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.
I was in NYC Wednesday night for the launch of the TED Africa conference. TED is a long-running technology conference, usually held in Monterrey, California, which attracts an amazing array of speakers and participants – I attended last year and blogged pretty extensively about it. Last year, TED tried something new, launching TED Global, which went to exotic, exciting Oxford, UK. Now the organizers are straying farther afield, holding a four-day conference in Arusha, Tanzania.
I was a bit concerned when TED decided to try an African conference – there’s so many ways the event could have gone off the rails. It would have been very easy to set up a conference of people who worry about Africa for a living, featuring non-African speakers opining on every tragedy and challenge the continent faces. It’s to conference organizer Chris Anderson’s great credit that he chose to do the opposite – build a conference featuring the creativity, entrepreneurship and dynamism of the Continent. In doing so, he made a key decision early on – he asked Emeka Okafor to be the curator of the conference.
Emeka, as most readers of this blog know, is the remarkable creative force behind Timbuktu Chronicles, Africa Unchained, and half a dozen other projects dedicated to showing the innovative capacity of Africans. He’s put together a remarkable program, featuring some of the people I most admire working on projects in Africa today. Speakers so far include:
- Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University in Accra
- James Shikwati, creative and controversial Kenyan economist
- George Ayittey, author of “Africa Unchained”
- Ory Okolloh, blogger and co-founder of Mzalendo
- Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the brilliant “How to Write about Africa”
- Primatologist Jane Goodall
- Russell Southwood, editor of the indispensible Balancing Act telecoms newsletter
It’s going to be a remarkable event, very much worth the time of anyone excited about the challenges and potential for growth on the continent. With the help of corporate sponsors, TED is offering 100 scholarships to African attendees to allow people who otherwise couldn’t afford the $2800 price tag to be at the event. I’d urge my African readers and blogger friends to apply for these scholarships – these slots are going to fill up fast, so you should put in an application if you think you’d like to come.
The leaves outside my office have turned a brilliant shade of orange-red. There’s a distinct chill in the air at night, and leaving the window open a crack makes the thick quilts on our bed mandatory, instead of decorative. Driving south yesterday at dawn, the fields were thick with hoarfrost, clouds of mist rising above the glazed grasses as the sun rose.
There’s one inescapable conclusion: it’s conference season.
I don’t know if conference planners highlight certain months on their calendars, but history suggests that October is high season to bring people together and lock them in airless rooms lined with industrial carpeting. It’s not summer, when people with kids go on vacation, and travel is inexpensive, because there are no travel-heavy holidays. There’s rarely snow on the ground (unless you’re in Buffalo), which is a major constraint for conferences in the North.
But it’s the most beautiful time of year to be home. My wife Rachel used to work for the artist Jenny Holzer, who found herself in Bilbao installing a piece during October. She would call the office every day and ask whether the leaves were still on the trees. As fall edged into winter, Rachel and the other assistants found themselves lying to her, promising that there might be a little color left by the time she got home. The story made me so sad that I’ve had an unofficial moratorium on international travel in October ever since.
But the conferences keep coming, and I keep going. So less than 72 hours after returning from Idea Festival in Louisville, I’m packing for Pop!Tech in Camden, ME. (Fall will be in full swing there as well, giving a very good reason to hold a conference in Maine in late October…) Idea Festival was good fun – it was great to see a futurism conference that focused on being accessible to as many people as possible, making many events free, and even the most exclusive costing $25 for a ticket, rather than the thousands of dollars it costs for a seat at TED or Pop!Tech. (And it was great to meet Wayne Hall, whose excellent blogging on the Idea Festival blog convinced me to accept an invitation to Louisville.)
I just wish everyone could get together and declare an October travel moratorium. Or just decide to hold all their conferences here in the Berkshires. We’ve got room – really. You can stay at my place, in the ger if you’d like.
There are a couple of conferences I’d go to every year if I could afford the ticket. (As it is, I go to them when folks are nice enough to ask me to speak or otherwise participate.) One of these is TED – Technology, Entertainment and Design – an amazing annual conference help in Monterrey, CA. I attended this past year and tried to blog the heck out of it.
There were three reasons to blog the conference. One is that Chris Anderson, the curator of the event, invited me specifically with the hope that I’d blog, as well as giving a short talk. A second is that I found most of the talks at TED hugely useful, and I use my blog as my notebook. (I frequently search for notes I know I’ve made on a topic by searching on Google with “site:ethanzuckerman.com” – I’m embarrased that my personal information organization is so poor that Google’s index of my website is the way I organize my notes, but that’s how it is…)
The third reason is that TED is a very exclusive conference, one that very few people get to attend. Tickets cost roughly $4000, plus travel, accomodation and all those other niceties. (Like I said, I couldn’t attend unless the organizers waived the fee for me.) This means that some of the very smart things said at the conference circulate through a limited audience and miss the larger audience of people interested in these issues. I figured that by blogging the talks (alongside master blogger Bruno Giussani), I could help some of these ideas reach a wider audience.
Well, TED has taken a big step towards making the conference more accessible – they’ve begun posting video of some of the talks given at the TED 2006 conference, with plans to post more. They’re available in a wide range of formats, and they’re released under Creative Commons, which allows for the possibility of an Al Gore/Tony Robbins mashup. (Read this post from Bruno to find out why that would be especially funny.)
Let me especially recommend Majora Carter’s talk, which was one of the best activist talks I’ve ever heard – I tried to capture a bit of it in a post, “Green is the New Black“. Whether you watch the video or just listen to the audio, it’s very much worth your time.
(If you get hooked on the TED talks, let me also recommend catching up on the talks from Pop!Tech, one of the other three conferences I block out on my calendar every year. For the past two years, Pop!Tech has been posting audio from their conference, including the talk I gave two years ago…)
Congratulations to my friend June Cohen who has worked so hard to launch this project for TED…