My regular readers know that the Pop!Tech conference, held in October in beautiful Camden, Maine, is one of the highlights of my year. The conference combines some of the very best speakers on science, technology, society and social change with an environment designed to force people to make new friends and talk to people they’ve never met before. Plus, it’s in one of the most beautiful places in the world at the very peak of autumn. I spoke at Pop!Tech three years ago, and have worked the past few years to rope friends into the community as speakers and bloggers.
Pop!Tech is now offering a pretty fascinating job opportunity – official Pop!Tech blogger. This doesn’t (neccesarily) mean competing with me to liveblog the conference – though, hey, bring it on. Instead, it means that you’re responsible for maintaining the Pop!Tech blog through the year, featuring people and ideas that have been, might be or could be featured at the conference. The work that Wayne Hall has done on the excellent IdeaFestial blog is good example of what you can do with a platform like this.
Pop!Tech is looking for an established blogger for this position, and is offering $1000 a month, plus a pass to the conference (a $3500 value.) If you’re interested, drop a line to jobs AT poptech DOT org and tell ‘em Ethan sent you. (More to the point, tell them where your blog is, point them to some of your best posts and write a great cover letter telling them why you’re the right person for the job. Jeez, do I have to tell you everything?)
When I was about seven years old, my father taught me how to score a baseball game. We were probably in Florida, combining a trip to a spring training game with a visit to one of my grandmothers. He explained the basics of the hieroglyphic system that both professionals and fans use to score games, the numbering of the position players, the difference between a forward and backwards “K”, and set me loose to scribble on a scorecard while he made his own illegible notes in his wire-bound, leatherette scorer’s book.
I’ve scored games ever since – only when I’m actually in the stadium, but religiously on those occasions. When scoring at our local ballpark, the elegant and ancient Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, MA, I sometimes get asked by other fans why I’m scoring the game. “Are you a scout? Are you a reporter?”
“Nah, I just like to score ballgames.” If pressed, I’d tell them that scoring a game forces me to pay attention, to be in the moment, to keep at least one eye on the action rather than on the hot dogs, the beer and the people I’m sitting with. I miss something if I’m not scoring a game. And I like being able to glance down in the seventh inning and see whether the man at the plate is 0 for 3 or 2 for 2 with a walk.
This may help explain my anti-social and obsessive attitude towards blogging at conferences. I’ve developed something of a reputation for blogging the conferences I attend with fairly obsessive detail. Some of my colleages are grateful for this “service”; some of my readers have stopped subscribing to this blog due to the volume of conference posts. If you ask me why I do it, the answers are similar to my reasons for scoring baseball games:
- Because David Weinberger does it, and David is someone worth emulating. Ditto Bruno Giussani.
- Because it gives me a record of a gathering that I can work from, quoting speakers and ideas in later blog posts.
- Because it forces me to pay attention to what’s going on at a conference, not just to visit with my friends, chat in the hallways, enjoying the spectacle.
As I’ve gotten better at conference blogging, there are at least three other reason:
- Conference blogging gets me invited to conferences I couldn’t otherwise afford to go to, and which I enjoy being present at.
- Other bloggers link to my conference posts, which raises my Technorati profile, my google juice, etc., and makes it more likely people will read my original writing.
- People expect me to. (This is a good and bad thing.)
A few kind friends have asked for thoughts on how to blog a conference in detail. I’m not convinced that there are many tricks to it, but here are a few things that help me keep pace at conferences like Pop!Tech and TED, where the talks come fast and furious:
The kit: I come to conferences with my beloved Mac, two charged batteries, a power strip, a digital camera and cables, granola bars and a lap desk. This last item is totally essential – I’ve turned my car around when driving to a conference to retrieve my lapdesk, knowing that burned knees and backpain await if I try to blog with the laptop directly on my lap.
The location: Bloggers rarely sit in the front row to blog conferences. We’re distracting to the people around us, especially people sitting behind us, watching our screens. It’s usually better to sit to a side, near the power plugs. The really big conferences often have “overflow rooms” where some of the audience can watch a talk on simulcast TV. These are a gift for bloggers. I learned this from Ndesanjo Macha, who blogged 2005 Pop!Tech almost entirely from outside the main hall, glued to a monitor and power outlet.
Some conference organizers are particularly good about creating a physical space for conference bloggers. TED in Monterey provides a table with power strips facing a monitor in their downstairs overflow lounge – it’s a great place to blog that conference, if you can wedge your way between me and Bruno.
Preparation: Conferences usually give you a speaker program ahead of time. Use it. Over breakfast before the day of a conference, I’ll type the names of each speaker and their talk title into a text file. If I’m really good, I’ll do quick Google searches on each of them and link their names to their blogs, research institutions, arrest records, etc. Prepare sufficiently and you’ve got the first paragraph of each post written ahead of time.
Macros: I write my blog posts – and, frankly, everything I write – in BBEdit, a remarkably powerful Macintosh text editor. One of several thousand reasons to use BBEdit is a feature called “Glossaries” or “Clippings”. This is a way of storing pieces of text that you use frequently and linking them to key combinations. My friend Daniel Beck turned me on to this powerful feature and developed a couple of basic clippings for me, which I use heavily.
So when I want to add a hyperlink to a document, I copy the address from Mozilla, highlight the text I want to link, and then type Shift-Apple-Comma, which inserts the following text into my file:
< a HREF="" >< /a >
around the highlighted text, and positions the cursor between the quotes. Press Apple-V and I’ve got a formatted hyperlink in two keystrokes. I have keys linked to blockquotes and to URLs I reference frequently, like Global Voices and this blog. I’ll sometimes create a glossary entry for the technorati tag associated with a conference, associated with shift-apple-T-R, or for the main website for a conference.
Even if you’re composing online, within your blogging platform, or if you don’t feel comfortable setting up macros, it can be a big help to put some useful snippets of text in a text file and cut and paste them into blogposts.
I have a hard and fast rule for myself – I complete posts on a conference session within fifteen minutes of the end of that session. This isn’t because I’m obsessive about getting up the first post on a topic – it’s because I will miss the next session if I’m still writing the former post. Better to put up an incomplete and imperfect set of notes than to miss another speaker.
Many conferences break up speeches with “lighter” interludes – videos, music, or other less-bloggable forms of content. These are excellent times to finish blog entires. I will frequently use question and answer sessions to finish posts as well – this makes Pop!Tech easier to blog than TED, which provides less time for Q&A and squeezes in more speakers per day.
I have, once or twice, been forced to give up on a talk because it’s clear that I can’t transcribe it in time. I’ve never successfully transcribed a Yochai Benkler talk – he simply packs too much into a speech for a mere mortal to document.
One of the reasons I’m able to blog so many talks at conferences like Pop!Tech, TED, Idea Festival or PUSH is that the talks are, for the most part, really, really good. Experienced speakers are easy to blog – they follow a narrative path through their talks, speak at a pace the audience can understand, emphasize key points with visuals. Write down the points that they’re starting sections with or emphasizing, and you’ll likely have a finished post with little need to edit.
It’s much harder to blog inexperienced speakers. Some will speak too fast or too technically and many won’t have a clear path through their material. With an inexperienced speaker, I’ll often take notes on the talk and try to structure it into a blogpost afterwards, doing the work the speaker should have done before giving his talk. I do this often with panels, which rarely have as much structure as a formal talk and often need you to add a narrative after the fact.
If a talk is truly out there and hard to follow, I might skip it, or blog it really briefly, summarizing it into a few lines or combining it with the next talk. Don’t be afraid to give up on a hard talk . It’s the speaker’s fault if he or she can’t interest you in the material, so long as you’re paying attention and ready to listen.
Use your commenters:
Because I’m blogging ten or more talks a day, I get things wrong. Sometimes I get things egregiously wrong. Comments allow other attendees – and sometimes the speakers themselves – to correct me. I check comments religiously while I liveblog, and I try to thank commenters who correct my errors, as they’re doing me a major service. “Mental” notes that blogposts, when commented, critiqued, linked towards, can serve as “the blogger equivalent of a peer reviewed professional article in a professional journal” – that’s only true if your peers are working with you to make your posts better.
“Hash”, writing about bloggers at the TED Global conference in Arusha, used the Swahili term “harambee” to describe the ideal operation of a group of bloggers at a conference:
Harambee is a Swahili term that means “pulling together”. That mentality, the willingness to work together, was what made it possible to cover a busy event like TEDGlobal… Some of us decided to take pictures, some did interviews between sessions and others decided to summarize the day. Everyone who blogs has their own voice, and I think it showed in the coverage. What could have been an amalgamation of everyone saying the same thing turned into a fairly well-rounded coverarge of the event.
My goal in blogging a conference is not to be the sole, authoritative voice of the blogosphere. It’s to do what I enjoy doing: writing detailed summaries of each sessions. But that means I can’t take photos of the speakers on stage, can’t interview speakers between sessions, can’t monitor coverage of the conference in the blogosphere. At TED, we were able to split up the tasks, so that Hash and Andrew took photos, Ndesanjo blogged in Swahili, Juliana did interviews, June monitored blogosphere coverage, etc. It’s a whole lot more fun to blog these events in groups, even if that means sitting next to someone trying to liveblog at the same time as you are, arguing about how to spell a word the speaker has just uttered.
I go to conferences because they give me a wealth of new ideas to wrestle with, sometimes for weeks or months to come. I try fairly hard not to wrestle with these ideas as I’m writing about them – it’s hard for me to form opinions while talks are going on, and harder to express those opinions articulately. (This isn’t always true. The occasional conference will include strong opinions I feel compelled to disclaim are the speaker’s, not my own…)
So that I have a chance to wrestle with the big ideas, I’ll often try to write a summary or reactions post a week after a conference. These summaries are generally a great deal more opinionated than my reactions to the original talks. Good conferences have big themes that aren’t always apparent when you’re sitting in the hall… and these themes are frequently not the themes the organizers intended.
Not everyone enjoys blogging at conferences. I have many friends who’ve tried it and discovered that it stresses them out or detracts from their enjoyment. There’s an easy solution to this: don’t do it. Most people don’t keep score at baseball games. That’s okay, as there’s an official scorekeeper, a scoreboard and at least one journalist in the stands. We don’t need everyone to become a conference liveblogger – just a few more of us.
If you’re a liveblogger at conferences and have tips that keep you productive and sane, please feel free to share them in the comments. If you try some of these out and find them helpful – or, especially, if you find them unhelpful – let me know in the comments as well. Thanks in advance.
I spent the last four days at a series of meetings for the Open Society Institute, a foundation I advise and serve on a sub-board for. The meetings were off-blog, but I can share one comment on the challenges facing newspapers,
from the brilliant Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn from Mr. Soros himself: “Journalists and prostitutes face the same challege: competition from amateurs.” (Friends who were in the meeting with me tell me I’m misremembering – Kavi had most of the good quips in the meeting, but Mr. Soros used this as his parting line…) I can’t wait for the next opportunity to use that quote in a speech…
One of my friends from OSI’s Information Program mentioned his excitement that the TED conference had started putting videos of talks from the last two conferences online, and asked me to recommend my favorites. By the time I got home and online, my twinblogger (a reference to our tendency to blog conferences in tandem) Bruno Giussani had posted a comprehensive guide to great talks, not just on the TED website, but from Pop!Tech and LIFT as well. He correctly identifies this is a new trend in operating conferences, an important one. Very, very few people are able to attend these gatherings – putting the talks online lets thousands of times as many people hear the ideas these remarkable speakers have to share.
So here are some of my top picks from TED and Pop!Tech, the two conferences I’ve been attending and blogging the past two years:
Hans Rosling is probably the best speaker on international development issues I’ve ever seen. He’s done remarkable work with statistics, helping people visualize long-term changes in international development in a historical and global context. He’s given two TED talks – the first is available here. I’m waiting patiently for this year’s talk, which concluded with Rosling swallowing a sword.
On the subject of development economics, Emily Oster stole this year’s TED (for me, at least) with a virtuoso talk on new research she’s done on the effectiveness of AIDS prevention strategies in Uganda. She ends up arguing that the “success” of the abstinence-focused strategies of the Ugandan government had far more to do with external factors – a temporary decrease in international trade – than to these prevention efforts. Her talk – or at least my notes on it – have generated some very critical comments over at Worldchanging.com. (The talk’s not up yet. Sorry about that – I’ll add a link when it’s available.)
Giving a much more personal story of the impact of HIV in an African context was Zinhle Thabethe’s speech at Pop!Tech in October 2006. She’s the director of the Sinikithemba Choir, a group of HIV-positive singers based in Durban who use music to educate communities about AIDS. Her story makes clear the agonizing choices individuals face when local health systems can’t provide anti-retroviral drugs for everyone in a nation – she’s surviving AIDS, but watches her brother die, unable to share her drugs and save him.
If it were socially acceptable to follow scientists around the world, hanging on their every word, as some people follow rock bands around the world, I’d be an Amy Smith groupie. Dr. Smith’s TED talk focuses on “carbon macrotubes” – charcoal, in other words – and the tremendous health importance of producing sustainable, clean-burning cooking fuel for the developing world.
I missed Iqbal Qadir’s talk at TED last year, but I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him at the PUSH conference two years back. His realization that mobile phones could be income-generating devices for the very poor in Bangladesh is the sort of big idea that can transform entire economies. Iqbal is one of the very best people to listen to in sorting fact from fiction in the whole “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” set of ideas.
I didn’t expect to like Tom Barnett when I heard him speak at Pop!Tech. He’s got the bearing and delivery of a military man, the product of years of briefing generals in the Pentagon on the importance of transforming the US military. But he’s got an incredibly broad understanding of global security issues, failed and failing states, and the role that humanitarians and aid workers have to play in conflict situations. I came away from his first talk at Pop!Tech with dozens of questions and ideas, and his second talk opened as many new questions for me as it answered.
If you care about free speech, you need to listen to my friend Sasa Vucinic, the founder of the Media Loan Development Fund. Sasa’s firm finances newspapers, radio, television and interactive media in places that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a free press. He does it well enough that MDLF has been able to list on an european stock exchange, a remarkable achievement for a social venturing organization. The secret is his realization that for media to be truly independent, it needs to be fiscally sustainable… something I keep reminding myself as I write endless grant requests for Global Voices.
James Nachtwey was one of this year’s TED prize recipients, and bloggers are already buzzing about the “secret project” he’s planning on taking on with TED’s support. His images of conflict areas were some of the most arresting I’ve ever seen. His talk is almost too intense to watch – there’s simply too many searing images to digest in a very short period of time. the only other photographer who’s affected me this way in recent memory is my friend Ed Burtynsky, whose images of human impact on the earth also sear their way into your head. (Ed recieved the TED prize a year before Nachtwey and has used the prize to help support Worldchanging.com, where I serve on the board of directors.)
To end this top ten on a positive, hopeful note: Majora Carter, the director of Sustainable South Bronx, brought the house down last year at TED when she talked about greening the ghetto, coining the phrase “Green is the new black“. Her group has done remarkable work demonstrating that environmental and social justice are tightly linked, and in challenging the good and the great (including Al Gore) to focus closer to home in their attempts to heal and transform the world.
If that top ten leaves you hungry for more, there’s lots more on both sites. Or if you just need something to clear your head, let me point you to two of the smartest and funniest men on the Internet, Ze Frank and Jonathan Coulton. Both have taken the radical step of putting their work directly onto the web at an alarming pace, Ze with a year-long daily podcast, and Jonathan with a new song written and recorded every week over the course of a year. They’re two of the bravest and funniest guys I know, and two guys I’m very happy to have discovered through the moving circus of the conference scene.
Several of my posts from Pop!Tech appeared on Worldchanging.com, which means they’ve generated a wealth of comments. One of the most helpful came from “JessicaR”, who tracked down a theatre review of “Jet Lag”, a piece that Marianne Weems of The Builder’s Assocation directed about a woman who died of jetlag.
The woman was Sarah Krassnoff, the grandmother of a 14-year old boy, who’d gotten into a battle for custody with the boy’s father and decided to evade the father by flying back and forth between New York and Amsterdam, over and over again. In 1971, they flew back and forth 167 times, never leaving the airport, until the 80-year old grandmother collapsed. It’s not hard to see how Weems would be excited by Hasan Elahi’s decision to “hide” from the FBI by flying to Singapore and never leaving the airport, while faithfully documenting every meal and toilet visit via photograph.
What really caught my attention was the fact that “Jet Lag” superimposes the story of Krassnoff and her grandson with the even weirder story of Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst was a British businessman and amateur sailor who competed in a round-the-world solo yacht race, hoping to use his participation to drum up sales for his invention, “the Navicator”, which communicated with marine and aviation beacons.
His race began badly and at some point, while still in the starting phases of the race, he began falsifying his position and reporting progress he hadn’t made. He planned to drift in the South Atlantic until it was time to follow the race leader home and take second prize. Unfortunately for him, the race leader wrecked his boat, leaving Crowhurst with an impossible dillema – if he were to sail back to England, he’d be the “winner” of the race, and his logbooks would be carefully examined, displaying his fraud. Journals found on Crowhurst’s abandoned boat, the Teignmouth Electron showed his descent into madness, which evidently consumated itself with Crowhurst jumping off his ship and leaving it adrift.
I’ve had the definitive story of Crowhurst’s odd trip, “The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst“, by my bedside for the past year or so – this coincidence may finally inspire me to read it. I encountered the Crowhurst story for the first time by seeing “Ravenshead“, an opera by the utterly remarkable Rinde Eckert, my favorite contemporary composer. In a one-man show, Rinde follows Crowhurst – tranformed into “Richard Ravenshead” – from the talks he gives in Britain to raise funds for his voyage, to his setting sail, through his descent into fraud, madness and breakdown. (If you’re lucky enough to be a Rinde Eckert fan, you’ll recognize Crowhurst as a classic Rinde archetype – a fascinating figure who gradually proves himself to be utterly mad in a way that’s extremely human and approachable to an audience.)
Eckert and Weems aren’t the only artists to take on the Crowhurst story – according to the Wikipedia entry on Crowhurst, the story has featured in two films, a video work, a novel and a pop song. Some stories are simply too evocative for artists to ignore….
It’s one thing to enjoy a conference when you go to only one a year and could really use the chance to listen to smart people talk for a few days. It’s another when you speak at several dozen a year and have been in eight cities at the midpoint of a month. At that point, it’s very hard for anyone to create a conference that’s more compelling than sitting on your sofa at home and watching football.
But Pop!Tech is that conference. Ten years in, the logistics of the conference have been brilliantly thought out, and there’s a huge community of attendees, organizers and former speakers who come to the conference every year. The conference is well structured so that you get a good blend of time to see these old friends and to force you to meet new people as well, like lunches that assign people to random restaurants, forcing cliques apart.
I’m glad that Andew Zolli and crew continue to innovate. Stealing one of the best ideas from the TED conference – the simulcast room – was a great step forward. The dungeon – as we took to calling it – was a room filled with comfy chairs, lots of powerstrips, three huge monitors, and lots of bloggers. It was empty the first morning, then was overful from then on, a clear sign of an idea with legs. (Speaking of legs, mine just don’t fit in the seats in the Opera House. I really hope I have the option to blog from the basement again next year.)
Less successful were the three-minute talks, also borrowed from TED. At TED, these talks are scripted and prepared, roughly in the same way the “major” talks are. At Pop!Tech, the 3 minute talks were presented at a bar with a bad sound system, competing with the Mets/Cardinals game, which was being watched by enthusiastic and drunken fans. It was, as they say, a tough room. Jamais Cascio gave a funny talk about “pink goo” – nanotech spam; Andy Jagoe gave a good pitch for 3jam, his
one-to-many text messaging project; I enjoyed two talks about 3 dimensional lighting design and about student activism, but I have no notes as I was in a bar, it was loud, and I was a little drunk. Maybe next year, we can find a way to move some of these speakers to the main stage. Or try an evening event somewhere slightly quieter… and soberer.
After the drive home and the requisite couch-lying and football-watching (Go Pack!), here are a few ideas sticking in my mind:
- Juan Enriquez’s reminder that the US is in danger of creating a resentful, angry Latino underclass similar to the French speaking Quebecois of two generations ago. He urges us to look at a license plate like “Je me souviens” and to ensure that folks like Lou Dobbs don’t lead us to a future where license plates read “Yo me recuerdo.”
- Tom Barnett’s observation that the British were smart enough to realize their power was on the wane and to focus on coaching the up and coming US, “punching above their weight” for decades. It’s interesting to wonder whether the US will be able to do something similarly clever with China. (Listening to “State of Denial” as I drove home, I was reminded of just how powerful Tom’s “sysadmin force” idea is and how badly we needed it in Iraq.)
- The message from Dr. Serena Koenig and Zinhle Thabethe that it’s not okay to accept deaths in the developing world that we wouldn’t accept in the developed world. If we can expect people to live for 40 years on antiretroviral drugs, we need to expect the same in Africa and Haiti. (It would be great to get a speaker like Jamie Love to address the legal and practical aspects of making ARVs universally accessible.)
- Eno’s reminder about simplicitly and complexity. I’m listening to Steve Reich’s “Early Works” for the first time in a decade – available via iTunes, featuring the remarkable “It’s Gonna Rain”. As I think back, “Clapping Music”, on the same album, is the piece that let me fall in love with polyrhythms… which led me to study West African music in college… which led me to West Africa… which led me to, well, basically everything else. You should download this album immediately and see where it leads you. (Better yet, you should buy it on vinyl, dust off your turntable and listen to it that way.)
I’m enjoying catching up on everyone else’s favorite moments of the conference today, including Katherine Walter, Jamais, Randy Moss and Jason Kottke. Thanks to everyone with kind words about my blogging of the conference – the sad truth is this: my brain is a sieve and unless I blog these things, I’m not able to remember the words and phrases that changed my mind or make me think.
Thank you to everyone who spoke, attended and organized Pop!Tech, and thanks for letting me be part of it again.