegs — aggregateable declarations of rating systems. That should work, since the alternative of is to rely on anecdotal accounts. (A further discussion of this can be found in The New Gatekeepers, Part 4 from a year ago.)

I must concede that I didn’t fill out each feedback form. The fact that some sessions left me to dulled to fill out a ratings form is no good excuse, but I do hope the Gilbane folks factor consider this as a reason for unfilled forms. Furthermore, it took me till the end of the conference to be able to rate them relatively.

Still, it’s difficult to accurately rate speakers using the same 1-to-5 scale that one does for, say, hotel service. The expectations for lodging are fairly consistent, but those for a conference vary by session, and should meet most of the interests of the audience. For example, in the RSS session, I threw out a set of stumpers meant to gauge the panelists’ command of the future challenges. On the other hand, my new friend Susan admitted afterwards that she was just hoping to learn how RSS worked– that is, how it would look to the user who was following the feeds.

Here’s a set of sample expectations for speakers that could be spelled out in advance:

  • Explain the technology/techniques.
  • Demonstrate the technology/techniques.
  • Explain the challenges of the protocol, or of the adoption.
  • Illustrate some extensions that have been developed by users/companies.
  • Summarize, without prejudice, the different vendors in the space.
  • [this list may grow as other items come to mind.]

Lacking this, I’ll have to submit my personal anecdote of the conference.

What of course would help would be a set of tags (er, controlled taxonomy) for the conference. A tag would be needed not just for the conference (as has been quite common) but for each track and the sessions as well.

The benefit would be to "triangulate" as the blog folks say, to compare what many people say about the same thing. Without the provisioning of tags (sorry, a controlled taxonomy), doing the exercise of comparing and contrasting becomes more time-consuming.

Lastly, there are better ways to accomplish this beyond throwing things over to a mass aggregator like Technorati, it would be likely that a service could be designed specifically for managing the attendent posts for a conference. The details of such a system are an exercise to the reader, particularly if the reader is in the business of organizing conferences… or otherwise wants to create a startup named confaboo to create software just for that purpose.