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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  1. #1 by Jay Fienberg - December 9th, 2005 at 11:04

    Great post! One thing I have a question about:

    “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.”

    Do you mean that the organizers didn’t produce a conference track, but let each participant create their own personal track?

    And/or, do the participants get to publish their own tracks for others to join?

    I don’t tend to buy into the traditional taxonomy vs folksonomy distinction–a lot of times, it’s just a taxonomy created by different people, or there is no common organization (i.e., everyone does their own thing).

    But there is a clear distinction sometimes, and I’m wondering if this is a case–or, how it might be. I think this could be very interesting–and actually a good example of how folksonomies parallel a good form of “real-life” organization.

    In what ways are the BrainJams organization like a folksonomy, or not like a traditional conference taxonomy?

  2. #2 by Peter - December 11th, 2005 at 13:29


    I admire very much what you are doing. But, I really don’t understand how you are defining “user generated advertising”.

    I certainly get how letting the participants program an event is different than your average conference. And I agree, along with Greg Narain, that this will happen more and more. And that BrainJams seems to be a pioneer with this. But, there’ll still be an event planner/conference planner involved. And they will have the rights to sell sponsorship for their event.

    Of course, we could see a rise in “guerrilla advertising” where companies pay (or otherwise incent) groups of participants to hawk their stuff in some way. That could be interesting.


  3. #3 by Chris Heuer - December 12th, 2005 at 10:54

    Jay – I was actually thinking of it metaphorically more than anything else – structured versus unstructured, ad-hoc versus coordinated. The afternoon sessions were organized by participants and published on a wall for others to choose from similar to Open Space events, it could be considered literally as well.

    First though, allow me to briefly add my perspective on folksonomy. It is not a taxonomy – except in that it can be broadly defined as a way of organizing things. A folksonomy is a simple way for people to reference things so that they can find those things later within a given context. Example contexts might be showing all the vacation photos from the parasailing adventure or finding the camera reviews to share with your spouse. Through an iterative, ad-hoc process amongst a diverse or homogeneous group of people, consensus is often built around what to call certain things (aka tags), and how to classify it. But even then, it seems to me that there is no hierarchy per se, since other groups of people may have a completely different point of view on the classification but still be referencing the same things.

    I have two basic principles for BrainJams. One is that we create a very simple structure based on best practices gleaned through a process of research and discovery. We then couple this with a directed intention (aka the desired focus or broad topic). From this, the participants create their own conversation (aka content) with each other in groups and with each other individually. If you look at the MindMaps that we published you can get a sense for what people talked about.

    My role, in so far as I can tell, is to help facilitate it and work to bring a diverse group of people together. We are certainly going to change things a little bit for the next one in regards to structure, but the principle goal of meeting people from different backgrounds and sharing knowledge/experiences will stay constant.

  4. #4 by Chris Heuer - December 12th, 2005 at 11:22

    Peter – When I read Brian’s post on the subject, the phrase just struck me as being right on many levels. Upon further reflection it really comes down to the fact that the participants of the event are naturally drawing advertisers to it. Of course, this has a bit to do with the idea, its newness and the intention for the conversation, but the point, once again, is people.

    Now, looking further, about 80% of our Patrons were attendees – most of whom invested in sponsoring the event because they believed in the principle of it. So in this sense as well, the people in attendance are ‘generating’ advertisers – or more directly, giving dollars to support the event.

    User generated content is something people create. The events bring in people who cummulatively attract sponsors/advertisers. The parallel seems simple enough, though Brian has taken it even further as he mentions on your post. This may be an innovative idea in the event business, but I think it is just good business sense really. In that we are running the events as a non-profit and publishing our finances, we believe the community does have a stake in what we are doing. Many have graciously offered to be sponsors on their own, unsolicited accord and others have offered help in securing other sponsors.

    If someone were to bring in an event sponsor and there were no conflicts of interest, why not pay some sort of finder’s fee. I would think all we would need to do is to set up payment through some sort of existing affiliate program rather than re-creating the wheel. We will try this for the next event which we will be announcing shortly….

  5. #5 by Peter - December 12th, 2005 at 11:36

    Coolness. Looking forward to hearing how it goes. I think I am confused a bit about who you are calling sponsors, though.

    It sounds like you are calling an attendee that donates – a sponsor. I think of a sponsor as someone who puts in cash and gets promotional value out of it (ie logo on the website, vinyl banner at the site, a mention by the organizer, etc, etc).

  6. #6 by Chris Heuer - December 12th, 2005 at 12:12

    Some attendee’s companies were sponsors and one attendee, Nate Koechley was a sponsor personally for BrainJams3Dec2005 and (Dave Winer was a Patron/sponsor of the Web 2.1 event we did.

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