The Rise of Amateur Conferences

For the past couple of years we have talked about the rise of the amateur. I first heard the term at the Internet Everywhere conference back in 1999, but am sure it was talked about before then. The rise of amateur content has been driven by 3 primary factors cheap and easy to use tools, cheaper distribution and frustration with the status quo of few to many media. An underlying element here is that most people long to be involved in genuine conversation, not talked at. Remember what it felt like when your teacher (or some arrogant prick) talked at you, telling you they know better in that arrogant sort of way. This is the frustration that brings about change when coupled with the right socioeconomic factors like we have today.

The same thing is happening in the conference space as evidenced by our successful BrainJams event from last Saturday and the dozens of other similar events that are popping up everywhere. For the sake of clarity, my take on the types of events are:

1. Meetups/BBQ’s – usually a night time event where drinks and demos are the central stars

2. BrainJams – a day long unconference focused on participant interaction and conversations, borrowing from the Open Space model (and inspired by BarCamp), but unique in other ways

3. BarCamps – usually weekend events that involve more technically inclined folks, with some sleeping the night away in office spaces where the events are held, also borrowing from the Open Space model

All of these events, regardless of the format, share one common thread. They are organized by participants with support from Patrons/sponsors for the purpose of ad-hoc collaboration and communication. In the case of amateur events, they are also driven by the same factors as amateur content and they are often driven by the additional desire for average people with extraordinary ideas to participate and contribute.

This is especially the case when participating in the primary “confersation” costs more than 3% of your company’s budget, or you are self-employed or perhaps even un-employed, between jobs. Unless we are all doomed to judging a book by its cover, I don’t believe that one’s ability to pay upwards of $2,000 for a conference is directly correlated to one’s ability to contribute. It is, however, a convenient way of determining this and ensuring that the people who attend are there with a shared purpose, so I am not knocking regular conferences here, just analyzing the evolution and pointing out the differences. (In fact, the Fast Company Real Time conferences were so invaluable to me that I once took out a loan just so I could attend.)

But when people start getting bored by a conference before even getting there, you know it is time for things to get shaken up a bit. At our recent BrainJams event, many of the people who showed up had no idea what to expect, but invested a Saturday with us anyways. They were excited. They were in charge (ok, not totally, but mostly). Unlike the top down taxonomy of a traditional conference, BrainJams presented them with the chance to develop their own Folksonomy for what their experience would be like. We just provided a framework in which they could move, much like the canvas is a framework upon which one can paint to create art or a small club is for a group of jazz musicians to create music.

I don’t want to get much deeper than this today except to say that there has been a lot of talk lately about how to support conferences where people don’t pay to attend? Our experience (and the experience of TechCrunch and BarCamp) shows that you can do it – but it is not easy. If Judith from BSTV had not come through at the last, last minute, we would have lost a bit of money. However, when the purpose of the event is not about making money, but is instead about making meaning for people, wallets open and smart, wonderful people come out of the woodworks to lend their energy and support. Kristie mentioned that all day long she was pulling 1’s and 5’s out of the ‘tip jar’ at the last event. We even received around $50 in private donations after the event.

Brian Dear of Eventful wrote a good post on the financial aspects of Amateur Events using the term “user generated advertisers” which was picked up by BusinessWeek. Peter Caputa of WhizSpark correctly points out that this has been around for a while, though I disagree with him in that it has not been thought about in this context. When user generated content, meets user generated conferences, meets user generated advertising, wonderful things can happen… and that is one of the keys to the success of BrainJams.

BTW – We never even got mainstream media’s attention for what we did (still don’t really have it despite the piece on KRON4 and a nice article on Internet News) and yet, all the right people showed up, we did not lose money and the patrons received value for their contributions. Am still not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but do want to spread the word wider so we will be issuing a press release next Monday about the prior event and the future.

Also, I should point out that a friend and colleague is working on this problem with his recently announced company SyncPeople in which I was briefly involved that also addresses this problem form a more holistic perspective which I think is right on target.

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