Let's be real about this for a sec. There are fundamentally five reasons why we go through the effort to create and attend tech conferences. We often delude ourselves into believing that it’s infinitely more complex, but it’s usually not.
Let’s break it down.
1. Some tech conferences make money. Some make a lot of money.
This is really important for a few reasons. If we see ourselves as a real community of entrepreneurs, there’s nothing wrong in creating and supporting events that also support themselves and their makers. For years, there has existed a discomfort around the notion that some people hold events, in part, to make money. Sometimes we’d prefer an audience to live under an illusion that all conferences are purely dedicated to some mystical craft, which, from where I sit, is sillybeans.
Not that I consider TED to be a “tech conference,” but their recent announcement on Twitter that the upcoming conference would come with an $8,500 ticket price drew some understandable ire.
I’d like to suggest that more tech conferences approach the public with an open ledger. Tell us how you’re doing financially because it’s transparent (which is good) and because we might want to find ways to help your event if you’re not making an absurd profit (which, from a broader resource perspective, can be even better).
2. We like to self-congratulate.
Which is fine. Really. There’s nothing like a good collective back-patting, especially when it’s among those who see the world through a similar lens.
But this can also cross over into the kind of insane, as evinced by a beautiful quote in one of my favorite NPR episodes of “This American Life.” In said episode, “The Giant Pool of Money,” the subject is the US mortgage apocalypse and the conference in issue was one for people who created the crisis by creating and selling toxic debt. Everyone should listen to this show, in part because you’ll hear the classic reference to being at their year-end industry celebration because “The year wasn’t as bad as we thought. Fewer suicides and such.”
So it’s one thing to self-congratulate, it’s entirely another to be at an industry event that should have one tone but has another. That’s the case where I’m writing this from right now—the SXSWEdu conference in Austin, Texas. It’s one of the world’s preeminent EdTech conferences, which is a very fine thing in theory. But my very quick sense of the week is that when we gather 3,500 people into a massive convention center for a few days and we talk about an education system that is so desperately broken, there should be fewer high-fives and more oh-craps.
But maybe that’s just me.
3. Hype radiates.
This is a good thing. Anyone who has ever been to a tech conference can remember being so excited about something that they skipped sessions and began to furiously sketch out ideas. On napkins, in notebooks, or all over hotel walls, if you’re Joe Walsh.
I remember back in 1999 when I had the opportunity to spend an extended period of time at Stanford as part of their inaugural Institute for Leadership Through Technology. I was just some high school teacher with tons of entrepreneurial ideas and zero support for them. All of a sudden, I landed in a magical valley surrounded by people from companies with names of my favorite fruit and they plied us nonstop with oodles of caffeine. I had never been so inspired - not during undergrad, grad school, law school, not even in thought-leadership events of which I conceived and ran.
It was awesomesauce.
So when we leave a conference, we have some seriously high-octane mojo running through our beings. We often translate that into action, which is why I always recommend staying late for at least a day after a big event so you can do some group ideation sessions. With the advent of the entire genre begun by Julien Smith and his startup, Breather, this will be easier than ever moving forward.
4. We like to party like it’s 1999.
Yes. I love Prince. Let’s get that out of the way now. He is the doctor of funk. He is the New Power Generation incarnate. If the brilliant tech visionary, Aaron Silvers loves Prince, you should give another long listen.
That said, we never know when our metaphorical tech streets will fill with an animal-laden arks and black Uber cars on nine-times surge pricing. Back in the real 1999, the tech community partied as if it would have no end. Today, that self-same blind, meme-creating enthusiasm permeates many tech events.
It’s our way of recreating 1999 in 2014, fully realizing that 1999 itself was a shoddy attempt at recreating Woodstock, just with the Master of Purple driving the newly-digitized sound machines.
5. We develop a personal learning network and do professional development.
I borrow these terms directly from the world of education, where teachers rightfully covet their time away from where they teach and learn. So should you. While we are remarkably lucky to live in a world where real relationships can at least be formed if not nurtured over these here internets, in-person time with peers, mentors, protegees, friends, onlookers, hangers-on, and aspirants allows us to build really vibrant and useful personal learning networks. This all forms a huge piece of our ongoing development as professionals working in and around tech culture, the end result of which is a more functional, exciting, and successful global web.