conference autopsy (an interview).

The 2011 ALA Midwinter conference is coming up later this week, and I find myself performing the familiar preparatory motions of consolidating schedules, deleting spam, touching bases, and shuffling envelopes. Like other seasoned conference attendees, I do this to stave off the unpleasant deer-in-headlights sensation that occurs if you do not plan at least nominally, namely, not knowing a) where you’re supposed to be at any given moment, and b) what you’re supposed to do when (and if) you get there. Long before I learned this lesson, a prior Midwinter was my own inaugural professional conference. I now know that attending this event as a first was a somewhat questionable choice due to its laserlike focus on committee business (of which I had none), but it was still an important lesson in professional acclimation. At the time I was helped considerably by the ALA New Members Round Table – new attendees at this year’s Midwinter or Annual should definitely check out the NMRT site for events and tips.

Attending a conference in person is an oddly universal experience, crossing profession and purpose to produce a temporary, collective, self-defined social microcosm with its own quirks and conventions. I have been thinking about f2f conferencing not only because Midwinter looms, but thanks to a one-on-one interview I participated in with a UCB I School student toward the close of last semester. He was in the investigatory phase of a user-centered design project for an app or tool bent on improving the conference experience, and put a call out for subjects who had recently attended a professional event. I love recycling, so on the off chance that insights for hardened and newbie conference attendees may be embedded in the advice on circumventing pecking orders and analysis of Klingon culture, the transcript of our conversation follows. It is reprinted with permission, and edited lightly for clarity (I sometimes made questionable sense) as well as brevity (we went on for over an hour). Disclaimer: I did, however, preserve the sailor mouth.

Conference Interview: Char Booth, 12.13.2010

Have you been to any conferences or events recently?

I have. In late October, I attended the Internet Librarian Conference in Monterey. And before that, I went to a couple of conferences in the Spring, a couple of smaller ones, and then kind of a large one in summer: the American Library Association conference. So, a number of them in the past year.

The last one was the one in Monterey? The most recent one?

Yes. Internet Librarian…

How many people were there?

I think total attendees were just over a thousand… so pretty small. About a thousand.

If you say that’s a small conference, what is the typical size?

The conferences that I tend to attend in the library world are relatively huge. Some will have 15,000 plus attendees, and then the main annual conference of our professional organization can have upwards of 30,000. Very sizeable.

For the Internet Librarian conference, why did you go there?

To that one specifically, I was presenting, which is often one of the reasons why I go. If you present there, you get a break on the price. That’s not the only reason I went, obviously, but it helps with the costs. I don’t know whether I would have gone if I hadn’t been presenting. I could tell you the reasons why I might have…

Sure, go ahead.

It’s meant to showcase innovations in terms of IT and user services in libraries… programs that are developing, designs that are coming out, that’s the reason why I would go: to view best practices.

Apart from presenting your own talk, what were your goals when you went there?

This conference had a track about failures, like project failures, and also a user-centered development track. The failure track was new, I was speaking on the failure track, and I was really interested to hear the rest of it, just for information sharing and gleaning some more practical lessons that were learned. When you go to conferences, you don’t often hear about mistakes or workarounds. So it’s kind of like an anti-­model, or a fail camp type of thing where things get turned on their heads, and you talk about implementations that were unsuccessful. I was pretty stoked about that. To see evidence of agile development going on in libraries was very useful too. Also, to network in that way that happens, you have beers with people and you figure out: There’s mutual interest in research. That conference is pretty excellent on that end of things.

Why would you say is that? Why is this particular conference good for that?

It’s developed a culture of attendance… a very defined core of people go every year, which cuts down on the ingenuity of the topics perhaps, but it does make for some really useful networking. If you know that so-­and-­so is going, you might be more inclined to go and catch up with them. There are other library conferences with different foci. There’s this one in Spring that’s coming up where I’m speaking, ACRL, where the focus really tends to be on the sessions. Conferences often develop a certain personality or notoriety in one way or another. You go to one to view programs that are very rigorous and excellent, and you go to another to talk with mutually interested folks about articles that need to be written and projects that need to be created. The best conferences are half­way in between those things. A social design and a practical one.

What does social design look like?

Nowadays, it’s contained in a lot of the back chatter that’s happening pre-and post-­session. Where people are meeting, what people are thinking and doing…

Lots of interesting stuff in here that I need to keep apart in my head. I’ll ask about one thing specifically. You mentioned “back chatter”.


How would you describe that to someone that has never heard of it?

A lot of it happens on Twitter, a lot of it on Facebook… it’s often this collective decision making process where locations or events are named, themes are described and attached to locations, and then people follow information or decide what they’re going to do next, based both on the individuals that do the posting and on the location or the topic of the postings that are happening. That’s extraordinarily vague [laughs] but people generally describe the backchannel as commentary that underlies or floats over the formal aspects of a session. But to me it’s often also about: What’s happening next. We’re in the middle of this thing, but we’re already thinking about where we’re going to be next after this event ends. There are two modes of backchannel happening at the same time, which are often hard to distinguish during the conference. Some people are really focused on the commentary and the discussion that’s happening about a session, and then you have some of the same people in the room who are like, “Where are we going to meet up?” Half the people are there when something’s in progress, and half the people are not.

How does that affect the dynamic in the room?

I think it draws a lot of… it’s weird. It does two things: It makes half the people really metacognizant of how they’re hearing and processing the immediate information and reflecting it to others, and then the other half of the people, it draws them away from what’s going on in the room because they’re invested in the other backchannel. The outwardly focused one, that is. There’s an inwardly focused backchannel and an outwardly focused one. And participants within a session can be in either or both of those at the same time.

So the inward-­focused backchannel would be…

Directly commenting on the content that’s occurring, that’s related to a session or a presentation.

By using Twitter, Facebook…

Yeah, using the same methods, Twitter, Facebook. Or if the presenter is using a Friendfeed or something as a place to display comments… There’s that aspect of the backchannel, and then there’s all the rest: the snark stuff, the inside talk… Definitely, these are very different things. You used to have people who were live-­bloggers who very diligently contributing to the content-­focused “backchannel” before it was defined as such. And then you had people who are bored, perhaps, who were planning their next step but not necessarily communicating it publicly. Now, both are reflected in social media. As someone who has had backchannel displayed live in presentations: It’s really disconcerting when the latter creeps into the former. Someone uses a hashtag in your session that’s supposed to be content-specific and writes “Eff this crap preso, we’re going to Karaoke!”… that’s where it gets messy. I never really thought about that distinction in this way… but it’s real. And I’ve talked about ­blogging: People don’t liveblog from conferences as much as they used to because they have these other means of doing that. It mostly Twitter that fulfills this function, but in this respect the inward-focused backchannel can sometimes feel like grafting a long-­form commentary role onto Twitter that doesn’t suit it. During a session you sometimes have this flood of 50 identical comments that are all happening at the same time. If you have a tag for a specific event, you can at times just get a lot of redundant information. I think people are starting to tire of that kind of recycled… people just spitting things back.

That’s interesting. Is the commentary attributable? Obviously, people have their handles displayed to their commentary… but can you get a feel for who says what or is it just an undistinguished mass…?

I really think that depends on the scale and community behind the conference. Say you have keynote at a huge conference with a vast room of attendants. You’ve probably got a defined hashtag, a speaker that’s well known and you’ve got potentially thousands of people commenting at the same time. It’s going to be this really overwhelming flood of information from a bunch of folks who end up somewhat nameless. If you scale it down to a breakout session that’s much smaller, and you have people talking about their interactions within the session as it’s happening, you’ve got a lot more accountability. Those tweets are much less likely to be fleeting in nature, they’re going to last longer because their half-­life is defined by the size of the session, the size of the community contributing to the session. Those participants would have to be cognizant to the fact that the thoughts they contribute on the smaller event are probably much more likely to last longer, and to represent them as a participant in that community rather than one of five hundred who are like “Lee Rainie is smart.” I’m just thinking about the way that I’m using Twitter at conferences, and I’m really focusing on Twitter but it could be a lot of things. I’ve been going to these conferences for about 5 years, and social media has really drastically transformed the way things are being planned and talked about during the event. Not so much post-­event, it seems to just completely drop off. Aspects of the communication prior to and internal to these events are now very dependent on these two major social services for sure. Am I getting off the rails here? I lost my train of thought there at some point. Does that comment about scale make sense? Things are far more anonymous when they’re happening in a big room. I think people feel a lot safer snarking at giant events than at small ones because in the latter the presenter can look straight in their eyes… crowd effects create a big difference in terms of etiquette.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the difference that scale makes. How would you say does the scale of a conference influence the way people interact in the real world?

In face-­to-­face interactions? Can you unpack that a little for me? Do you mean the real world interactions that happen during the conference?

Yes. And the scale…

…in terms of the true organizational size of the event?

The number of attendees…

That has a lot to do with planning, the planning of the conference itself. Larger conferences are much more likely to be professionally planned and provide these “interaction farms’, bases where you can go… set-aside blandish locations where attendees are supposed to network that probably end up not used very often. So, if you’re in a large convention center, people are going to figure where they can get coffee, where they can eat. They’ll have these ways of escaping the conference almost. At smaller events, there might not be as much desire to escape. And the spaces that are provided by the conference to congregate are probably more accessible, more desirable to actually go to. Large conferences just tend to be faceless in a way. Just vast. These umbrellas of organizations or ideas… that aspect really forces participants to find their own points of mutual interest under this vast umbrella. At smaller conferences, people tend to know their points of mutual interest by virtue of simply being there, so they more easily get down to business. There’s less time for them to ping around in this giant space.

How do they get down to business? Or what’s the difference between that and pinging around?

This has so much to do with the nature of the conference or group. Is it informational, is it about project pitching and finding collaborators… how they’re getting down to business is entirely about the business they’re getting down to. Again, there’s a personality to a conference that defines how business is conducted. That personality is absolutely going to be affected by the nature of the sessions, is it an unconference… is the conference pretty determined, or is it determining itself? Because the latter is going to be profoundly different from the former. And how people actually make decisions… you’re talking about something really vague. Everyone in a given profession knows roughly what their conferences accomplish. They glean this knowledge through participation, and it takes them a while to figure it out. When I was starting out in Higher Ed, I was going to these conferences very intimidated, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I didn’t really have a place, I had no business to get down to, but now it’s five years on. I’m on committees, I have people to write with, I have mentors and mentees… My engagement in the purpose of the conference’s existence is what determines the work that I do, and where I do it. And my personal working style. It’s an extremely complicated question. And I really do think that you have to get down to the nature of the event and say: What is this? What’s the field? What’s the focus? How are these people… if they’re in Higher Ed, what’s their disciplinary focus? If they’re up there on stage, do they read papers that they’ve actually written, or do they do more I School-­style events, where ideas are being tossed around until something sticks? These are vastly different events.

How would you describe the process that you went through between the point where you went to a conference for the first time and you were intimidated, and now, where you’re in the zone?

The process that I went through to figure out how to deal with it?

Yeah. It sounds to me like you now know to navigate a conference better than you did before…

Yes. I think, if you compare it to one’s commute… maybe you move to a new location. You have this new job. You’re a new student at a school. You live in place A, and you have to get to place B. You have no idea how to do it. So you overplan. You research the route, you figure out where the bus is, you buy your crazy bus ticket, and it’s got too much money on it because you want to be doubly sure. You’ve got all your maps and all your crap, and you go and you do it your first time, and you get lost. It’s really frustrating. And you don’t recognize the neighborhoods, and you don’t know how to signal a stop. You arrive and think, “Oh god, that was totally awful! Everyone knew that I was this lost jackass…’ You do that once, and finally it’s done. Then you go home and do it in reverse. By the next time you try, the next day, you have this experience a little more down, you have one day under your belt. And you don’t have to do quite so much manic stuff anymore. You will find your way with a little bit more knowledge and a bit more confidence until it becomes rote and you can start to notice things along the way. Conferences are exactly the same way. The first time you go, it could be a specific event or just your first professional conference you’ve ever been to. You’re going to clutch at the program, you’re going to clutch at the crazy maps. You’re going to ask, “Where do I go, when do I go there? Who are my friends? Who are my enemies?” The third time you go you’re going to be like, “Ugh, I remember that one thing that I did last year. I’m never doing that again.” So, you develop knowledge that’s specific to the coordination of that conference. It’s like your memory of the event shepherds you through some of the protocol.

That’s exactly what happened to me. I know that I like this conference, so I’m going to go back. Or I know that I don’t like this conference and I’m not going to shell out on it again. But most importantly, I’ve found out how to navigate on my own – it’s like the peripherals are not that important, the path-finding documents, the conference planning documents. Now that I’m a more engaged professional, I know what I want to see. I don’t have to clutch at the program so closely to figure out who’s speaking… I know who’s speaking because I’ve heard about it or asked them or I know of specific projects that interest me or something. So I’ll hone in on these people rather than just having this experience of going cold and not knowing anything. I haven’t really thought about this, but that sensation of being lost and then finding your way, and then realizing that you could’ve taken this shortcut all the time. That’s the experience. If I was going to a new conference, it would be the exact same thing. I would have strategies that I would be employ to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I would still feel like a newbie… say, if I didn’t have a community or a sense of what the event was going to feel like.

You talked about one thing that I found interesting: You talked about that one thing that you were never going to do again. If you think about one thing that you did that you did not repeat the following year, what would that be?

Every conference is a singular experience, all of which have some things of greater and lesser value. I can think of any number of discussion groups or interest sections that were actually… let’s say… just not so much for me. The longer I do this, it’s like the more I just know what’s not going to be useful from my own perspective. I figured it out because I had some error in my trial along the way, like everyone else. But it is interesting in terms of social media that it’s sometimes harder to get a sense in the moment of what you should do. Just thinking about the backchannel aspect, some people are kindof huckstering their sessions. I mean, I do it. I might tweet, “Come see me talk about this amazing thing’… and maybe you’ll think it was the opposite of amazing.

On the level of these things, apart from making bad decisions about content, were there any breaches of social protocol? Is that possible? Can that happen to you if you’re new at a conference?

You mean, did I transgress… …some invisible boundary? Oh, that’s a good question, let me think about this. I can’t… I’m sure there’s something. I’m trying to think of all the times I’ve embarrassed myself… I think that it’s more internal trepidation than external faux pas. Any organized system comprises of people who are either new or middling or seasoned. And they’re all in a group focused on a similar topic or members of the same organization. There’s a process of people on the periphery being drawn into the center. And along the way, they’re going to be nervous about making missteps, and not knowing what to do, and flouting the protocol, or not having the right ticket to get in somewhere. Trying to get into the fanciest event for all the VIPs, and being all “Can I come in?’ Embarrassing yourself because you don’t understand the significance of certain things. I think that is a real risk, but it’s also like being a teenager and saying, “Ohmigod, everyone just saw me fall on my ass.” But the thing is, in reality: no one cares, no one saw you. You’re nervous about your own performance, but no one else knows who you are and they all feel the same way anyway. I think that’s a real thing at conferences, if you’re new you have to find your way, and you probably will not get something that you’re supposed to get. But half of that will come from not understanding an organization or the people at an event that direct it, that have more pull. At a given event, for example, you will have people in attendance that might catalyze more action. And if you’re new, you may not know who these people are. The next year you probably will. Some people operate more efficiently or more charismatically in spaces like conferences, and they will draw more attention to themselves and get more of whatever widget that they wanted to get out of the event.

The people who act like that, with more…

…moxy? [laughs]

…is that related to what you said earlier about periphery vs. center?

Yes. I think that people who fancy themselves at the center of events do tend to present themselves as though they possess a cachet of sorts. That could be people who have been invited to speak or to direct things or who organize the conference, so depending on what type of event it is, there are always going to be the “important” ones. At any event – we all know that this is true – people will become interested and engaged in things when the luminaries speak. Think about TED. You have 40 super-­geniuses who get to bark at the audience in their brilliant way, and the audience doesn’t get to say anything. It’s all recorded up until the point where people start asking questions, and the camera cuts off. Everyone knows who’s important at TED. The people in the audience might feel important because they’ve been invited, but the truly important thing about TED is the people on the stage. It’s organized to be regurgitated digitally – which is awesome – because you get these amazing recyclable speeches, and really excellent visual presentations. There may be networking going on, but the people who are speaking are getting tons of kudos, and massive opportunities as a result of it. So it is not a conference at which work is necessarily supposed to happen, as far as I see. It’s a media event. But even at your… ComiCon, say, there’s certain people everyone wants to talk to at ComiCon. It could be Dr. Spock, it could be the person who knows the most Klingon or whatever, but there are going to be heroes. At every single conference, no matter how odd or pointless it seems from the outside. And in small, defined communities like that, it’s not long before you discern the pecking order. When you’re new, someone might even point it out to you: “There’s the head Klingon, that’s the badass.” So now you know who you’re supposed to be worshipping.

Who’s the head Klingon at the Internet Librarian conference?

… do you want names? [laughs] There’s a lot of head Klingons, I suppose. People who speak every year. They’ll be people who have published books or who have had some kind of media notoriety, same as any conference or in any profession. The people who are head Klingons tend to know that they’re head Klingons. And they typically do things because they enjoy being head Klingons, which is all well and good, I suppose. And there’s also a bunch of people trying to get to that place or being put in that place, because that’s the nature of Klingon society. At professional conferences, if you’re presenting, it’s a mark of success, right? You’re sometimes doing it to showcase your own work, sometimes to get ahead in your profession… none of this is a secret, and I think conferences are organized to help people become better Klingons. To learn and to speak.

Have you had experiences with trying to get a minute of attention from these people?

Mm, yes, early in my career, when I was younger and I hadn’t discovered my interests in any particular research (which I’ve done now, which is great), but I used to be like “Hi, my name’s [interviewee’s name], care to dispense some advice?” [laughs] And they were just like “Who are you, freak?” Just kidding, librarians are really nice. But when you’re new at something you sometimes have to put yourself out there in a way that feels dangerous. Maybe that’s a faux pas. But I suppose I would crash receptions and just walk up to the president of some giant thing and say “Hi, I have this idea.” I suppose it usually didn’t get me very far, but a couple of times it did. Being confident as well as brave about ignoring the pecking order is a good strategy sometimes – if you can pull it off.

What does it take to “pull it off”?

Communication skills, humility, good ideas. What it takes to pull anything off [laughs]. The thing to remember is that focus isn’t necessarily on you at a professional event, unless you direct it to yourself or you’ve been asked to perform – like if you’ve been invited versus being allowed to pitch your paper, pitch your project, pitch your topic. Yet another pecking order, all conferences seem to have them, save unconferences. Have you been invited to speak or have you asked them to give you the floor for a while? … which would mean submitting a paper, a presentation, a proposal or whatever.

And being invited would be keynote speaker?

Yeah, something like that. You’ll notice that on people’s resumes, they’ll be like “presented x y z (invited).’ That’s a mark of status, that’s a normative vitae-­speak mark of status I’ve noticed. Especially in academia.

If you think back to Monterey, what was the most valuable interaction you’ve had?

Honestly? A conversation that I had with an old mentor of mine, in which I got to vent some frustration – it was a mutual frustration venting conversation. This is a mentor of mine that I’ve known for years, who was totally someone that I did that bothering-­the-big-­wig thing to, but then ended up maintaining a wonderful relationship with her for years. So this is a professional mentor that I’ve learned a lot from. She and I took a thirty-minute walk and just talked, some about life, some about work. Talking about project frustrations, what we were doing to get around them. Hacking our issues, it was that kind of talk. Invariably, that’s the talk that’s great. Or, when I find someone new to collaborate with, those are always really validating. For me, when I hear someone speak, and I have an idea to blog about it, or talk to them about contributing – I’m on the publication committees of one of our professional presses – if I see someone that I think should write a book or should know that they’re doing good work, I go get them. Rrrrr, like that. Those are great. Half of the reason I go to conferences is to have these individual interactions, typically.

How do you get them to talk to you?

It’s usually acquaintances. People you’re making plans with. But, oh, you mean in the other case. If someone has made a presentation that I thought was interesting, and I want to approach them, I walk right up to them and say: “I thought what you said was excellent. I represent bla-­bla-­bla, would you consider submitting a proposal?” Or: “Do you mind if I write a blog post about that? Do you want to say a few words?” You get straight to the point because there are other people who want their time. It’s like frontal assault. You need to be able to represent a cause for that. If I was young in my career, or now if I didn’t have anything specific to write for or about, I could say: “That was great, I learned a lot from you.” But I wouldn’t say: “Write a book for my press.” Now I probably stress the presenter out by saying that, but I’d likely also flatter them in a different way than someone walking up to them and saying: “That was great, I learned a lot.” This is another thing that happens at conferences. You have your Klingons on the one hand and you have your… sycophants, I guess, on the other. [laughs] I’d love to see TED on the sycophant end, that’d be amazing. Like, what happens when presenters walk off that stage? People tear them limb from limb, there’s parts flying everywhere.

It almost sounds like if you’re on the sycophant end of things, you need to have something to throw in, something to wager with.

Yeah, a leg. [laughs] Kidding. But really, sycophant sounds very negative, it’s almost pejorative and that’s not the way I mean it at all. The ones on the periphery working their way inside. But yes, I would say so. Or you need to be seeking those who can help you figure out what you can wager with. So you might want to ally yourself with people that you’d like to emulate, or you want to collaborate with because you respect them, or that you think can help your career. This is the natural course of mentorship and collaboration. A caveat here, I’m describing the events I have participated in, which all tend to be about technology and higher education, technology and libraries, libraries and libraries, higher education and pedagogy etcetera. I don’t know what an engineering conference is like. I don’t know what a Romance Authors’ conference is like, but they probably have similar attributes. And one of those attributes is: the ingénues want to become the experts. I don’t remember why I started talking about this. What did you ask me last?

Specifically, whether the sycophants – for lack of a friendlier term – need to have something to wager with.

This really does get down to your professional goals. If it’s the idea-­pitching conference, you wager with your idea. If it’s a giant professional conference that’s there to sustain its own mothership and its members, it’s going to have to find defined channels through which participate. So you can join a committee. You can organize an event. You can create a poster, which is the entry-­level I think at every conference. And once you get that under your belt, you can be on a committee and eventually chair it. Or you can submit a paper. There’s levels of participation that shepherd people into organizations, that give them opportunities to do something that’s low ­commitment, then a subsequent opportunity to do something that’s higher commitment. [Inaudible] It totally gets down to: How strategic are you? Are you interested in making a legitimate, useful contribution, and how are you going to express that to people with whom you think you can do that? There’s so much networking happening at conferences, and that’s what’s behind it: Can you identify and express your contribution, and can you find individuals with whom to ally? Or, are you there on an idea-gleaning mission to take back to your own institution?

Let’s talk a little bit more about the former since that seems like it would happen a lot. At a conference that is as vast as, say, the ALA conference, or anything on that order of magnitude, how do you even identify the people that you want to ally with?

Through the committees and working groups within the organization. EDUCAUSE for example has EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, they have all these different, smaller substructures and subgroups that, even by virtue of their title, you gravitate towards because it has something to do with your job or with your professional interest. So the nomenclature within the organization helps you navigate that. If you are not yet in that organization, you look at the giant breakdown that the organization represents, and you say: That’s the thing that I do, so I’m going to go over and check that out. And you feel out which one fits. I think that’s really the way it works. These things are organized so that each arm can represent itself. The tiny actors within the giant arm are figuring out speakers to have, figuring out discussion groups to create or whatever, smaller sessions… They know what the larger arm works towards, and so they’re trying to represent it. Everyone has this mission/vision thing going on. They might be trying to direct it in a new way, say, if you’re on this subgroup that you think has gone astray, you could think, “I need to turn this battleship!” You’ve got some people in there working toward change. And new people are often looking for these change opportunities, right? That might be something that people either consciously or unconsciously do: identify places where they can have an impact within a huge organization or event.

If you, for a moment, forget about everything that we’ve talked about so far…

… I already have, I have such a bad memory [laughs]…

Excellent! What would you say is the hardest thing about attending a conference?

Not getting fatigued. Figuring out how to strategically manage your time so you’re not ending up burnt out or in all not-so-great sessions. The hardest thing about attending a conference is developing a viable strategy so that you identify the most useful points of interest for you. Speakers, events, locations, afterhours things, places to get free swag… whatever. Basically, a way of reliably mapping your own experience to that event, because often, conference planners do not provide you with a tool. There might be some kind of application that they might have contracted with or developed to try to help you figure out what is happening when, create a little schedule for yourself… but in my experience, those things are just dismal.

What makes them bad?

They’re stand-­alone, right? So they don’t connect to all the things that are actually happening. They don’t have anything to do with a lot of the things that people really want to do. They’re like: All the sessions, all the formal things. They’re just about that. I don’t think anyone has ever figured out a way to represent the backchannel in the form of planning tools. And maybe it’s not even a good idea. But I do know that either I feel like I don’t know the good things that are going on because I looked away for two seconds and I lost the thread… say you’ve got a four-­day conference and it’s totally brutal, and you just want to take a break, so you check out for two hours, and you feel like you’ve lost your community for a minute. You’ve lost the threads, the hashtags, you don’t know what’s going on next. […] How do you keep a bead on the path that you want to follow, the trajectory that will lead you in a good direction rather than off the rails?

It sounds like the after-­hours stuff is what makes a lot of the conference worthwhile, and that’s something that the event facilitator doesn’t address at all. How do you navigate that space then?

Well you know, sometimes after-­hours stuff is very much facilitated by actors within the event. So even if the über-­organizer can’t be worrying about that kind of stuff, the actors within the organization that are savvy about how things get done are organizing events that people want to go to: some random meetup, some kooky thing that’s happening. They know how to get people together. Or, just small groups of people are getting together in their hotel, or something. It’s rarely the stilted, organized receptions that I consider truly productive. Anything where you don’t feel like you’re about to drop your plate… like, when you’re holding your cell phone in one hand, and this stupid little plate with cauliflower or something on it in the other, and your napkin’s all wadded up, anything that’s relaxed and doesn’t have this problem going on, that’s what people really want to go to.

You mentioned carrying a cell phone, and that it’s sometimes not very useful. What other kinds of technology do you take to a conference?

I always take a laptop, I always take my magic phone, and I’m fixing to buy an iPad so that I don’t always have to lug the laptop around. I don’t think that I would be very stoked about a small computer like the Air, but perhaps the iPad would bridge the gap if I can get 3G. So that’s going to be my next strategy. Pretty much ubiquitous – laptop and smartphone. And if I have to present: Do I have my adapter cables, do I have all that stuff, charger, external devices? Do I have it backed up in three different places plus Dropbox? Going to a conference as a presenter is a very different experience than just going as an attendee. It’s completely different. Because you have to be doing the huckstering, and the preparation, and the stressing out, and the technology planning, and then it’s over. And then you just want to go to sleep.

If you’re not presenting, how do you use the technology that you carry?

To make notes to myself, to network with people, to work on other work – always, eternally. That’s one of the problems about conferences, that you’re also trying to get things done while you’re there. Because it’s not like the world stops or your job ends when you’re there. It’s remote office as much as chronicling one’s experience during the event, while participating in social media, working while you are tweeting something or posting pictures on Facebook. That’s what you’re using technology for: Engaging with the event and supplementing your own work needs outside of it.

Maybe one last philosophical thing: If you think about academic or professional conferences, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Honestly? The exhibits hall. The giant hall with all the products, with people in nice suits trying to grab you and make you buy something. It’s like a carnival with no fun prizes. The only fun prize they have is a bowl of candy, and I don’t even eat candy. So the first thing I think of is that room, which I tend to avoid. Other people love the room, they go in with their bags and fill them up with free stuff that they actually need and use in their libraries. But that’s what I think of first. And maybe then the stress of the huge program, trying to figure out what not to do. And then, I think about the people that I’ll be able to interact with and that I want to meet. But the first thing is this stress thing, and then how to navigate it.

3 thoughts on “conference autopsy (an interview).

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  1. Thanks for sharing this Char, really useful. I am hoping to attend my first large conference at ALA Annual this year (my previous largest conference is about 300 delegates, tiny compared to your US conferences!), so will refer to your advice if I do attend.

    1. jo, thanks for your comment. ala conferences are massive, but seem to be virtualizing fast: i surely hope you enjoy the shoulder|shoulder critical mass of compatriots in new orleans. i personally love this aspect of annual: thronging hordes of like-minded badge-wearers. also, don’t miss the muffuletta (if you’re a carnivore, that is).

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