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Back 2 Front

Clay Shirky's got a post over at Many2Many about Planetwork, a conference that's engaging in an interesting experiment. They've set some themes, programmed some sessions, and set aside some slots. They're allowing conference attendees to propose and vote for sessions they want to see, with the idea being that the sessions that receive the highest ratings will be added to the program when the conference happens later this week.

It's an interesting experiment in emergent scheduling, although I'm not sure I'm 100% on board with Shirky's characterization of it or enthusiasm for it. He places this in the context of the debate that took place a couple of months ago about the creation of backchannels during conference presentations. The comment of his that stuck with me back then:

From my experience of professional conferences, almost all such meetings have the same characteristic the hallway conversations are better than the contents of the talks.

Well, yes, but....

Shirky's more recent post builds on this by considering "the conference form" in terms of "social loss," an argument ultimately in favor of moving the backchannel to the front. Now, I know that academic conferences (and the economy thereof) are much different from the kinds of professional conferences that he's speaking of, and perhaps some of my difference of opinion is rooted in that. But part of it is also rooted in the certainty that it's impossible to formalize the kinds of energy and value that Shirky sees in the "groupness" of such gatherings, and not just bc there's no way that the academic economy would bear it. In other words, there is some value to be had in the "excuse" of the formal conference--hallway conversations (and backchannels) derive a fair amount of their juice from the fact that they're not formal, front, and center.

Part of why I've been thinking about this is that Derek just blogged about Robert Brooke's 87 article about "underlife." While I don't remember the article as well as I thought I did, I do remember thinking that there's always a certain amount of underlife that's simply in excess. No matter how engaging a speaker/teacher, there are some who are slower, some who are faster, some who have to pose for their classmates/colleagues, etc. I'm not sure I'm ready to skip ahead to the point where I'd label that excess in terms of social loss, though, or see it as purely competitive with mainchannel activity. The idea that hallway conversations are better than plenaries is something I hear at almost every conference I've ever been to, and the few times I've seen attempts to abandon plenaries in favor of those conversation, they've failed miserably.

I've got other qualms as well, ones more clearly rooted in the difference between professional conferences and academic ones, but I'll leave off. First time I tried to talk about them, I spiralled out into the ether.

One more quick note, and that's every form of social loss Shirky mentions (with one exception) could easily be describing most classrooms. That's another thing that made me think about this...