Higher Education

Conferences in the Age of Online Social Networks

In the wake of 4C’s, the WPA-list has taken up the perrenial question of whether or not one should "read" a paper at a conference. All the traditional roles were occupied on this familiar debate, and the closest one comes to a conclusion is … "it depends." On the subject matter, on who is doing the presenting, the length of the presentation, etc., etc. Underlying this are even more familiar rhetorical questions such as "what is the purpose of a conference presentation?" and "how does one understand the audience and audience’s motivations at a panel presentation?"

I’ll just use myself as an example. Let’s say you fly to a major city, stay three nights, and go to the conference. This is going to cost anywhere from $1000-1500. I might get $500 from my college. So the message I get from them is that they really don’t care whether I go or not. I’ve given presentations at C’s with anywhere from a handful to maybe 30 people in the room. Even if one were to imagine that audience was really interested in my talk, why should I spend a grand out of my own pocket to tell a dozen people what is on my mind?

That’s what this blog is for.  😉

Obviously the purpose of conferences, especially cattle calls like the C’s, has very little to do with panel presentations. They’re the excuse for getting together, the rationale for getting your college to shell out a few bucks for you to go. The real purpose is networking, pressing the flesh. I’ve never been particularly interested in being part of group, but a conference like the C’s is certainly about establishing a collective identity.

However it seems like you could easily dispense with the whole presentation thing. Put all the presentations on the web in whatever format–texts, enhanced podcasts, etc–and allow for comments. Then set up some Q & A forum. This would really just be an excuse for going to the conference and an opportunity to shake someone’s hand, as you could get a much better exchange of information online. You could even elect to not physically attend the conference but be available in a synchronous online space like Second Life.

There are so many advantages to this. Presentations could be as long as they wanted to be. There could be an accessible record of presentations that would be easy to reference. One could extend the conversation coming out of a presentation and easily make connections between presentations. I’m guessing the quality of the presentations might improve overall as they would lose their ephemeral quality.

In place of this, you could undertake some other activities that might benefit more from the expensive proposition of shipping large numbers of people into a building in an urban setting. I should be clear. The C’s can be an enjoyable experience. The most painful part is almost always sitting through bad presentations (though sometimes the Q&A that follows can be worse).

There were 17 plenary sessions with more the 560 panels in 12 categories. Let’s say you had 12 sessions, one for each category, where all the presenters would gather. Perhaps you could create some subcategories if you wanted. That would free up an extra 7.5 hours in the schedule in which you might have an extra half-dozen featured speakers. These presentations could be live-streamed to a secure website, so again, it wouldn’t even be necessary to travel to attend the conference.


3 replies on “Conferences in the Age of Online Social Networks”

I created a blog to be an extension of my talk– and you’ve articulated what I have felt about the C’s. I wish they’d open up more sessions to sitting around and chatting about a topic–since meeting face to face is one of the advantages of going to the conference.


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